Customer service in reverse

In the continuing Dell discussion, Steve Rubel answers Steve Baker’s question about how companies should deal with lots of bloggers raising lots of customer service issues:

Steve, over time I think you’re going to see blog search and Web search tools integrated into CRM systems. This will give customer service the tools they need to manage individual issues that bubble on blogs. However, you are right. PR professionals will increasingly need to not only serve as an organization’s mouthpiece (one of them at least), but also its eyes and ears. The best PR pros have done this for years. Blogging just makes it easier to keep our finger on the public pulse.
This is how we operate at CooperKatz. We monitor the blogosphere for all of our clients. If we spot a customer issue, we route it to the right party to manage. Occasionally, we also reach out ourselves to begin the dialogue.

Interesting… so imagine if rather than having to go to companies for service — and waiting on hold and waiting and waiting… — the companies came to us! What a concept.

Think of that world-in-reverse: You post a need online, tagged with a microformat (more on that later), and people find you and bid to solve your problem or sell you their product, selling you with price and also with testaments of trust.

That’s not the world in reverse. That’s the world as it should be: The sellers come to the customers, not the other way around. The customers becomes the marketplace. I like that.

  • Another way of putting it: seeing the world through customer eyes, from outside-in. When a company begins life, it perceives itself as a satellite of the customer. The customer is the center of gravity. As the company becomes successful and grows, it begins to see customers revolving around itself. Suddenly it begins to see everything through the lens of its products, its own needs, its own issues. Inside out. Its “marketing gene” goes dormant and no longer enables an outside-in view. This when customers get put on hold…

  • I agree with both Jeff Jarvis and Stan DeVaughn. The commercial world in which we live has to understand that we as customers will no longer stand for having products and services shoved at us and told “we need this.” (and funny to say, I’m a marketing professional…ouch!) With the advances in manufacturing, the ease of accessing information (like product reviews and customer testimonials via blogs), and the ability to try and compare products, customers are even more empowered to demand sellers to make great products, the way they want, and for themto make the first move and not the other way around.

    Alas, as a marketing professional though…that’s when I get the message in my inbox to boost advertising or create new promotions to “draw the potential customers to us.” For some reason…they work.

    But to get an idea of where I stand, check this blog post “Solving Customer Service Problems” that mentions an article on BusinessWeek Online that talks about customer service problems.

  • This is exactly where Cerado is going with “Haystack.”

    Cerado’s Haystack

    It’s a belief that the customers should be in charge…in charge of how they want their relationships with their suppliers to be defined, and, more importantly, the customer gets visibilty into the vendor organization and the customer chooses with whom they want to do business. IOW, the customer chooses his or her sales rep, based on experience, or expertise, or affinity, or whatever the *customer* deems to be important.

  • But could we just note one thing? Sometimes customers are total assholes and idiots.

    And though it’s “company” vs. “customers”, don’t fergit the fleets of underpaid, undertrained reps on the front line.

    I think more customer and company interaction will be good for the them, but still…we gotta remember there are individuals involved.

    This from someone who escaped retail hell, though forever scarred.

  • Bryce Blackford

    I have had my Dell hell as well. My third power supply for my Inspiron 5100 burned out on me this month. The connection between the power brick and the AC cable that plugs into the wall went bad…all three times, with normal usage.

    I tried to call Dell’s Technical support, entered all my details via automated means, got put on hold, and after a short amount of time I spoke to a *live* person who after I told my problem to, put me on hold again to talk to his supervisor. After being on hold for 10-15 mins, I was kicked out into the same automated crap I began with, and I had to start over. No case number, nothing. And when I talked to the next live person, they had no records of anyone dealing with me before. They would begin to help me just like before, put me on hold, where I was kicked out again. This vicious cycle would just keep going on until I gave up. I would do this for about an hour and a half before giving up. This happened on two seperate occasions.

    Frustrated, I tried to buy an universal power adaptor. Even tho it SAYS on the package that these universals would work for my specific laptop, they never do. Only the Dell adaptors have worked so far, so like a sucker, I just called them up and bought a fourth power adaptor.

