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InformationWeek Daily - Wednesday, Dec 19, 2007

Editor's Note

How Dell Is (Far Too Much) Like Starbucks

What can a powerhouse PC vendor and a high-priced coffee destination possibly have in common? Both have capitalized on promising beginnings and pushed them to the limit. Then each continued onward into uncharted territory, where additional growth came at the expensive of some of the stuff that made them great in the first place.

Which leaves Dell (Dell) and Starbucks where they are today: In each case, the basic product is still good; the reputation for a stellar customer experience, not so much. Now, pay attention to precisely what I'm saying here. I did not state that the customer experience isn't good anymore. I said that both Dell's and Starbuck's reputations for providing an unparalleled environment in which to purchase computers or to sip latte has declined. And that's undeniably true.

Take Dell. It has taken major hits in public, beginning most prominently with blogger Jeff Jarvis's infamous "Dell Hell" posts of 2005. Since you rarely get a second chance to correct a really bad impression, that meme has been replicated in the blogosphere right down to the present day. (See Ed Burnette's ZDNet post, "How Dell screwed up my order," from last week.)

Is this kind of stuff fair? On a macro basis, of course not. There will always be some customers who have problems, notwithstanding that the majority of buyers are happy. Hey, if that wasn't the case, the Dell would go out of business.

Me, I was a Dell fan early on, buying a machine from them in 1994. Back then, Gateway was the PC vendor of choice for the less-knowledgeable masses, and Dell was the geekier option. Ultimately, Dell evolved into a reliable, mainstream vendor for PC buyers of all stripes.

Today, unfortunately, I'm not sure exactly what Dell's market positioning is supposed to be. Dell certainly isn't the cheapest. It's not the coolest, either. Which is why the perception that it no longer has super customer service may be so damaging. That alone would be reason enough to get me to give Dell another try, but quite frankly I'm hesitant, even if that's unfair.

For more on similarities between Dell and Starbucks, and to leave a comment, visit the InformationWeek Blog.

Alexander Wolfe

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"Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport." -- Love, Actually

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