Marc Carlisle: Dude! You’re getting a Dell!
Ten years ago, that was an exciting idea, getting a desktop or the latest 10 pound laptop from the company Michael Dell founded in 1984 with $1,000 and “an unprecedented idea – to build relationships directly with customers.” That idea made Dell’s product line hugely successful, so much so that after 20 years Michael Dell went into semi-retirement at age 43 to enjoy life. Retirement lasted three years for Mr. Dell, who returned full-time as chief executive officer a month ago at the direct request of my business partner.OK, perhaps not the direct request. For 14 years, we’ve used Dell products in our business as often as possible. Certainly over those years, there have been products more cutting edge (anything from Apple) or mo re reliable (we’ve had an HP Pavillion printer-fax machine in constant use for 10 years). But Dell offered products with most of the latest features at prices that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to mention to your more tech-savvy friends, reliable products shipped the same day you made the phone call.
So when we needed a new desktop, Chris ordered a Dell. When it arrived, it didn’t work, at all, nothing. No matter, a phone call would straighten that out, and so I thought as I listened from an adjoining office to the rising tension in his voice as he talked to “customer service”. Publicly, the reason many companies have moved their customer service and support functions to the Indian sub-continent is because English is their native language and they’ll work for about one-quarter the hourly wage. Privately, Indians also offer the huge advantage of being process-oriented; if you call for help, they will begin by asking whether the computer is on or off, then follow the flow chart without deviation from there to find the problem, and no amount of pleading that “Yes, yes, I’ve done all that” will sway the officious Indian from his decision tree. I’m also firmly convinced that they are paid not based on some combination of number of customers handled per hour adjusted by some measure of customer satisfaction, but on their ability to say “No” adjusted by some measure of how much money they’ve cost the company by caving in to consumers.
When Chris called to return the obviously defective desktop and get a replacement, he was told that we’d have to pay the freight to return the desktop and that Dell wouldn’t ship a replacement for up to 30 days, the time required for them to see if the desktop was, in fact, defective. But first, how would he like to pay the freight plus the 15 percent restock fee to send back the desktop, a fee on top of the original price? To his credit, while I could feel the rising tension in Chris’s voice, he didn’t yell or bluster, although I’m sure he was out of chair and on his feet all the same. In the end, he hung up and called back to place a new order for a desktop and paid for that one, which happened to work. We shipped the defective one back with a note of explanation, and denied the credit card charge, and resolved not to do business again with Dell, at least not anytime soon. Economists remain baffled as to how America, with massive trade and budget deficits and a weak currency, where manufacturing is in decline and commodity production is falling, remains an economic powerhouse. The answer is in the intangibles, an approach to customer service as “fixers” and not obstacles, where employees take pride in good work and feel responsible for a job or the assembly of a desktop poorly done. No doubt customer service saved Dell some money that day, but those savings have cost Michael Dell his retirement, although I doubt anyone has ever successfully retired when their name’s on the front door.
At Cingular, which has equally suspect customer service, they’re changing the name back to AT&T, a change of form without a change of substance, a marketing ploy intended to sell the same old products. At Dell, Mr. Michael Dell will have to change the substance of how his company approaches customer service, since inconsequential changes such as changing the name aren’t an option. But there’s a tangible reward – he’ll get to talk to Chris again, which may not be as relaxing as retirement, but it’ll certainly be more satisfying, both for Dell’s employees and ours.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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