Amazing customer service is the new marketing

Everyone has tales of their customer service experiences, good and bad.

You tend to hear more about bad experiences than good, it seems to me. Not surprising, I suppose, as when something goes wrong, you want to tell everyone about it. And a blog is a pretty good way of doing that.

With everything so inter-connected these days, anything you publish on your blog is easily discoverable by anyone else – all you have to do is Google.

I’ve had my share of poor customer service experiences from companies in recent years which I’ve blogged about – Dolphin Music and Virgin Media, to name but two companies.

While both of those experiences evolved into something a little more positive after a while, the original record of the negative is out there on the internet for as long as there’s a Google cache no matter what positives I may have written subsequently.

Today, I’m telling a story of a good experience, a conclusion to more than nine months of headache and frustration that all came to a head in January.

This is about Dell, about some of the people who work there, and what happened after I said I’d love to hear from Dell.

It’s a rather long story and I hope you’ll bear with me in this post as I tell it step by step just to be sure I have all the items here, as it were.

First, though, I ought to convey a concise history. You can also get that by viewing the 6-minute video I made in January. But, in a nutshell, here’s what led up to that video.

  • Dell XPS Gen5 desktop PC purchased in August 2005.
  • In July 2006, main memory (RAM) upgraded to 2 gigs in anticipation of upgrading the OS to Windows Vista when released. (The post I’ve linked to also recounts a real comedy of errors story with getting the correct memory from Dell.)
  • April 2007, installed Windows Vista Ultimate edition. A fresh install from a boxed retail copy, not an upgrade from Windows XP.
  • Between April 2007 and January 2008, seemingly-random freezes where the system would go into what appeared to be a hibernation-like state for exactly 30 seconds each time and then resume as if nothing had happened. This behaviour happened multiple times, each and every day.
  • A look around the web finds plenty of talk about such freeze issues where the combination of certain Dell models (but not mine), components – notably a specific model of Philips DVD drive – and Windows Vista are the common factor. This thread on Microsoft TechNet is typical.
  • Finally a fruitless call to Dell tech support in early January, during which they told me "Sorry, can’t help you. Vista is an unsupported operating system on that model," led me to do the video on January 18.

I should add that I know a few people at Dell, here in the UK as well as at the US headquarters.

People like Richard Binhammer, Laura Thomas, Lionel Menchaca and, in the UK, Kerry Bridge. My connection with them revolves around communication and social media. My podcasting partner Shel Holtz and I have interviewed Lionel for the FIR podcast. I’ve bumped into Laura in Second Life a few times. Kerry even came for a while to the FIR Geek Dinner last October. We’re all Twitter buddies.

So I could have just dropped any one of them a private note about my little issue. But I didn’t do that. I felt it would have assumed too much about our relationships and perhaps have put any one of them in a bit of an embarrassing position if I had asked for help that way.

I did the video instead and decided to do it as publicly as I did. It’s not a rant (I think that’s obvious when you watch the video), more an audio-visual vent. I thought maybe someone in Dell customer service might see it and, who knows, get in touch perhaps.

There was also the thought whether other bloggers might comment on it or reference it somehow (one quickly did: Ellee Seymour, who recounted her positive experience with Dell in late 2006). I wondered what viral effect might result from the video and post.

Of course, all my Dell contacts are plugged in to social media and saw the post first. Richard left a comment on my post. Kerry added one a few days later.

Then I got a call from Dell customer support in Ireland. The caller was John Lundberg, a member of Dell’s EMEA Executive Escalation Team.

That call from John marked the beginning of a major effort by Dell, via its Presto support service, to try to identify and resolve the problem with my XPS Gen5 machine.

At over two years old, this machine was out of warranty. In fact, this model is no longer made. It was, Dell told me, the last of that particular XPS model series before Windows Vista hit the market.

I’d mentioned in the video that I’d be willing to pay for support as long as I could get the problem fixed. I’d been convinced the problem was a hardware one (so a Dell issue), not to do with Windows Vista. But more on that later.

What John offered and which I accepted was remote Presto consultation, at no cost to me, to see if the problem could be fixed.

Things didn’t begin well, though, as it took Presto almost two weeks to get in touch with me.

Eventually they did, and so began a series of support sessions with the knowledgeable Denis at Presto, via phone and with Denis connected to my PC remotely via the net.

I was pretty impressed with Denis. Personable, friendly and highly professional in his approach, he lived up to my expectations of what someone working in a tech support role ought to be able to deliver – he knew his way around the innards of a computer, and knew what to try and how to try it in the quest to identify the problem and then see what solution might fix it.

And he could do all of this skilfully via a remote connection. That’s not an easy way to analyze a computer’s configuration and troubleshoot.

What I found particularly interesting was that Denis zeroed in on the two issues that were most referenced in all the various forum discussions I mentioned earlier about this freeze issue – updating the firmware of the Philips DVD drive as well as looking at an Intel RAID configuration issue, even though my machine didn’t have a RAID configuration.

In all, I had four sessions with Denis totaling more than four hours over a two-week period.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t clearly identify the problem nor the solution.

