How Dell dares to be boring (and why that's a good thing)

There are some things you want to be exciting--for instance, the Super Bowl. At the other end of the scale is a visit to the cardiologist. Ideally, that would be so boring that even the doctor falls asleep because your test results are so normal. In the middle is buying a computer...

There are some things you want to be exciting--for instance, the Super Bowl. At the other end of the scale is a visit to the cardiologist. Ideally, that would be so boring that even the doctor falls asleep because your test results are so normal.

In the middle is buying a computer--or maybe a dozen or even a hundred computers for your company. Sure, you'd like a cool machine, but sizzle has its dark side; it's called risk. Most PC buyers, especially business purchasers, don't like risk. And that's where my friend Michael Dell steps into the scene.

I sat down with Michael at this year's Comdex Fall, but the most telling moment with him didn't occur while he and I were talking. Instead it came right afterwards, as a PR executive walked me through the front doors of the Four Seasons Hotel, where Dell the company had encamped, having shunned yet again a space on the show floor itself.

I inquired about visiting the company's Austin HQ. "We'd be happy to have you, what would you like to see?" As I thought to respond, though, I suddenly found myself, well, stumped.

If I visited with the Dellians for a day, what would they show me? A hot new PDA? Dell has no PDAs, hot or otherwise. A new form factor? When I repeated an approving comment that the design of a new Dell portable was snazzy enough to be a Mac--a sentiment shared by the Dell exec who showed it to me--Michael recoiled a bit and said something to the effect of, "Well, I guess that's a compliment."

Dell could give me a sneak peek at some forthcoming products, but I'm certain I'd be getting a glimpse of something conventionally predictable. Then again, that's what we've long learned to expect from the company: no surprises. And no risks.

While it makes the company less of a story to journalists, this consistency is what makes Dell such a success. It dares to be boring, and customers love it as a result. Buy a Dell and you know exactly what to expect. Its systems aren't as competitively priced as they were in the early days, but Dell has created the closest thing Corporate America has to a standard-issue computer.

Dell started as a high-concept company, selling what we then called "heat-seeking," top-performance PCs, mainly to people smart enough to appreciate them. Michael was a hero to people who had outgrown their local hardware resellers but didn't want to assemble their machines from scratch. The direct--don't call it mail order--sales model that Dell pioneered gave it a huge price and service advantage. And they were good machines besides--cheaper and better than whatever Compaq and the other mainstream companies were selling at the time.

Today, Dell has the reputation of lagging a bit. For example, I am planning a trip to Compaq--Dell's old but significantly vanquished rival--to see "concept" computers. Would Dell show me any new concepts? If Dell has any they are a dark secret.

But that is not a rap. Dell is no worse off for any lack of panache. It's been gaining market share in about precisely the amount Compaq has been losing it.

Analysts sometimes say Dell's direct-sales model--perfected since the mid-1980s--is boring, though Michael Dell himself considers it "delightfully consistent."

I hadn't sat down with Michael in a few years, though we go back almost to the beginning of his company, then called PCs Limited and headquartered in an Austin business park.

Little did either of us realize that one day Michael, who dropped out of the University of Texas to start his company, would end up a leader of the respected World Economic Forum.

When questioned about his ascent to a role as one of the world's leading capitalists, Michael exhibits the sort of grin one son of Texas gives another--I grew up in Dallas--as if he can't quite believe his good fortune, even if he's absolutely convinced he deserves it. Then he smiles a little more broadly, "Isn't this a great country?" he says, before reminding me of his drop-out status.

Today, as a leading capitalist, Michael isn't quite as off the cuff as he used to be. The Compaq/HP merger makes him smile--he seems to take some pleasure in seeing his Houston-based competitor (and the rivalry remains strong) twisting in the wind--but insists that the deal, whether it goes through or not, won't change his company's plans.

On the proposed Microsoft settlement, Michael, who is close to a fellow Texan now living in the White House, doesn't see the deal as likely to alter what Dell is already doing, at least not very much.

If you found any of that terribly newsworthy, you're ahead of me. But it reflects Dell's "delightfully consistent" course. And there's the success thing. Where Dell used to be the upstart, nipping at the heels of much larger competitors, it's become the company most everyone else wants to dethrone.

This success is a reflection of several characteristics of Michael Dell himself. He's always hired well. Even better, he's been willing to learn from the smart people who work for him. While Bill Gates is a true believer in his own technology vision, Michael--though no technology slouch--is as passionate about his sales model and how it allows him to sell not just computers, but servers, data switches, peripherals, services, and just about everything else a customer might want.

There's another, related secret to Dell's success. Back in the olden days of computing, you had to be pretty smart to order a PC from a direct, and distant, manufacturer like Dell. Not anymore. Computers are much less complicated and, thus, far more accessible. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to use or buy one. And this has played to Dell's direct sales advantage.

As computers became less exotic, big corporate buyers started flocking to Dell. Then as servers became better understood, Dell was there to supply them. Now it is into data networking and a variety of other product lines. Dell customers are ready to buy these things because of the relationship they've developed with the company over the years.

Dell meets Corporate America's--and increasingly the world's--need for computers that are easy to buy and don't disappoint.

As consumers, we've become less afraid of computers, too. And this has been to Dell's benefit as well. Its gains in the consumer space haven't been as spectacular as in business markets--buying a computer at retail has much more allure for consumers than corporations--but, even at that, they've still been substantial.

Michael Dell makes great, if sometimes uninspired, computers. But the way he sells them--and his attention to every aspect of the customer relationship and how his company can expand it--has made his company one of the world's most admired.

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