Amazing customer service is the new marketing

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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.’

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Surinder

    Neville,

    This is indeed an impressive response from Dell but I can’t help think that this was done partly/largely for the positive PR it would generate on this occasion rather than being a reflection of the way they typically run their business.

    You’re a popular and influential business blogger and podcaster. And as someone who already has connections with folks at Dell, even if you didn’t ask them for help which is commendable, if I were one of them I’d have wanted to help you anyway and so may have organised some internal communication to grease the wheels/escalate/expedite.

    I’m not in any way suggesting you did anything wrong or untoward, quite the opposite, you have integrity.

    But I just think your experience is unlikely to be typical of what others would have/will receive in similar circumstances.

    The fact is, you only have to watch BBC’s Watchdog to see how companies suddenly put things right when a significant media force gets involved. Without that, they get stuck in, well, customer service hell!

  2. neville

    I suppose it’s inevitable that someone would see this experience from the point of view that Dell did all they did simply because someone like me writes a blog or does a podcast, and they were thinking about the potential PR benefit.

    I appreciate your views, Surinder, but I think you do the people at Dell a major injustice.

    I can’t speak on behalf of Dell. What you say may be the case in some way for all I know. And I suspect there could have been even a back-of-mind thought that there could be some good PR value at the end of the day. Like you, I’d have had that in my mind if I’d been one of the Dell people.

    Yet I just do not believe that was the primary motive for their actions.

    In my view, everything the individuals at Dell did is reflective of what’s happening throughout Dell in general these days in terms of their professional attitude and approach to customer service.

    That’s not to say that everything’s perfect. It’s not: like just about any company, Dell still has improvement to make, something they would readily admit, and do.

    You say my experience is unlikely to be typical of what others would experience in similar circumstances.

    Hard to address than one. Maybe, maybe not. What I would say is that someone like me with a blog may well get a similar result. Ellee Seymour did.

    That’s the influence of social media.

  3. Surinder

    Thanks, Neville. You make compelling points.

    I still don’t believe Dell would go to such lengths as a matter of general policy, it just wouldn’t make economic sense (sic. even Costco is clamping down on its generous returns policy).

    I’m glad Dell did so in your case, and accept that they have likely done it out of a genuine wish to keep happy a customer who has bought top-of-the range hardware.

    I ‘speak’ with a positive experience of Dell. I have a 24″ Dell monitor that I’m extremely happy with it. I did have a small issue during purchase which wasn’t handled well, but it was so minor as not to have left any indelible mark.

    It seems that if Dell is really committed to general customer delight, it will one day reach or even exceed Amazon’s levels of satisfaction – not that they are perfect, but they seem to get it right most of the time.

  4. zoe

    You could not be more right with your title. I truly believe that good customer experiences have the potential to have such an impact on a company’s reputation. I also believe that it is important to promote and thank the individual(s) responsible.

    I make it my practice to inform companies of exceptional customer service. I will post on my blog if it is relevant, but I ALWAYS will email/write the company (PR department, management and particular store).

    It is interesting to see the differences in responses. In one case I was invited to speak at a company event (RBC) and another I was just emailed a thank you (Chapters).

    No matter what the company’s intentions are, bringing attention to the situation provides perfect examples of how companies SHOULD act. Hopefully these examples will set the bar and experiences like ours will be the norm.

    z

  5. zoe

    Yes, they have. And they should be praised for it. It just has never really been considered ‘marketing’.

    I think that has changed largely in part to social media. We, (customer, consumers etc etc) now have the power to impact the way a company does business because of the attention it can receive.

    Before blogs (or email) how many letters have you written about good customer experiences? I doubt if many people went to such great lengths.

    Now, we have many more platforms where we feel comfortable to respond and are ABLE to respond to wonderful experiences. Since so many people are using these platforms and getting so much attention it can be considered as marketing.

    z

  6. Surinder

    Isn’t WoM marketing? Haven’t people been doing this for ages when they get good service, telling friends, colleagues etc.?

    Only the other day I was looking for background on a certain etailer and I found the most useful comments on a forum (i.e pre “social media”), not on blogs.

    Not trying to diminish the impact of blogs etc., they seem to an evolution of something that’s been going on for a while rather then something dramatically new.

    Or maybe I’m just being a bit dense in not understanding this :)

  7. zoe

    Blogs are one example of many social media tools. I use them for my example b/c they are quite popular and have been shown to be the most effective in promoting customer issues. As you suggested, forums are another great tool that existed before ‘social media’ was coined.

    What is dramatically new is the way companies are responding. They are actively searching out these consumers, the issues and even making entire new marketing campaigns around the info they find in social media spaces.

    Just using Dell as an example, look what exploded from some customer service issues – they established online community outreach, Direct2Dell and Idea Storm. There is also the famous Richard@Dell, whose job is to respond to customer issues on the web.

    If you want to get into semantics then, yes, perhaps you’re right; it’s not exactly new. What makes more sense then? Can we agree it’s improved?

  8. neville

    Thanks for sharing some great opinion, Surinder and zoe.

    Couple of points I’d like to add to this discussion.

    Surinder, you said:

    I’m glad Dell did so in your case, and accept that they have likely done it out of a genuine wish to keep happy a customer who has bought top-of-the range hardware.

    No, I don’t believe it was becuase of a particular model I’d bought, whatever the price was. I’m certain I would have received the same treatment if the model I’d had was at the budget end of the Dell range.

