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HP reaches out to customers

The company kicks off its U.S. tour, where it can make its case to customers and employees, who in turn are asking questions about the new Hewlett-Packard.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--While Hewlett-Packard was laying out its financial goals in Boston, the company was also in Silicon Valley, taking its case to a couple hundred of its customers important in reaching those goals.

Senior Vice President Jim Milton made the pitch for the new HP, offering its well-aired road map as well as positioning the company as an alternative to IBM that has more support for open industry standards. It was also a time to say "thank you" to customers that had endured through eight months of uncertainty as HP battled to win shareholder approval for the Compaq acquisition.

"We're very thankful that you, our customers, have stuck with us," Milton said

Milton's comments were the kickoff for the Invent tour, an across-the-country road show designed to meet with customers, particularly medium-sized ones. At five of the cities it plans visit, including San Jose, HP will hold two-day events, the first day for its own sales force and the second day for customers and HP employees. In about a dozen other cities, HP will hold one-day events primarily for customers.

"The two big companies are doing what two good companies should do: putting on a good dog and pony show," said HP customer David Blakley, computer systems manager for Genencor, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based biotechnology company.

Tuesday's event here took place as HP's top management was in Boston, meeting with Wall Street analysts to offer up earnings projections and give details on integration and restructuring.

Blakley's No. 1 concern, shared by many former Compaq customers that attended the San Jose event, was that HP maintain Compaq's ProLiant servers. This concern had already been put to rest when the company launched the new HP in early May.

Melanie Beckwith, a manager in the technical services division of Silicon Valley Bank, said she, too, was primarily concerned that HP would keep the ProLiant servers. Had HP stuck with its own NetServer line, Beckwith said she would have started evaluating competitors' products.

Once it was clear that the product would indeed survive, Beckwith said she was mostly interested that HP offer the same quality of service.

"Right now, we are happy with what they have," Beckwith said.

Lingering questions
Despite a growing ease about HP's overall product line, customers used the event to pose other lingering questions.

In one of the breakout sessions devoted to HP's PC business, a question that struck a chord with the IT crowd was when one person asked how the customer support operations will be integrated once HP transitions from its Vectra line of corporate PCs to Compaq's line of Evo business PCs later this year.

"If we are going to buy Compaqs, do we have to get Compaq's support?" the customer inquired. "Because if we do, we probably won't buy Compaqs."

The HP executive running the breakout session tried to determine the source of the problem, asking whether it was the quality of the technical support or the effort required to obtain it.

"It's getting to them," responded a customer. "The shortest wait time I've had is 45 minutes." That drew a chorus of agreement from others in the breakout session.

The HP executive said the company is still evaluating how it will merge its customer service operations.

Other questions raised by attendees revolved around the finer points of the Vectra transition.

Milton said the goal in these early post-merger days is not only to just preach to current and prospective customers but also to listen and, if necessary, modify plans to reflect customer input.

But there are some things that are inevitable, such as the 15,000 job cuts now underway.

Genencor's Blakley said he is concerned how those cuts will affect those HP employees with whom he deals directly, as well as the potential for ripple effects, such as layoffs at the resellers that sell HP gear.

Milton said that his conversations with customers seem to reflect the shift in priorities that was evidenced at the San Jose event.

"What used to be on their minds was product road maps," Milton said. Now it is more a matter of making sure customers feel taken care of, he said.

"That's one of the reasons we are doing these meetings--to get people's minds at ease."

Employees of the new HP used a session Monday to learn more of the nuts and bolts details of the other side of the business. HP sales people flocked to learn about ProLiant servers, while former Compaq sales workers packed sessions on HP's printing business and its OpenView software.