Posts about customerism

Cable companies must die

Bob Garfield goes properly ballistic against Comcast. We all have our horrible stories of waiting for the cable guy but this is a classic and Bob does a good and anally retentive job of chronicling the horror, the horror. The only thing that would have made it better is if he had recorded it — Bob is, after all, a Big Media Guy — and turned it into YouTube hilarity.

Call me an optimist, but I believe that every company — every industry — that makes its money by screwing its customers is doomed. We, the customers, can now coalesce and gang up on them and show them who’s boss. Yes, I’m thinking Dell Hell and its apparent turnaround. But this works only if the companies live in fear of losing us — that is, if they have competition. And this, of course, is why cable companies, phone companies, insurance companies, power companies, and other monopolies and duopolies — not to mention government — keep thinking they have us by the balls, out of which they can squeeze their money. But I think their day will come. New technologies could kill or at least bring competition into telecommunications. The insurance mess is finally going to get so bad that government will have to step in to fix it. Politicians themselves will have to learn that we can use these new tools to defeat them. The question is how we can speed this process up.

Well, Bob Garfield is an expert in media — as the cohost of On the Media — and also in advertising — as the critic at Ad Age. So I’ll throw the challenge back to you, Bob: How can we set the agenda on our dear communications ball-squeezers? How can we make their lives a living hell, like they make ours? How can we put pressure on those in power to take the power away from these horrible companies? How can we show their would-be competitors that there’s a great opportunity to come in and displace these fat and venal fools?

Let’s invent antiadvertising. Or maybe it’s unadvertising. Or customertising. If they can use media and messaging, so can we.

So, Bob, why don’t you make a commercial — not just a blog post, but a cool and slick ad — telling people why Comcast must die (your words). If it’s good — which, if you make it, it must be — and if it says something people want to hear and say themselves — and we know everyone shares this sentiment — then they will pass it around. Thank you, Google and YouTube. Maybe we can make a contest of it: make commercials against your least favorite companies. Free creative. Free media.

What if customertising takes over and beats advertising? Then we’d all go seek out customerisements and the ones with the fewest screeds out there must be OK.

I hate to be so negative about this. But as you can see in Bob’s screedlog, as we all know, the anger and frustration just build up until you have to scream.

Well, from now on, instead of screaming, expose the fools. Record your entire encounter with the cable company — every phone call, every visit — and use their failures against them. Our day has come. Or is coming.

: LATER: I missed the obvious name — customercials.

Jobs is Dell as warp speed

Steve Jobs is famously not transparent or flexible; he violates every principle we ClueTrainy advocates of customerism hold dear and he can get away with it because we hold his products dear. He’s good, that good. So I find it interesting that when he dissed his most loyal customers, the fools who stood in line for that beautiful iPhone, by lowering his price for the masses (a good move, by the way), he wasted no time apologizing and giving them a $100 store-credit rebate ($200 would have been the purer gesture). I wonder whether Jobs would have done this five years ago. I wonder, too, how long it would have taken for Apple to realize that there was a problem, all the while their customers’ anger would have been festering.

But now the process is instantaneous. Apple could see the reaction in not only the emails Jobs refers to in his apology but also, obviously, in blog posts and forum discussions (not to mention the stock price). All you have to do is listen. And act quickly.

It’s the same lesson that Dell learned about the customer in control. Only now add the element of speed. (Amplified by the fanaticism of the Apple customer cult.) I think we are seeing a permanent change in customer relations and our empowerment: If enough customers think you made the wrong move and you hear them quickly enough, the cusotmers will win. If you’re smart.

But then, of course, Apple people are different. Get a load of this post from Lisa on the proverbial knitting blog — really, a knitting blog! — telling Jobs that she doesn’t regret paying the higher price for the iPhone and asking that he give his $100 to a charity. That’s the Apple cult for you — that’s a brand cult: ‘Please charge me more.’ But the cult won’t make the iPhone into the life-changing device Jobs believes — and I’m coming to believe — it will be. So that’s why he had to move past the cult — while not losing any cultists along the way.

Happy birthday – to Dell

Dell’s blog is a year old. Man, time flies when they’re having fun. I’ve written before about how Dell is changing (and I hope I’ll be writing about it again soon when I get to do a magazine piece). So now I’ll just congratulate Dell blogger Lionel Menchaca et al for an impressive job of diving into the fire and coming out cool. True to form, Lionel openly shares some self-critical lessons other companies would be wise to heed:

* Customers really are in control–and it’s okay. I think more companies are starting to acknowledge this, but it’s a concept that scares the heck out of them. I’m willing to bet that this is still a key reason less than 10% of Fortune 500 companies maintain a blog.

