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No Magic Wands For Customer Service

So… you wanna talk about service?  Let’s do it.  WARNING: this post will be a bit longer than the norm and is just the tip of the iceberg.  I’ll kick it off and then we will take it where you want to go.

The good news is that we know what we need to do.  You’ve been telling us.  Our number one priority is to get better at problem resolution.  I can almost hear the collective “duh” out there as I write this.  But this problem is complex, from finding the right products on the web, tracking orders before delivery and getting something corrected if it shows up wrong to getting the latest drivers and bios and replacing parts.  We also spend a lot of time helping connect your PCs to other electronic devices you may own, keeping your computers virus-free or even helping you load new software.  Many times we’re helping customers with stuff they didn’t even buy from Dell.  And you want the dell dude (or dudette) that you talk/chat with to be friendly, patient, empathetic and, above all else, knowledgeable about you and your problem.  Oh... and did I mention that you want it to be fast and easy? 

Right.  We got it.  If we could wave our magic wand, it would already be done.  But much too all our chagrin, it takes time.  We are working on exactly these problems… and many more. 

Right about now you’re thinking: “So, if you understand the problem so well… why do you even have it?”   We ended up here because during the days of our rapid growth, each business segment (this is our Dell term to refer to the teams selling to corporations, small businesses, state and local government, etc.) listened to customers independently and tailored policies and services around its customers needs.  For a while, it worked exceedingly well.  

But as the segments grew so did the process duplications and discrepancies.  Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water that slowly starts to boil, we didn’t realize that many of our problem resolution processes were no longer designed from a customer’s perspective.

When you contacted us to fix a problem we didn’t always act like “one Dell.”  Our processes/policies often required multiple groups to get involved.  That’s not good.  It really slowed down our ability to resolve issues and made it too easy for things to fall through the cracks between groups.  This led to difficult return policies, cumbersome rebate policies and confusing pricing structures, for example.  Our agents had to transfer calls to get customers to the people who could solve their problems since they can only see their small piece of the pie.  The organization became complex and difficult for our service advocates to navigate and fix your problems.  We know that.

We’re spending more than a $100 million — and a lot of blood, sweat and tears of talented people — to fix this.  In the past months we have taken a more holistic look at our business.  We are radically restructuring our contact centers — the intent is to redesign the whole process and put customers and service agents at the center of it.  The service agent is our bridge to you and they need to have tools and help available at the tip of their fingers to support you (BusinessWeek Q&A).  

We will make this change, we are well underway, but it took many years to get here and it will take time to re-vamp.  Processes are being reengineered and we are taking a rigorous 6-sigma style approach to doing this, we are increasing our training for service agents and we are developing tools that will help them solve your problems.  We also need to make these tools available to you, as many of you prefer to research and solve your own problems. 

The good news is that improvements will be continuous.  The magic wand won’t get us there all at once, but things are already getting better in many areas.  We have fixed the issue of long hold times for our U.S. consumer customers (those of you buying PCs for personal use in your home).  Last Fall(ish), we had a spike in calls and our average answer time went up to about 10 minutes.  While we didn’t think this was good… we didn’t know how bad it was.  Turns out that the average was very misleading!  We got many complaints and as we looked more deeply we learned that a really big portion of the calls were taking longer than 30 minutes to answer.  Yikes!  We had to completely rethink our staffing practices to handle the volumes.  Now, virtually every call is answered in 10 minutes or less.   In reality, most are answered within 4 minutes.  Whew!  Spikes here and there may throw this off from time to time but “red flags” go up all over the place if ANY customer waits 30 minutes.  We also have found that some of our phone numbers and extensions aren’t getting to the right place or even dead ends… we have cleaned the vast majority of these numbers and are still going. 

A few other things we have done: since May, we have been searching thousands of blogs that mention Dell every day to see what we can learn and to identify problems we can solve.  In June, we began providing free basic OS support (it had been fee-based) since this was the root cause of a lot of customer problems.  In August, in the U.S., we will be reducing use of mail-in rebates and simplifying our promotion and pricing structures to make them easier for customers to understand (More on that in a future post).