    I have been so mad that I refused to pay my Dell account for a little while. I wish Dell Technical service was as attentive as Dell Financial, because they call me from 9 in the morning till 9 at night, about 5 times a day, sometimes leaving voice messages. And recently they have quit calling from a 866 number and started calling from a 120 area code (which I can’t even find in area code directories). When I finally become annoyed enough to pay, I have to talk to somebody with a rough Hindi accent, which is difficult for me because of my poor hearing.

    I am VERY displeased with Dell’s service past the point of sale. I refuse to buy another Dell product until I hear some significant change in the way they handle customer care. They initially won me over with the quality of their products, then lost me with lack of service.

  • Sort of like eBay in reverse. A site signs up big and small companies in all product and service categories, local and international. Buyers for a minimal or no fee post a short description of what they’re looking for and the site either alerts the relevant companies who’ve signed up with it or goes out and finds new companies who can handle it. They send the buyers prices and information. The buyer compares, negotiates and buys. The site settles the transaction and takes a cut of the price paid and maybe charges other small fees for various services like hosting seller shops etc. If they’re anything like eBay, they’ll think up plenty of reasons for charging small fees.

    Don’t see why it couldn’t work and wonder why it’s not being done. At least, I haven’t heard it’s being done.

  • It used to be the vacuum cleaner salesman used to come to the door, and now people don’t even answer it. There is an inherent weakness of the sales coming to you….you get bombarded.

  • Justin

    I’m not sure a pay-per-service model will really work. I think the Intent of the original discussion was to get Official Company Reps to become members of various internet chat sites and forums, and have them answer tech questions there. The various admins could get in contact with the Company and give them some kind of special account name/avatar/sig line etc so people can easily distinguish who is a regular admin, who is a normal user, and who is an official company rep. This would help prevent the spread of inaccurate tech info and allow the company to keep close tabs on what problems regular users are experiencing with their products (and, Ideally, to fix them in future versions).

  • Gijs

    Here some dutch coverig about your blog and en dutch employe from dell responding to your blog.

    The dutch Dell employe is saying that for the dutch clients that post the findings about Dell Netherlands on there or a blog there will be no change in handling those problems.

  • I could see how you’d get bombarded by announcing online that you’re interested in buying something. Could be controlled though. Maybe all of the information sent to you could be sent through an email account with the site, rather than through your regular public email. You could stop it receiving more uninvited emails when you’re received the info you’re looking for. Then when you’re looking again, activate it. The site controls spam; only those companies registered with it can send requested information to its members and no generic group mailings are allowed, sort of like what OpenBC does. The site settles the transaction. The company you buy from would still get your address, but you’d give that to them anyway.

    The other thing – a centralized place run by a ‘trusted’ third party for companies to respond to customers who post complaints – maybe, but in my experience, the last thing most companies willingly want to deal with is customer complaints, despite the PR to the contrary. Too much hassle for them. They might be forced into it, when they see their ‘brand’ being ripped to shreds by bloggers, and I’m willing to believe the blogiverse is becoming a part of their marketing and communications plans, but I bet they’d do everything possible to avoid it, much preferring to build their own customer forum site and send out ‘teams’ (either their own or hired PR pros) to manipulate debates and put out online fires before they blow up into PR disasters. This way they’d have at least some control over it. Lord knows what a third party run ‘complaint central’ could do to a company’s reputation.

  • Mike Z.

    I made a career out of advocating systems just like this for employee communications in the early 90’s. Even with such a confined and isolated audience, it was very hard to get middle management to see the usefulness. On the other hand, the reason I was successful was because the top executives almost always got the value proposition immediately.

    I quickly figured out that middle management hates being forced to address its mistakes when they show up in a forum like this, but upper management appreciates the advantage of an unfiltered window onto internal problems. The same theory should apply in customer relations.

    It’s the liability issues around filtering and content control that are the real problem for a big company, which is the type likely to benefit most. Bad PR is much less of a problem than most companies will admit, for all the reasons stated in the other comments in this thread. But for liability alone, a system managed by a trusted third party could be much more effective.