* Ignoring negative issues is not a viable strategy in the blogosphere. If you aren’t prepared to discuss negative issues head on and actually fix what’s causing the negative conversations, be ready to fail publicly. . . .

* Probably the best time to launch a blog is when things aren’t going so well. We started monitoring the blogosphere last year. At our worst point, almost 50% of the commentary was negative. That made it easy for us to decide to jump in. These negative conversations were happening with or without us, and it was pretty clear we had a better chance if we entered those negative discussions. Today, we’re seeing about 23% negative. While that’s moving in the right direction, there’s plenty of progress to be made.

* Sincere apologies are welcome if you learn from (and correct) your mistakes. Without both, you lose credibility fast. . . .

A market for everything

I was just wondering this morning about the thousands of iPhone lusters who were probably stopped from meeting their hunger because they’re imprisoned in an existing mobile contract. Voila: Here‘s a marketplace for people to offload their old contracts and phones.

Dell’s angels

After the small kerfuffle about Dell trying to get Consumerist to take down a post with 22 tips on buying machines from a former Dell kiosk salesman (see my post below), Dell blogger Lionel Menchaca throws himself on his sword and says in front of blogs and everybody, the company made a mistake.

Now’s not the time to mince words, so let me just say it… we blew it.

I’m referring to a recent blog post from an ex-Dell kiosk employee that received more attention after the Consumerist blogged about it, and even more still after we asked them to remove it.

In this case, I agree with what Jeff Jarvis had to say: instead of trying to control information that was made public, we should have simply corrected anything that was inaccurate. We didn’t do that, and now we’re paying for it.

I believe in the customer voice–that’s why I signed up for this job in the first place. There’s simply no cheating the system. When we’re on the right track, folks tend to say some good things about us (or at least give us a second chance). When we mess up, they let us know quickly and vocally. Then everyone watches our reaction like a hawk.

Lionel proceeds to make 23 more confessions — more tips, really, about how to find bargains and more. It’s a good list.

What’s apparent here is that the message Lionel and company have learned and preach hasn’t reached every quarter and corner of the company. And that only shows how hard it is to change a company’s culture. In the old days, about a year ago, people saw it as their jobs to protect the company from criticism and leaks and complaints. Now Lionel and Michael Dell are trying to change that, to open up. It’s not easy. But I think they’re making progress.

: LATER: Consumerist closes the loop, with a bow on top.

Poor Dell

Yes, I just said that and with earnest sympathy: Poor Dell. They keep finding themselves taking point in big companies’ scouting missions into the guerrilla- customer-controlled Vietnamese internet jungle. The latest came this week when Consumerist posted 22 tips from a former Dell kiosk sales guy; Dell sent a take-down notice and Gawker Media sent back a go-to-hell notice.

Consumerist was surprised at Dell’s response since the post was actually fairly positive about Dell. After all, it was aimed at people who want to buy Dell products. Now, of course, the problem was that the ex-sales guy revealed a few secrets on how to get the best deals. Dell complained that this was confidential information. One need wonder whether there will be any confidential information anymore — and whether one should build a business model around it.

So I look at this another way: The same lesson that has come to Dell in customer service, marketing, and manufacturing — that the customer is in charge and now has a voice you must hear and are wise to heed — now comes to sales itself. I have no doubt that’s scarier still, for this is sales — this is where the margin is. If this anonymous ex-employee tells people how to get better deals — where else to look on the web site for better prices, what days to buy so you can get a better price the next day, when in the quarter to buy to get bargains that will drive quarterly reports — then how are they going to eek those extra bucks that are getting harder and harder to find in the just-in-time, just-good-enough, outsourced efficiencies that started biting them in the butt lately?

Well, I’d say they’d be smart to learn the same lessons they are learning in the rest of the company. Openness is the best policy:

If people are worried about a better price coming out the next day, then tell them they’ll automatically get a better price if there’s a sale within, say, a week. Then they don’t need a tip from a salesman to game a closed system and they won’t keep waiting to buy a machine, just in case the price goes down and they don’t know it. Now they know, because you’re open. I’ll just bet that will increase sales.

If people are worried that there’s a better price in some other ad or section of the site, give them a guarantee that every price they get is the lowest price available. Nothing’s hidden. You can buy with confidence, because the pricing is in the open.

If people are worried about getting outsourced customer service and that motivates them to pay more for business vs. home systems, then let them get onshore support; they might even pay for that.

You see, if you read between the lines of what the ex-sales guy wrote, you simply see his list of the worries he has heard that keep customers from buying Dell products. Hear those problems and solve them openly and you will sell more products and garner more trust and goodwill and customers. Openness is a strategy.