I have only scratched the surface of the work we are doing to improve our ability to resolve your problems.  In the coming days and weeks the people responsible for improving Dell customer service are going to join the conversation.  I’d also like to share with you the work our manufacturing, operations, web and product development teams are doing to prevent problems before they happen.  I probably have one of the coolest jobs in Dell, I get to work with Vice Presidents and our top process engineers around the entire corporation on our strategies.  The passion and commitment within Dell is exciting and intense.  We have a sense of urgency.  We have a plan we believe in, and we’re ready to share it and get your feedback.  Where do you want to start?

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  • You seem to be making some very questionable calculations about who it's important to respond to. You blocked not one, but two, of my critical comments in the "We're listening" thread. I have to wonder what criteria you were using to cherrypick the customer comments that would give you the best appearance of transparency.

    This is very poor blogging strategy on Dell's part, because I then exercised my option to post about the experience <a href="http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/7/13/14715/0618">elsewhere</a>.  And I'm considering cross-posting on a number of other prominent community blogs.
  • Laura, you've struck a great chord at just the right moment; I'm finishing up a review of this blog right now.  I wish you the best as you strive to apply the lessons you learn about corporate blogging to what you publish here.
  • Does this mean you'll be moving your callcenters back to a native english-speaking country?
  • Laura-

    Big congrats to you guys for coming out with this post.  I have high hopes that this blog can help you guys in becoming exactly what you want to be.

    Very good work...

    Paul McEnany
    heehawmarketing.com
  • I found it interesting that a story that featured this blog and Dell's customer service problems should air on CNBC on the day that it took me 40 minutes to get a change of address made to our account with Dell Financial Services. I chose not to attempt this on the DFS website because it required a login that may have already been created by someone else in our organization. Instead I foolishly thought a simple phone call would take care of it. My first 25 minutes was spent following phone trees that all led to the same point: a prompt that didn't recognize the account number but would only allow you to reenter the same number it didn't recognize. I finally quit exploring the dead end branches and indicated I wanted to make a purchase for our small business. Only then was I connected to a live person. After 7 minutes on hold after reaching him, I was transferred to an off-shore call center where the CSR took my COA information and asked me to wait for another 5 minutes while he "filled out the form." Any first year programmer knows you have to prepare for the response you don't expect- in this case an account number that isn't recognized. Forget the "people" problems, you can't even make your technology work right. You don't need a "magic wand" you just need a commitment to service that, based on my experience today, you haven't yet made. Why is it that with $100MM and a host of "talented people" you can't even take a change of address without blowing 40 minutes of my time? BTW: when I related this experience to our general manager his response was "Oh yeah. The only way you can talk to someone at Dell is to act like you want to buy something."
  • Laura,
    Thank you for your comments;  I've spent the better part of the last two years studying organizational complexity and innovation and can understand just how difficult it must be to get the constituent parts of a single organization, like Dell, to move in unison.  
    If I might point to one issue that I have raised on this blog in another post - and extensively addressed in the Dell Community Forum- I hope that you can address the issue of multiple avenues of communication between Dell and customers.  I placed an order for one of the XPS 700 and have since become dismayed because I get so many different messages from Dell regarding the shipping date.  To be more specific, I see at least 6 different ways to get a shipping date:
    1. The date provided in the confirmation email
    2, and 3. The two different dates provided on the order tracking module on my Account site
    4. A Different date from the Customer care rep.
    5. A different date from the sales rep.
    6. A different date from the moderators at the Dell Community forum.

    (not to mention your founder, Michael Dell's recent announcement that the XPS 700 would be available with the Core 2 Duo / Core 2 Extreme chips as soon as Intel makes the announcement...)

    So, please dont take this comment as another gripe about this delay; to be sure, I'm frustrated by the delay and uncertainty about the Core 2 Duo processor availability, but I think the more pressing concern, from your point of view, has to be this disconect in lines of communication, where the customer gets so many different messages.  

    As a customer of 8 or 9 years, and as a customer who is eagerly awaiting the new XPS 700, I think that we're in this together... so, I'd like to get your thoughts as to what Dell might do to streamline the message.
  • In the realm of tech support, I would suggest that Dell phone technicians be more willing to skip trobleshooting steps if the person is clearly knowledgeable, or has followed reasonable steps already, "Ok, before I called, I unplugged everything, re-plugged, rebooted, etc..."
    This is preferable to making them do every single step from their troubleshooting playbook - it saves the call center employee and the customer a lot of time.