  • Mike, I’m curious to know how a trusted third party running a customer interaction site would mitigate liability issues for a big corp. If a customer posts a service problem or enquiry and a rep from the company responsible posts a response, then the company is ‘liable’ for what it recommended, isn’t it? How would it be more ‘effective’ for the company to deal with it on someone else’s site where everyone can see it? Wouldn’t they prefer to isolate it on their own site or have it come into their telephone center where they could maybe control it a little better?

    As for bad PR, I think that’s a number one concern of big corps when they look at the blogiverse, the main reason a majority are hesitant to get involved in it, hoping this new word of mouth thing will just go away.

    I don’t mean it as a criticism of what you said, just interested to understand it better.

  • Rob M

    So instead of “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” it becomes

    “Post the need for a better mousetrap and those products will beat a path to your door”

    Consumer Sovereignty indeed.

  • No offense taken, Noel. :)

    The liability issues I’ve seen most often have to do with taking responsibility for filtering or otherwise managing the content of an otherwise open discussion system–usually with alleged PR concerns in mind. It comes down to this: a company running its own service will be unfairly tempted to edit the content of the system in their own favor. (And everyone will assume they’re doing it anyway.) Once they do even a tiny bit of that, they are accepting liability for the content they allow through. Putting it in the hands of a third party sidesteps that risk. It’s a separate issue whether a public statement by a company representative on a public forum legally binds the company.

    The thing about the PR concerns is that there is a very small risk that any PR, even the most apparently damaging, will end up being bad PR. For every Ken Lay there are a thousand Clara Pellers; folks whose scandals end up boosting profits thanks to spin doctoring. The company just has to capitalize on the valuable exposure provided. Nobody in middle management wants the hassle of doing this work, but upper management can (sometimes) see the broader picture, and recognize such situations as opportunities with relatively moderate costs compared to the potential rewards.

    The benefits of having a third party include having a scapegoat for middle management to blame, and having someone outside of a company reporting structure to pass along the honest truth, either intact or digested.


  • Mike, it seems to me that if a company hands over control of its online complaints or enquiries system to a third party by sanctioning them to host and report customer comments, there is no reason for people to suppose that the content is not being edited.

    On the PR concerns, I’m not sure Dell are looking at the recent damaging PR concerning their products and service as a wonderful opportunity to boost profits. What people are saying about them in the media and on blogs is a PR disaster. No amount of spin is going to work, certainly not in the blogiverse. They are going to have to solve the problems and the best way to do that is to talk back to the customers making the complaints, listen to them, and fix the problems.

    I bet Dell would much prefer that they could contain and to some extent control the blogs (or third parties) publicizing their problems and blasting their brand. I really can’t see them or any other company willingly handing a third party control over hosting and reporting customer feedback.

  • No, you’re right, there is never any reason to assume any public forum is not being monitored, edited, tampered with, or otherwise distorted to suit someone’s agenda. It’s more a matter of sway than of confidence. A third party who hosts forums for more than one company is less likely to risk its own reputation by allowing bias to favor one client or another.

    And as for Dell, they’re getting a lot of media exposure from this. That’s just another way to draw attention to their brand identity. Good or bad, it proves to customers that Dell is newsworthy and substantial. I don’t think their PR department is naive enough to let this opportunity slip through their fingers. But I’ll bet lots of middle managers at Dell aren’t happy to have their shoddy performance being pointed out to the executives by the unwashed masses.

    Sophisticated hard-sell customers with long memories may never go back to Dell. (Some people are still holding onto the grape boycotts of the 70’s.) Most consumers just don’t fit that profile. They will be lured back easily with polished reassurances of renewed commitment to customer satisfaction, or whatever buzzwords are deemed most effective.

    These pretty words might even be backed up by genuine improvements behind the scenes. Only time will tell.


  • Blogs have not made it possible for company reps to find customers online. I could and did do that back in 1993 with CompuServe forums. Later I was an active presence on the Usenet, a company-run (but not censored) discussion list, and a newsletter. (Details and customer comments on my website.)

    The corp. I worked for wasn’t really ready for what I was doing, and many (most?) are not now. I eventually found that, although I (and later a couple of guys working with me) were out there listening to customers constantly, we had less and less traction to get the company to do anything about what we were learning. My online presence became merely cosmetic.

