My Dell hell
Monday August 29, 2005
I’m just a citizen, a consumer, a guy who has my own printing press – my weblog, BuzzMachine.com – and I get to use it however I want. In June, I used it to whine about the lemon of a computer Dell sold me and the customer service I didn’t get.
I wrote a blog post headlined, “Dell lies. Dell sucks.” There was a method to my mad rant: I learned some time ago that you can search Google for any brand, followed by the word “sucks”, to find out just how much ill will is attached. (I fancied taking over this discovery and naming it, like a star I’d found in the heavens: “The Jarvis Sucks Index”. But somehow, that didn’t sound right.)
All I wanted to do was warn off other unsuspecting customers by joining in Google’s wisdom of the crowds, adding just one more critical consumer opinion. But my post snowballed into a saga, a weblog miniseries. Scores of readers left comments with their stories of Dell hell and scores more bloggers linked to my post with their wails of woe. I updated my audience with my latest tales of transoceanic frustration: I’d paid for home service but couldn’t get it; Dell replaced half my machine but it still wouldn’t work; my emails and entreaties went unnoticed … and so did my blog posts.
I decided to turn this into a test: Was Dell reading blogs? Would Dell respond to me in our public forum? Would it recognise the PR crisisette that was brewing? Simple answer: No. Dell was silent. Dell failed the test. I emailed its marketing department: Anybody home? Anybody blogging? Nothing. I finally sent (and blogged) an email to the chief marketing officer and US VP (and the chief ethics officer, for good measure), begging for relief.
At the same time, I decided to follow the light and went shopping for an Apple. And, sweet irony, I happened to be in the store fondling Powerbooks when I received a call from a nice Dell lady whose job it is to deal with bozos who complain to vice presidents. She offered me a new machine. I refused and asked for a refund. She agreed.
But this is more than a sort-of-happy ending to a consumerist nightmare. This is a story of customer relations in the new age – an age when, to quote blogger and Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls, “‘consumer’ is an industrial-age word, a broadcast-age word. It implies that we are all tied to our chairs, head back, eating ‘content’ and crapping cash”. Now consumers don’t just consume. We spit back. We have our own printing presses.
My blog saga garnered not only comments and links but also press coverage from tech blogs, newspapers, and magazines (see www.buzzmachine.com/?tag=dell). But the most telling moment came in a blog post by Toronto venture capitalist Rick Segal, who overheard a bank teller in his office food court saying, “I was going to buy a new Dell but did you hear about Jeff Jarvis and the absolute hell he is going through with them?” Says Segal: “Lots of people are making the assumption that ‘average people’ or ‘the masses’ don’t really see/ read blogs, so they can take a little heat and move on. Big mistake.”
As I sent my computer back, I blogged one last open letter to Michael Dell and his chief marketing officer with a few simple, free pieces of advice:
1 Read blogs. At Technorati.com or Icerocket.com, search for what people say about your brand. Don’t think of bloggers as strange beasts blathering, but as people, just customers. Beats any focus group.
2 Talk with your consumers. A Dell PR executive told blogger and Houston Chronicle columnist Dwight Silverman that the company’s blog policy was, in Silverman’s words, “look, don’t touch”. How insulting: You ignore you customers. How much better it would be to ask their advice. Beats any consultant.
3 Blog. If execs at Microsoft, Sun, and even GM can, you can. Show that you are open and unafraid to engage your public. Beats PR.
I can’t take credit or blame for this, but in the midst of this silicon opera, Dell’s customer satisfaction rating, market share, and share price in the US all shrank. And so it should come as no surprise that Dell’s blog policy just changed. The same PR exec who kept blogs at bay suddenly told Mediapost.com reporter Shankar Gupta that Dell would contact customers who blog complaints. Dell spokeswoman Jennifer Davis said the company is “looking at the best way to respond” to my open letter: “We’ll also be glad to talk with him about the broader issues – we have not outreached as of yet, but we’re looking at the best way to do so.”