    It seems that if Dell is really committed to general customer delight, it will one day reach or even exceed Amazon’s levels of satisfaction – not that they are perfect, but they seem to get it right most of the time.

    Isn’t that really the goal any organization can aspire to – getting it right most of the time? And I’m sure you see the same as I do: for every two or three people who would talk glowingly about a company or a brand, you’ll find another two or three people who’d want to bury that company or brand. That applies to any company you can think of. In the case of Dell, look around and you’ll still find people with their own Dell hells.

    Zoe, well said:

    No matter what the company’s intentions are, bringing attention to the situation provides perfect examples of how companies SHOULD act. Hopefully these examples will set the bar and experiences like ours will be the norm.

    A blog is a good way to do that. But as you note, Surinder, a blog isn’t the only way. It’s a more recent way and one that makes it easy and very open.

    Couldn’t agree more with your point that blogs are an evolution of something that’s been going on for a while rather then something dramatically new.

    Tools like blogs simply make it easier than before to share expression and opinion.

    A double-edged sword, though, which gives light to the good, the bad and the ugly. (Isn’t that therefore triple-edged?)

    But it all adds to the communication melting pot, in my view.

    And here’s another point.

    I’m certain that if I had purused my issue with Dell via traditional support and feedback channels, I would have got absolutely nowhere.

    But a short video and a blog post out in public caught the attention of some individuals at Dell who do pay attention to these social media.

    I also believe that the resulting attention from the traditional part of Dell (so to speak comparatively) happened because my issue was a realistic one.

    Anyone can do a video and post on a blog. But if your issue is just a rant or, frankly, just ridiculous, you won’t get a result no matter what you do.

    So the lesson here, I think, is that if you have a valid point then social media can help you get fast attention.

    That’s from the user’s point of view. From the company’s point of view, it also gives them the opportunity to know about your issue quicker.

    What does that say for traditional relationship channels? A good question.

  9. Eamon

    Really interesting article.

    I haven’t used Dell so can’t really comment on them.

    It’s funny how some major companies can get customer service so wrong. And others get it so right. I am not in the mood right now for negative feedback (other than to say that negative customer service really sticks). But I have been impressed by some excellent customer service I have received, recently, in particular, from Lastminute.com (cancellation), Waterstones (ordering large quanity of books) and Lloyds Bank.

  10. Pete Blackshaw

    There are may ways of thinking about the concept of “customer service as the new marketing.” One critical “torture-test,” I think, is whether the service interface (the invitation to provide feedback) actually “markets” to the consumer.

    For example, look at the Dell customer service email form. Pretty functional and operational. Doesn’t look like the ad or design agency had any signoff or input into the look, feel, warmth, or invitingness of the interface. In short, it feels “under-marketed.” The Dell customer service blog, and IdeaStorm, by contrast, come at it differently…always begging for feedback and input, and using more friendly interfaces to “engage” us. This is what I call the “conversational divide.” If we’re really serious about customer service as the new marketing, we need to drive consistency across all consumer touchpoints. In the end, this will make the overture of better customer service more believable and credible. That said, I do agree Dell has taken important steps of late.

  11. RichardatDELL

    Lots of great points and points of view here.

    Let me say for the record, so to speak, we are not perfect. However, we are working hard to improve and listen and learn every day.

    Pete, of course, there are inconsistincies across a huge global organization going through very large and significant market changes. Change takes time to completely take hold.

    However, the focus on customers, conversations and nurturing relationships is what underpins our continual learning and improvements. That is crucial in my mind

    Neville, I think it is fair to note that we do monitor blogs carefully and seek to work with anyone having issues with their Dell. Again, we are not perfect, nor are all of our monitoring tools but we try to reach anyone with a legitimate issue.

    Surinder, what we seek to do is provide awesome tech support and do what is right given circumstances. When I say circumstances that is not “who” you are or for PR buzz. Searches will prove that there are many others who had systems replaced, parts fixed or repaired or situations that were also out of line and we could not help.

    It is the customer specific circumstance and what is “right for the customer”. Neville detailed his case …and there is lots of reason in that case for the outcome, starting when he upgraded memory in good faith for vista on our system.

    Thanks again for the feedback and perspectives shared here. We really appreciate hearing from each of you.

  12. Surinder

    Richard,

    Wow, didn’t expect someone from the mothership to pass by and join in!

    It is good that you monitor blogs etc. closely. The various tools such as Technorati and Google Alerts make this ever easier.

    Just going slightly off-topic, wouldn’t it be cool if similar tools existed in the offline world?

    For example, if during a call to a call centre, technology could pick up customer frustration and automatically escalate the call rather than depend on the operator’s willingness/training to do this.

  13. Mine Your Own Business

    Customer Service as Markieting…

    How much is it worth to satisfy an unhappy customer? How far would you go to make that unhappy customer not just satisfied, but to make them an ambassador for you and your business? Here’s an example of a company…

  14. neville

    That is interesting, Surinder. I’ve also read recently about how in tech support calls, the agents have software that flags up certain words you say which give prompts to service agents, where they’ll ask questions or make comments in relation to those words, all geared to debveloping positive flow to calls.

    I didn’t bookmark the sites; need to hunt for them.

    No idea if Dell uses those techniques. But if they make the call experience good, and add value to positive results, then I’m all for it.

    Richard, thanks for your comments here. I appreciate that you took the time to contribute.

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