    So… a company can place eager, smiley, genuinely-want-to-help reps out there responding on blogs etc., but if this is not backed by a corporate culture and structure that genuinely wants and is able to respond to customer needs and suggestions, it’s just a hollow exercise and will only make customers feel good temporarily.

  • Mike, I think most people know who Dell are. They don’t need or want negative publicity to prove they’re newsworthy.

    On Dell’s customers, I think it’s better to run a business expecting that all customers have long memories and are not fooled easily. I can’t think of a faster way to go out of business that thinking your customers are all idiots suffering from amnesia – that sort of attitude eventually gets communicated and in my experience not too many customers like being looked at in that way.

    On the middle management thing, there really is very little that goes on in a business that the top management team either didn’t initiate or know about.
    Parts used, quality of service offered. price charged – all of these decisions are made by upper management. There might be a few isolated customer complaints stemming from traceable middle management cock-ups, but from what I’ve read, Dell’s problems are a direct result of top management decisions rather than middle management gaffes.

    I agree with Deirdre that if top management doesn’t get behind the effort to open a conversation with the people making the complaints and listen to them with the aim of fixing the problems in their business that’re causing the complaints, then what it’ll amount to is another insincere PR exercise more likely to aggravate than alleviate the problems Dell are facing. A half-hearted attempt to placate irate customers only succeeds in adding insult to an already perceived injury.

  • Not ‘caveat emptor’ (let the buyer beware) any longer… ‘caveat venditor’ (let the seller beware). You’re the seller. (You’re always the seller.) Beaware.

  • I think we agree in general, Noel. The solutions have to be driven from the top, and there has to be a pervasive culture of good will and positive intentions for a company to succeed in the long run. Maybe I’m unduly sympathetic with senior management’s inability to see the real situation, due in large part to the filtering of frightened middle managers. That’s what I’ve observed everywhere I’ve looked, and that’s what I’ve recognized everywhere else.

    Top management is rarely corrupt to the point of swindling the customer. There’s really no percentage in it for them. They’re looking outside the company, at the marketplace and the competitition. They usually don’t get to see the real impact their broad competitive decisions make on the individual customer. Middle managers and line workers do, but their resources are constrained by fear and unrealistic expectations. Middle managers are criticized when they complain about their assigned constraints, and they’re criticized when the choices they are forced to make result in reduced quality and customer satisfaction. And it’s the sad job of the PR folks to try to make it all look like a coordinated effort driven from the top down.

    If top management were to get some direct and trustworthy feedback, it might be possible to make the fantasy of coordinated good will a reality. Nobody wants unhappy customers. But without efficient, unfiltered feedback, nobody is in a position to do much about it.


  • Oh they’re getting it unfiltered alright – straight from the horse’s mouth as they say – and it’s efficient in so far as everyone with access to a search engine knows what’s happening. Blogs are talking and the media’s writing it up. I bet they’re going to get a lot more of it if they don’t respond to the customers and fix the problems. And they can if they want to.

  • I wonder if Dell and Cingular plan to merge?
    I’ve just been through a nightmare…or am in the midst of one…who knows when it will ever end?

  • RJ

    Can I talk about Verizon customer service ans sales for a moment. How is this, we request specific telephone equipment to operate our virtual offices at Merrick Executive Center. Verizon says they have what we need, they install “what we need”. When the time arrives for Verizon training, VERIZON TELLS US, “We can’t train you on this system because this system does not do what the sales people told you it would do”. After asking to install a system that would perform to our requested specifications, that asked for an additional $100K. When we advised them to remove the system, they refused. We hired an attorney and they agreed to remove the system and refund $6K+ that we expended on the initial payments for the system. Recently, in lieu of the refund check, we recieved a letter advising that the “restocking fee” was essentially equal to what the owe us? Did I mention I am a marketing Professor and this is the perfect explanation on what NOT to do to your customer. Has anyone had a similar expierence? Just wait until I tell you about the T1 expierence.