Our full stop came about because something he wanted to try – updating the Philips DVD drive firmware – required either a bootable floppy disk (this machine has no floppy drive: which PC does these days?) or the means to create a bootable flash drive as the firmware update had to be installed from a bootable drive other than the main hard disk, and it couldn’t be from a CD or DVD.

No matter what either Denis or I did, this machine would not create a bootable flash drive that would load the Philips update software. I couldn’t even do it on any of my other machines, running Vista or XP.

So I suggested we called a halt. I really didn’t think John Lundberg had an unending support effort in mind when he offered the Presto assistance.

As far as I was concerned, we’d reached a dead end. And I had a dead PC as far as Windows Vista was concerned. So I was quite willing to set aside the XPS Gen5 to see if, over time, I could try and figure out this problem myself. I’ve built and configured PCs right from early DOS days. A nice challenge!

Meanwhile I’d use my Sony Vaio laptop (running Vista with no problem, I might add).

That’s not how John wanted to leave it, though.

John’s next step took my breath away – he offered to replace the XPS Gen5 with a new machine from Dell’s current XPS model range.

In speaking with John on the phone, it became clear to me that he saw this situation as a customer relationship issue that he did not want to see conclude like this. I think part of his thinking centred on his sense of responsibility for Presto taking two weeks to contact me, as well as my cumulative lost time with every screen freeze over the past nine months.

And maybe because of the "sorry, can’t help you" blow-off from Dell tech support when I called them in early January.

I accepted this offer. At John’s suggestion, I spec’d out an XPS 420 on the Dell UK website; John approved that and, two weeks ago, the new machine arrived.

As almost anyone would know, technology has moved on significantly in two years. PCs are highly spec’d these days, more powerful and less costly than they were two years ago.

Dell doesn’t offer an equivalent machine to the XPS Gen5 from 2005. So trying to find a like-for-like system from a specification point of view wasn’t possible.

I decided to choose a replacement largely based on cost, choosing a spec that came in at less than the retail list price that I paid in 2005.

That was mainly to resolve my twinge of guilt in accepting a brand new machine in exchange for a two-year-old one, figuring that if this were an insurance claim, there’d be something called betterment to take into account.

In any event, I now have a replacement computer courtesy of Dell. The XPS Gen5 is awaiting collection as it will go back to Dell. I wonder if they’ll spend any time with it to try and see what the cause of the screen freeze issue is.

I will write a review of the XPS 420 at some point. I am very pleased with it, although it’s extremely unfortunate to note that, on Sunday, I experienced a bluescreen and diagnostics showed a fault with one of the hard drives in the RAID array (this machine comes with twin hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration).

It never rains but it pours, right?

I spent an hour on the phone with XPS Premium Support on Sunday evening who, after remote diagnosis, confirmed the fault and said the drive will be replaced under warranty this week.

And yesterday afternoon, I received a call from XPS Premium Support to say an engineer will be here sometime today to do what’s needed – replace both drives, install the operating system, etc.

So hopefully, a review to come soon.

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit about the conclusion of this whole business, one of the reasons why I’ve not posted before now.

Earlier in this post, I mentioned that I’d been pretty convinced over the past year that the problem with the XPS Gen5 must be related to the PC itself, so a Dell responsibility issue, rather than Windows Vista, and thus not a Microsoft issue.

After all, the clamour of Dell owners’ voices such as illustrated by the Microsoft Technet forum thread I mentioned surely is a clear pointer to the problem laying exclusively at Dell’s doorstep.

Today, I’m not so sure that’s wholly a valid point of view.

A post on February 27 by Todd Bishop, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, contains some damning facts from internal Microsoft documents made public by a court in the US that strongly suggest that not only were senior Microsoft executives aware of serious deficiencies in Windows Vista and its fit-for-purpose functionality upon its public release, but also allegedly they were lacking in making such deficiencies known to some of their OEM partners.

Dell is a Microsoft OEM partner.

I don’t want to comment much more in this post about that: read Todd Bishop’s post for the details.

But it does seem to me that all the negative talk out there about Windows Vista – ceaseless and constant negativity – must have some real foundation. I feel quite sad about that as I’ve been a Vista believer since its beta days.

A final word about Dell.

I’ve written quite a bit about the company and its products during the past four years. Some critical posts but, by and large, positive and I believe all balanced.

I’ve followed Dell as they journeyed from Dell Hell to the higher levels of trust and respect I perceive the company has now.

All the Dell people I’ve had occasion to be in touch with over my XPS Gen5 issue have impressed me with their genuine desire to do whatever it takes to address that issue in a way that leaves everyone satisfied.

That’s in stark contrast to my overall experiences with a company like Virgin Media, for example, when I wrote a few months ago that it takes more than gestures to deliver amazing customer service.

This experience with Dell is what customer service is really about – the genuine desire to cement a relationship with a customer, and take the actions you need to do that clearly prove that desire.

To do that, you have to have the freedom to deliver. Your organization and its structures must make it possible to deliver, to match the desire of your employees to actually deliver.

As someone once said, markets are conversations.

People like Brian Solis say it best today: Customer service is the new marketing.

I’d preface that line with the word ‘amazing.’