Dell In Dust Up Over Online Support

A tempest in a Web teapot over Dell's decision to shutter an online support message board has erupted into a full-blown debate throughout the blogosphere about the company's customer-service policies.
A tempest in a Web teapot over Dell's decision to shutter an online support message board has erupted into a full-blown debate throughout the blogosphere about the company's customer-service policies.

The kerfuffle came to a head on July 8, when Dell closed the customer care board on its community forum. Dell said the closing was simply a move to redirect customers cluttering up a technical forum with questions about pending orders and rebates to a more appropriate venue.

Unfortunately for Dell, the closing came around the same time the Buzzmachine Web site, a prominent media blog run by former Entertainment Weekly editor Jeff Jarvis, began running a series of posts under the heading "Dell Hell," chronicling his problems getting help with a balky new laptop he'd purchased.

Buzzmachine's postings, in turn, prompted some 500 reader comments on that blog as well as comments on several other sites. "I think where the hubbub started was in not the most optimal language being used in terms of the rationale for pulling down the care board," said Jennifer Davis, a spokesperson for Dell, in an interview.

Davis emphasized that Dell is now answering order and rebate questions on a dedicated order-support Website, as well as via online chat and phone support. In addition, the PC giant continues to operate numerous online technical forums. Customers can also connect online or via phone for technical support directly from Dell personnel.

While Jarvis's "Dell Hell" postings criticized the closing of the one board, his postings focused more on his series of escalating attempts to get a response from the company after his Inspiron 600M laptop died. "It was a kind of test," said Jarvis, in an interview. "A blogger is an alpha consumer. I had this problem. I was curious: would Dell do anything?"

Only after he emailed Dell chief marketing officer Michael George, Jarvis said, did he received a phone call from a woman at the company, who offered him a refund. "Ironically, she called me while I was in the store shopping for an Apple. I now have an Apple Powerbook," said Jarvis.

More interesting from a marketing perspective may be how widely Jarvis's story was disseminated. "What amazed me was the comments I got from other consumers," Jarvis said. "It wouldn't have been picked up if it hadn't resonated."

On the negative side, among the bloggers criticizing Dell was Houston Chronicle computer columnist Dwight Silverman. On his TechBlog site, he wrote: "You got a problem with Dell? Better tell it to them directly. The company won't reach out based on what you say on the Web."

However, Dell received a vote of support from "Mollyzine," a blog run by technical support engineer Phillip Malone out of Melbourne, Australia. "I say good [for] you Dell," wrote Malone. "You can call, email and I am sure they have a Web interface. So why should they get bullied into watching every Web page?"

From Dell's perspective, Jarvis's plight isn't illustrative of a typical customers' experience. "When it rains it pours," said Davis. "As we continue to improve, things like the Jeff Jarvis blog are going to happen. The vast majority of our customers are happy. But they're not as loud as those that are unhappy. We want to get these issues resolved. There is no question that customer experience is the number one priority for us."

However, Jarvis sees broader implications in what happened. He notes that online communications with customers will become ever-more important, and companies who don't embrace that model do so at their peril. "Dell found a new efficiency in the way they do business, but they lost a connection with their customer," he said. "If you're really smart about it, your customers can be your best support people. They can also do your marketing for you. There is a new paradigm here, in that you have to deal with your customers eye to eye. The smart companies will take advantage of that [and] will gain business online. Stupid companies over the long run will lose business online."

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