  • Monday at the call center. Busiest day of the week. Every week. Irrational, addle-brained people who have the audacity to think that they have a right to speak to me without respect. What people do not stop to think about is they are berating people who have access to their address, phone number, social security number and in my case medical records. Individual who, if they cared enough, could cause havoc in innumerable lives. It’s like yelling at a waiter and expecting to get hot food without spittle. Dream on! In this culture of people who believe that they deserve whatever they want reason flies out of the window. Have we really become that spoiled? Have we descended below the threshold of decent manners? Yes. It is rare to find one person who when confronted with news that confounds their wishes takes it in stride and behaves like an adult human being rather than a spoiled child. Customer Service is thankless and degrading a great deal of the time. Is it any wonder voices of customer service reps are dead or snide or even sometimes downright rude? No. Sometimes it is too much for a person to handle and that person fights back with dictatorship over the phone call. Wielding the petty power of knowledge and situational control. Customer service reps are paid to be nice to the swarming relentless masses greedily trying to assert control over multi-national corporations like so many flies about a bull. Succeeding only in making nuisances of themselves. They are not paid to be scapegoats or whipping boys/girls. They are not paid to listen to narrow-minded filthy utterances designed only to make the speaker feel better (yet, they only get more angry and frustrated. You would think they would learn). To all of you incompetent morons who think an unsuspecting customer service rep can be run over and made to feel “less than”, remember who has the power to help or to hinder. You catch more flies with honey.

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  • Joe

    dell suck (8:59pm EST Thu Dec 22 2005)
    i got my dell inspiron 6000… 2 days new. Keep asking me to fix system time and date after I left the system on and come back. Dell said it is a software relate and have to charge me $99 for software support. I was not aware of fee support for a BRAND NEW DELL. I would rather have that money to pay for the return shipping. NO MORE DELL… SUCK. – by Joe

  • God knows when that system would assume normality. That day the world would be a better place to live in. Surely, it mite just put an end to premature balding. :)
    For outsourcing voice, chat, email or back-office support, visit the website of Aumenta Call Center, India.

  • It would be a dream if it ev
    er took place. I personally think that this would never become a reality. The world is too vast and too supplier-driven for it to take place.
    For outsourcing voice, chat, email or back-office support, visit the website

  • Dont think the compnaies would ever resort to such a step. Or rather I dont think they will ever feel the need for such a step. They face enough demand for sustainabilty. Maybe at the extreme stage of a market-driven economy can we expect this.
    Call Center India

  • Did any one see any blogs on the major problems Bank of America online banking with the MBNA Net Access bill payment service? I myself experience a major disconnect on this transition. I have both B of A accounts and MBNA creditcard accounts before the merger. I set up over 20 payees in MBNA and use both the creditcards and 4 separate checking accounts to manage and pay my bills. First, they did not even inform the MBNA customers that they considering merging and abruptly disconnect the site for MBNA. So I did not have paper back up for the on going bill payment. Worst, they could even transfer the MBNA credit card accounts info to B of A. Of course all the payee data, transaction records and bank checking accounts records were not accessible. The last information I got from them is that I am only one of the many MBNA customers that had the similar problems. They claimed that they hope to resolve this by November 1, 2006. Meanwhile, they let everyone just hung there. I requested a back up copy of my transction records and that is not possible. I ask if they can roll back by restart the MBNA site, they said don’t know. They did not have a beta testing to see if their conversion work. On top of that some of the capabilities in MBNA were not implement in B o A.

  • Hey I used to work at MBNA bank from December 2000 to when they closed my site on March 10th 2006…it was sad to see the bank go. I then relocated to keep my MBNA job but Bank of America aquired everything so it was sad since I had so much integrity built in there….I watched the whole change and there is barely any MBNA employees left within Bank of America…but I am knowlegable on most MBNA products and was ranked # 3 for the bank in sales and service…Consumers can expect lots of changes…it’s all about bottom line numbers right now and collection efforts are big time right now…so make sure your bills are paid or the bank will pay them for you…be careful and make sure your stuff is on time…I’ve seen some bizzare new banking concepts involved…just watch your bills when you bank at Bank of America…it’s a different ball game now so make sure those bills are paid on time!! I left bank of america shortly after I got rehired into legacy Mbna…i might find other opportunities later but now I am just grieving over my MBNA bank job closing down…it was sad.
    Tom Davis .