Now I see evidence that at least some parts of Dell are getting this. Note in the Consumerist post that a current Dell sales rep gave updated information and in each case, the new policy is better than the old one. Dell’s blog is instituting a policy of openness in customer service and product quality and it’s working insofar as Dell’s reputation, at least online is improving. Dell IdeaStorm is opening up product development to customers’ ideas and desires and that is working; it’s leading to new products with customer support — that is, support from the customers themselves — built in. Now I’d say they need to look at how to bring the same spirit of openness to sales.

Do have some sympathy with Dell, though. Every time they do something now, the hot spotlight is on them (and that’s partly my fault). If other companies are smart, they’re sitting back and watching, thinking ‘there but for the grace of a blogger go we,’ and learning the lessons Dell learns now in public. Openly.

Note again that I may be writing a magazine piece about this. In the comments in that post, I asked you to tell me whether your attitude toward Dell has changed. In addition to a few bad tales came these two wonderful one: In a post complaining about HP — not Dell — a Dell blog rep came in and answered the HP customer’s problem with a link to the right page on the HP site. And David Marshall just put up a comment explaining his radical change of heart.

There oughta be a law about ‘high speed’

I paid $12 a day at the hoary Hilton in Las Vegas for high-speed internet access but it was hardly high-speed. Pictures loaded at the speed of dialup, if that. There ought to be an accepted definition of and standard for “high-speed” access — one the industry itself should set, if it were smart — and if that access doesn’t meet the mark, we should get refunds. You can’t call food low-fat if it’s not. You shouldn’t be able to call internet access high-speed if it’s slow.

Drinks with Dell

When I blogged that I was headed down to Austin and the University of Texas last week, I got email out of the blue from Dell’s chief blogger, Lionel Menchaca, inviting me to meet him and his colleagues over drinks or out at Dell HQ. I said I hadn’t been planning to pack my flak jacket and he replied, “Even though it is Texas, there will be no guns involved.”

When I met Lionel at the bar, he said that he’d told his mother he was coming to meet me and she worried: “Are you going to be OK?”

I think I know how Ehud Olmert feels when he goes to visit the neighbors.

If you’re coming late to this story, I had a rather infamous run-in with Dell here at Buzzmachine when I complained about a bad machine and service. They ignored me, but thousands of similarly frustrated customers did not. Dell’s attitude toward blogs at the time was “look, don’t touch.” But it soon became apparent that my fellow Dell-hell travelers and I were a leading indicator of other problems at the company in quality and service, not to mention revenue, marketshare, and share price (to say nothing of accounting issues). But things began to turn around when Dell opened a company blog, which was off to a puffy start until Lionel, the chief blogger, entered, speaking with customers in an honest, direct, humble, and human voice. Next they put together a team to reach out to bloggers who had problems. They started a social-y site called IdeaStorm so customers could tell Dell what to do. And when the company realized how much of a turnaround it needed, Michael Dell took charge again. He and I even met at Davos. So this is the point in the story when I come to Texas.

Punch lines (and punches) aside, I had a fascinating, even gratifying, visit with Lionel and his colleagues, Richard Binhammer, one of the blog outreach team, and Dwayne Cox, their boss and a corporate executive and spokesman.

It is clear, through them, that at least at some levels, Dell has changed its culture and certainly its attitude toward bloggers. They now see value in reaching out. As they’ve said before, bloggers tend to state their problems clearly, which makes it easier (and, I assume, more efficient) to solve them. A problem solved is not only a customer likely to be saved, but also often leads to good PR and branding as the bloggers recount their happy endings. And the Dell guys say they get information and data from this; they hear about problems that may arise before others in the company do, because their customers are talking about it.

The team said that IdeaStorm was Michael Dell’s own idea and passion. And before we met, the company announced that because of IdeaStorm they’d decided to offer Linux now not just in servers and workstations but also in desktops and laptops. The people at IdeaStorm pushed this hard. Dell came back worried about how many flavors of Linux it would need to ship and support. They wrote:

The IdeaStorm community’s interest in open source solutions like Linux on Dell platforms has come through loud and clear. Many of you have suggested a survey to help Dell determine which distribution is most popular, and we think that’s a great idea. Based on your idea, we now have a short survey, which will be open until March 23, where you can tell us more about your favorite distribution of Linux, your preferred method of support, and more.

More than 100,000 people took that survey, leading to Dell’s announcement. And the discussion continues on the blog.

Welcome to the age of customer control. This isn’t just crowdsourcing. This is crowdmanaging. Companies still fear this. But, hell, if even Dell can lean back and let its customers begin to take charge, anyone can.

