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.