What do you do when you're the founder of the world's biggest computer company and bloggers keep telling you how much your company sucks? If you're Michael Dell, you invite a bunch of those bloggers to a private meeting room at the Las Vegas Hilton for a wide-ranging, unscripted conversation.
I got one of those invites, thanks no doubt to a series of posts I've authored over the past two years documenting my less-than-pleasant experiences with Dell's support network. A high-profile bashing by A-list blogger Jeff Jarvis was probably the beginning of what I call Cluefulness 2.0 at Dell. (Click the links in this post to follow my saga and the reports from Jarvis.)
The meeting was billed as a roundtable discussion with 17 participants, including customers and a handful of bloggers who have a history of caustic commentary about Dell. I recognized Engadget's Peter Rojas, Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle, and Enrique Dans, who writes in Spanish from Madrid. Notably, the invited guests included David Marshall, described by a Dell spokesman as an "XPS 700 customer who was upset with his experience - visited Dell in October," and Ryan Robbins, "who created a blog called DellLied and is one of the most frequent commenters on Direct2Dell."
With 17 participants, a handful of PR people, and the big man himself, a 45-minute meeting doesn't leave a lot of time for each individual to comment. (It doesn't help that I was caught in traffic and missed the first three minutes.) So it's surprising that the conversation was wide-ranging, spirited, and technically detailed.
The meeting wasn't long on answers. In fact, like any well-prepped CEO, Michael Dell knows how to give a good non-answer, as Dwight Silverman noted in his write-up of the event. My contribution to the Q&A was to ask why Dell still insists on preloading so much subsidized trialware (aka crapware) on consumer PCs. Dell's answer was a question: "Would you pay to not get bundled software?" One attendee said he'd pay $60 for a truly clean Dell PC; I said I'd be willing to pay $10.
A few other random notes from the conversation:
- Asked about whether the company plans to sell home automation products, Dell said the technology is "pretty interesting," but it's "hard to do and expensive" and the lack of standards is a stumbling block.
- The company is expecting a "massive uptake" of Windows Vista and has launched a "pretty massive training program for thousands upon thousands of people" to get them ready for the consumer launch.
- "Unprecedented investments in change" for Dell's support system are finally paying off with a 10% increase in customer satisfaction over the past year.
The meeting was the latest in a series of efforts that suggest Dell (the company) really is getting serious about listening to customer complaints. Over the past year, Dell support reps have monitored the comments section of blog posts, looking for customers with new complaints and offering them individual help options. They've set up an e-mail alias (Customer_Advocate@dell.com) to deal with unresolved support issues. And they've set up their own blog.
It takes a long time to undo the sort of damage that poor support did to Dell's corporate reputation in the past two years. Whether the company can turn "Dell Hell" into "Dell Help" as its chairman insists is still an open question. But so far, it's making all the right moves.