    Also, I think Dell is making a big mistake in eliminating "legacy" ports such as PS/2 ports for keyboards and parallel ports for printers.
    A lot of my clients (I'm an independent freelance support tech) are chagrinned to find out the keyboard and/or printer they liked can't be used on their new Dell PC.  Are Dell sales people asking customers if they're planning on holding onto PS/2 style keyboards or parallel port printers?  I doubt it.

    And on top of that, there are only four USB ports in the back of some of the more value-priced Dells - so the keyboard and mouse already consume two of these valuable ports, leaving only two in the back for a printer, digital camers, etc...  Yes, there are ports in the front, but most people avoid using them for aesthetic reasons.
  • I have been a two-time Dell notebook and Axim owner.  The customer support inevitably consisted of long waits to speak to someone in a foreign country, whom I could barely understand, for hours-- oh, and did I forget getting disconnected at times.  After all of that, I would be told that the only thing I could do was to re-install Windows.  The first time I actually did it.  What a nghtmare.  Several times I was able to solve the problem myself-- for instance, by re-installing some drivers.  I am a health professional with a modicum of computer knowledge-- so, what does that tell you.

    When I bought my second Dell notebook, I laughed when making the choice for in-home or mail-in support.  I figured that I would be more likely to be struck by lightening than to have someone come to my home.  I'd be thrilled if I could just get some help when I called in.

    On the positive side, when my CD drive gave me problems, another was mailed to me overnight.

    I am still using my second laptop, but I will probably be in the market for a new one in the near future.  Before reading this blog and finding out that you are working on the problem, I had decided on ABD-- anything but Dell-- this despite the fact that all of your products have given me excellent service.  I just couldn't face the prospect of dealing with technical help.  I find the outsourcing unbearable.  The people are nice enough, and I think that they are trying hard.  However, when I can't understand them and they seem to be reading from some script that dictates that they say my name repeatedly while trying to placate me with politeness (ordinarily something I treasure), I want to pull my hair out-- slowly, one by one....   Make me want to buy another Dell, please!
  • I believe I read the entire blog entry and did not see one part in which you would return the call centers back to the USA?  Dell is at the top of the list in terms of being brought up in CSR "hell" stories around the water cooler, specifically, the call center issue.  

    The call center workers typically seem to be nice enough and hard working, but once they are done with your script, that's it.  Language makes it difficult to reason and explain the problem, which has to be even worse for people that have less computer knowledge than people like myself.

    Not to mention that it might give Dell a good name again in the US for returning US jobs.

    Now off to find the blog entry on when Dell will try to return to their "new kid on the block" days where they were all about quality.
  • Here's a thought...

    Preventative? Quit selling the Inspiron series, would ya? I work at an independant computer store and we have a section of our basement dedicated to dead inspirons.

    Or if you wanna keep the brand name (that identifies your company as substandard) fine. But quit making junk. And I know its cheaper to just replace the ones that break cause it cost you so little to make in the first place but posting a blog about getting better isn't enough. Sounds more like my buddy saying "This time I'm really gonna quit smoking"

    And don't pitch it like you've been growing and now your ready to make this step. That is quite frankly insulting. You didn't start up a tiny little mail order company with a call centre based out of India, did ya?

    You know what? I really hope you do get a handle on your service issues. It would be so good for everyone. But I'll save my congrats for five years later, which is really the shortest timeline you could hope for to fix the mess you've made
  • First of all, thumbs up to you guys working on the way that a call is handled. As a help desk/network/computer technician for my community college, I realise how important it is to field a call primarly myself so that the right hand knows what the left hand did. Although personally, i really don't want some unbearably cheery fake tech person on the other line. All i want is that they are knowledgeable and not a-holes, they can be as un-empathetic and deadpan as they want to as long as they know their stuff and don't patronise me.