Still, it’s only a start. None of this is to say that Dell’s problems are over. Judging by the emails, comments, and links to further Dell hell stories that I still get just about every day, the problems with quality and service continue. I do see the Dell people coming into my comments and solving problems; I do hear from customers who are grateful to them. But by and large, most of the contact I get (and there’s not much I can do with any of it) is further recounting of problems. When I met Michael Dell, he said they still have a lot of work to do. They do.

An organization of this size and international scope can’t be changed overnight. But Dwayne Cox made it clear over drinks that Dell now knows it is a company in turnaround mode. The first step is admitting you have the problem. The next is figuring out how to fix it. And if the company now has its customers involved in that process, I have to believe that it will at least be better informed.

Lionel, who came from years of customer service and PR at the company, said the team working on the blog and with bloggers loves it. Aren’t there a few people out there who just can’t be satisfied, no matter what you do? Lost causes? Bozos? They agreed that there are a few and the outreach people don’t always say yes to their demands. But my drinking companions agreed that in an open forum, other folks tend to know who the bozos are. And the bozos tend to stand alone.

That, you see, was the real moral to my story. Whether or not I was a bozo, I did not stand alone. My story wasn’t about me but the people around me, the ones who said, “me, too.” I was merely the agent of coalescence. That’s what you have to watch for on the internet. That’s what the internet enables.

Dell, like many companies, is looking at new software that will make finding and analyzing these points of coalescence easier. But one of the morals of their story is that reports of data — vectors of the frequency of the use of the phrase “dell hell” — take you only so far. The canary may warn of trouble, but it doesn’t know the way out of the mine. You need people talking with your customers. And that’s why Richard Binhammer and the guy who tried to help me, John Blain, are so important. They can actually fix problems and answer questions. They can make judgments. Most of all, they can enter into a conversation with people. And that conversation need not always be about falling on the company sword. They can also tell you when you’re wrong. Richard said that when the Linux talk bubbled up, one blogger pooh-poohed it and said Dell would never release Linux machines. After Dell announced that it would, Richard went back to the guy’s blog, smirking, with a dish of crow. Companies make a big mistake when they think that their customers are out for blood and battle. No, we’re out for a conversation with a real person. We’re reasonable — most of us — when we are treated reasonably.

And there is the genius of Lionel Menchaca. In a flash, he transformed the image of Dell in my eyes. From a company that wanted to look at but not touch people like me, that wanted customers to come deal in the company’s space on the company’s terms, here suddenly was a guy who spoke honestly and directly. He admitted the company’s problems. But he also answered back. When I criticized the Dell blog in its first days for not linking and conversing (and remember that some readers said I should stop harping on them and get a life), he stepped up. He told me over drinks that he remembers when I said talking to a blog without links was like talking to a brick wall. He knew that was true; he was just so busy getting the blog launched that he hadn’t joined in yet. But then he started linking and conversing. Here, we all could see, was a reasonable man. He immediately earned the respect of me and many other bloggers; this, too, was a point of coalescence. Like Robert Scoble, he gave a borgish company a human voice. He gave us respect and got respect in return.

It works.

So what fascinates me so much about Dell is that it can rise from worst to first. Precisely because it got hammered by customers now empowered to talk back to the wall, it had to get smarter faster. Whether Dell can fix the rest of its problems, I don’t know. But if it keeps on the road it’s now on, it could well end up being the smartest company in the age of customer control. That would be one helluva turnaround.

Over nachos and fried somethings (don’t tell my wife or cardiologist), Dwayne Cox, the boss, pointed to the guys across the table and said that it was because of me that they had their jobs. I doubt that. But still, that was the gratifying part of the evening. For you see, just as I’m sure the people at Dell got quite sick quite a while ago of hearing the name Jeff Jarvis, I got tired of being the poster boy for the angry and suddenly empowered customer. I don’t repudiate or recant anything from my Dell hell experience. I just got tired of the story not advancing.

And so it was a delight to sit down with three guys from Dell and look at the new world from the same side. These guys get it. They understand what I had to learn (and made my first law): Give us control and we will use it. Don’t and you will lose us. And that’s what puts us on the same side of the table.

There’s more I want to learn about this transformation and so I’m angling to find an excuse to go back to Austin . . .but I promise I won’t get a Dell tattoo. (I should add that I paid for my beers.)

So when the evening was over, Binhammer gave me a ride to the restaurant where the UT symposium was having dinner. But I got the address wrong and we couldn’t find it. So I told him he should just drop me off and I’d get a cab. He refused. What if I got rolled? Then the story the next day would say: “…Jarvis, last seen with a Dell employee…” He delivered me safely home. And I suspect that on his way home, Lionel called his mom to say that, yes, he was OK, too.