My Dell hell...We've all had problems with shoddy or infuriating customer service. This month columnist Rene Carayol shares a worrying personal account and argues that the most successful companies must remember the human touch. When it comes to PCs I've always been a Compaq man. In my IT director days I bought many thousands of boxes by this vendor and that was fine, for the most part. But I recently decided to see how green the grass is on the other side. Since the HP-Compaq deal was announced (a deal where I somehow see two under-performing companies forming one big under-performing company) I've been tempted to try the market leader, Dell, at least on a personal level. Friends and former colleagues also convinced me: "Try the Toyata of PC makers," they urged. "You'll love their build-to-order, just in time expertise," they cooed. (Well, they had more interesting things to say to me but you get the idea.) Why should I doubt them? Dell is romping ahead in the PC market. Its focus on streamlined production and distribution processes isn't exciting but these do form the basis of one of the IT successes of the 1990s, without doubt. As for good old Compaq, well, once considered the PC king itself, it is left losing money on individual units just to stay on Dell's shoulder, panting, wondering what it can do to turn a profit on those shipments. So, I took the plunge at the beginning of December. I ordered a desktop PC, customised and accompanied by peripherals such as a scanner. It was nothing complicated. Within 48 hours I received a written acknowledgement after an initial email order confirmation. So far so good. Here my horror story begins. Five more written acknowledgements later - all by post, all unnecessary - my 20 December delivery deadline was looming. Worried, I called only to be told there was a problem with a PC ready-loaded with XP because of a lack of suitable anti-virus software. Whatever. I decided Windows 2000 would be fine - the kids testing XP for me would have to wait - and received, you guessed it, two more order acknowledgements. The next stage was another call to Dell Customer Service, only to be told the order had accidentally been cancelled and the person I was talking to couldn't reinstate it. Here lies the crux of the problem, the whole point of this month's personal rant. It seems the various Dell teams across the UK and Ireland would only communicate with each other via email. No amount of "It's 21 December and my kids would really like their Christmas present this year" would mean an agent picking up a phone to get things done. The reason for this also relates to Dell's success. The company has partly streamlined its distribution network over the years by cutting out things like costly real-time human interaction. Of course email-only requests and god knows what customer relationship management (CRM) systems mean there are times when customer service suffers. The ironic thing throughout this saga was that whenever I did speak to someone at the company they were well trained and polite. I almost felt bad for complaining. Almost. Companies simply must realise CRM is a state of mind, not a technology. I have yet to find any technology that can do customer service - at its core it's a people thing. That's the main lesson here. On my personal level, as of 7 January I'm still waiting for my PC. Perhaps Dell are like that other most famous US production company, albeit of another age, Ford. Just as with the Ford Model T, metaphorically you can have any colour you like as long as it's black. My gut feeling is that if you order a bog standard Dell PC you'll be fine. Otherwise, I'm not confident. Now I'm considering PC World or Computacenter for my next home or work PC. Sorry Dell - you failed me.