    To everyone else, we are an all Dell campus and I will say that Optiplex systems while more expensive than the Dimension line, are more rigourously tested and quality assured. Optiplex system's are designed for the enterprise environment and are generally of high reliability. We did have problems with GX260 power supplies and GX270 motherboards but the systems were still within the 3-year warranty. The problem stemmed from poor capacitor chemical formulation which plagued multiple overseas component producers for a time, but this was no fault of Dell's.


    Computers are complicated, and few other things can have one thing break (or even just change!) and that one thing cascade into other things breaking (especially in an enterprise environment). Windows is a complex mistress to tame when asking that it play nicely and helpfully with third party applications that access its core software components. With malicious stealth malware on the rise, the complexity grows even greater. Please be nice with tech support people, they have to deal with people who can barely turn on a PC and often times people better off sticking to an abacus. While i realise PC's are complicated and confusing, they are becoming essential like having a drivers lisence. Everyone who owns a PC or uses one for financial/work/business use should take a few courses at their community college and spare the help desk from walking someone through getting to the internet when their IE icon isnt on their desktop or finding out what their IP is. Take a course, save your sanity, protect yourself, save an IT persons sanity.

    -Sir Latency
  • Matthew, I too feel your pain....

    I have gotten fair service from Dell support even with ESL support personell but calls definitely would have been resolved quicker with someone who was better at English.
  • Laura,
    I am so glad you posted on this new blog. I just today had an interaction with you tech support department and would like to suggest how Dell could save a lot of money and serve there customers better. BTW when I have finally reached a live person their knowledge, demeanor and empathy have been excellent. I don't fault them a bit.

    Background: I brought a Inspiron Core Duo notebook this past April. In June the screen developed a defect. I called June 28 and was walked through the diagnosis process and did indeed verify that the screen was defective. It wasn't a work stopper. On July 9 I called back to go over the diagnosis and get the process started for a replacement. I have an onsite agreement so the tech assigned me a case # and a dispatch #. The repair tech would call me when the part arrived and schedule a visit  at my convenience. So far, so good. He said expect Tues or Wed.

    So today is Thurs and I started to get concerned. So I thought I would call and check the status. No bid deal;5 minutes. Would you belive 45 minutes.

    As your post points out customer support is balkanized. I had to go thru voice mail hell. The voice recognition is not the best so I have to repeat, the option I want is not listed and it is difficult to get to a live person.

    I suggest that the branching be reorder. First it should ask new sales, tech support or existing case. that's it. Then people like me could select option three, enter my case number and be routed automatically to the right group. What's the use of a case number if I have to rehash the story each time or navigate voice mail thrown in with other callers who don't have a case number or even purchased yet.

    That way your existing customers would get better service, your 800 # bill for people on hold would be reduced greatly and every one wins.

    So when I finally spoke with my tech he could not give me an answer why I hadn't been called yet. He promised to look into and send me an email on the status. As of midnight I haven't got an answer.

    By the way I did try the web site to see if I could look up my case # or  dispatch # but no luck either.

    So what a waste of my time.

    What really burns me is that there was no mechanism for speaking to someone who can effect change. Now with this blog I can get this off my chest where it will do some good.

    BTW I am very happy so far with the notebook, my first. Very fast, screen is incredibly sharp and bright (my biggest reason I took this long). This is my only PC now, and I am loving the portable lifestyle.

    I am a blogger myself, so I welcome you to the blogosphere and the web 2.0 ethic of transparency.
  • Glad that Dell is finally going to a simplified pricing structure- less rebates / coupons

    Actually dell is killing off its own brand by
    - trying to sell on price than quality - the dells lag way behind ibm in sturdiness
    - not sticking to a simple and cool design-constant changes - wide screens/diff resolutions- keep it simple.
    - stop those coupons on slickdeals etc... The amount that someone expects to pay for dell has come down with those hefty promotions that people are waiting for ever for coupons and no longer willing to pay even 1000$ for a entry dell laptop anymore.
    - need a better affiliate program
  • I think you can make significant inroads into customer satisfaction by moving your customer service call centers back to the USA.  Being the network admin at my office, I call Dell support several times a week, and I have to tell you, I generally find trying to explain the problem to the Indian voice on the other end of the line to be far more irritating than the problem itself.

    I think your sales department should also cut prices in general, instead of scalping those people who don't know to look for coupons on techbargains.com.