Network: Have you ever been unfaithful to a PC supplier?

A new survey reveals which firms engender the greatest loyalty in their customers - and why. By David Fox
THE IDEA of someone being loyal to a grey box that sits in a corner and hums is faintly ludicrous. After all, there is so little difference between computers that any purchasing decision is purely down to price and specification. Right?

Wrong. Brand loyalty may not be as fully developed in the computer market as in, say, the car market, where a mediocre all-rounder (the Escort) has been the best-seller for years mainly owing to consumer loyalty to Ford; but some PC-owners are a lot more likely to buy again from the same maker than others. This has been borne out in many surveys, where the same names (Gateway, Dell and, in the UK, Dan) top the lists of manufacturers whose computers users would buy again. Therefore, these were my short list of manufacturers when it came to buy a replacement for a three-year- old Gateway 90MHz Pentium machine whose only fault was to be old.

It had worked perfectly, with only the occasional software glitch, which, when we couldn't correct it, was sorted out by Gateway's help line - even one Boxing Day. It didn't, however, like it when we installed a SCSI card for a scanner. Reinstalling Windows was recommended. Not being brave enough, I did any scanning on an Apple Mac, which copes better with added hardware.

If Windows PCs were a little less likely to throw a wobbly in the face of radical software upgrades (especially from Microsoft), we'd probably just have installed Internet Explorer 4 and/or Windows 98. As it is, we've never even got round to upgrading from Windows 3.11 to 95. Buying a new PC seemed easier.

For a high-spec, 400MHz Pentium II, Dell quoted about pounds 100 less than Gateway. Dan didn't manage to quote at all. Each time we rang, their salespeople were too busy. They said they'd ring back. We waited. We rang them back. They said they had returned our call. We'd probably have noticed if they had. No sale.

This may be an exception. Perhaps they need more salespeople. After all, in PC Magazine's annual survey recently on how consumers rate PC manufacturers, Dan was rated 4.33, where 5 means they will "definitely" repurchase from them; 4 is "likely" and 3 is "possibly". Dell came second with 4.06 and Gateway third with 3.99. Even the lowest-rated manufacturer, AST, scored 3.22, which means "all the manufacturers rated in our survey are doing a pretty good job," according to Bob Kane, PC Magazine's editor-in-chief.

John Shepheard, Gateway's general manager, believes that customer satisfaction surveys are dominated by the direct sales companies partly because "build- to-order means you don't have to shift the boxes that you build" (which results in buyers being sold PCs that are wrong for them). It also gives them a closer relationship with the user, which may mean that if they make a mistake, "the phone rings off the hook", but that gives them a chance to rectify it more quickly, too. One of the complaints Gateway heard most often was difficulty in setting the PC up when they received it. So, the firm colour-coded the cables, "which reduced support calls significantly and increased customer loyalty because it was easier to set up".

Despite the millions Gateway spends on advertising, Shepheard says "positive word of mouth" is its biggest source of business, which is testimony to how important customer loyalty is. "Acquiring a customer the first time is five times more expensive than selling to a happy existing user, who then tells six to 10 others," he says.

PC Magazine's Bob Kane says there are several factors, besides price, which influence whether consumers buy from the same manufacturer again: service/support; a good mix of technology; and "whether they rate the brand highly or not". He believes that consumer satisfaction with Dan is based on its support. He cites the fact that it "assigns people a single support engineer, so you speak to the same person each time", which saves explaining your problem over and over again.

Certainly, for us, after-sales support was the priority. Although Dan ruled itself out, Dell has a good reputation here (especially for corporate buyers), but my wife, who uses the PC most, has been very happy with Gateway's help line, especially as it is a freephone number. Despite the extra expense and a longer wait for delivery, customer loyalty won out. We plumped for another Gateway.

PC Magazine's consumer survey is at