Dell's transformation

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In the series' final post, he writes, “One of the great lessons of the cluetrain era is that your customers are your best customer support agents and marketers if only you allow them ... and respect them enough to listen to them. Dell does't [sic]. As we reported the other day, Dell shut its general customer forums ... which should be the place for customers to help each other.”

Six and a half years after Jarvis began telling his tale, Stuart Lynn, information services director at SMB software company Sage, added to the critical assault with a 1,000-word diatribe on his personal website about a PC he purchased from Dell in November as a Christmas gift for his son. The machine had not arrived as of Dec. 31. Lynn, a self-described “Dell advocate for at least 13 years now,” vents his frustration with Dell's call enter, which he terms “a complete waste of time.” He does applaud Dell's Twitter account @DellCares, however.

Socially acceptable behavior

I asked Quintos about the criticism Dell has endured over the years.

“I think companies critically make the mistake of not engaging in those [negative] conversations. So we absolutely learned early on that [engaging] is critically important,” Quintos said. “We also find that when we engage in these conversations, the vast majority of the time we can turn these ranters into ravers.”

Roughly two years ago, Dell invited Susan Beebe, a Dell b-to-b consumer, and roughly 20 other customers to one of the company's Customer Appreciation Days in Austin. Beebe cofounded IT consultancy KBB Consulting & Networking in 1996, which she ran until 2007, and then served as manager of IT integration and project management at education finance company Nelnet. After listening to Beebe's thoughts on customer service and social media, Dell offered her the position of chief listening officer.

“We said, ‘She's got so many insights, so let's hire her,” Quintos said. “And I think the direct [sales] model played beautifully to that … [because it] gives us that capability to talk directly to that individual, not through someone else in the organization.” Today, Beebe serves as a social media and corporate communications strategist.

Because Dell entered the social channel earlier than most companies, it has benefited from its initial stumbles. While CMOs in 2012 are still puzzling over how to measure social ROI, Dell joined Twitter the year the platform launched in 2007 and attributed $3 million in revenue to its Twitter account for the first two years.

Quintos referenced Dell's social marketing as another example of Dell's integrated marketing strategy. “I talk to a lot of CMOs all the time, and they're always asking us how we've cracked the code around social media. I say it's because we're not chasing social media as the next shiny object,” she said. “We see social media as one important lever that integrates our messaging and our brand and our targeting across multiple channels in the organization.”

Dell has trained “thousands” of its employees in social media best practices and certified “upwards of about 2,500 individuals,” including employees outside the marketing department, in how to use social, Quintos said. Dell also dedicates a team to its Social Media Listening Command Center. Launched in late 2010, the Command Center features six monitors that allow employees to track social media conversations concerning Dell and trend those conversations into data to be shared with the product groups.

“We don't think about [social] as how do we get 10 million people on Facebook or 10 million people on Twitter,” she said.

Instead, Dell's social strategy relies on using direct customer knowledge to integrate social media properties into its back-end CRM systems, Quintos said. “We have arguably the richest customer data in the industry given what we've done over the years around the direct model, and that's a huge competitive advantage for us because we know a lot about what our customers want, and we can do some really cool things with social media and helping to target them not with just the right products or the right solutions but the right case studies and white papers and points of view and virtual events,” she explains.

That social data collection and targeting is of particular interest to Fujioka.

“I look at Dell as this big engine that broke ground in the supply-chain automation and the direct function to now being really advanced in what we gain out of social media, what is the information that's garnered by social media, what can we predict out of the psychographic social operation of our CIOs or our IT decision makers: where do they go, what's driving them, what keeps them up at night,” Fujioka explained.

Dell's drive to better understand its customers and market its brand comes at a turbulent time for the two verticals the company toes. On the one hand technology services behemoth IBM, riding the success of Watson and its “Smarter Planet” initiative, dominates the market to the point of parodying the famed Apple “1984” ad. By contrast HP, waffling on whether to spin off its PC business, has been parodied by Michael Dell himself. “If HP spins off its PC business … maybe they will call it Compaq?” the CEO tweeted.

I broached the subject of HP with Quintos and her response spoke to Dell's decision to stay in the consumer PC business, as well as the company's decision to reposition its brand. The last thing customers need right now is instability, she said. Whether it's a bad economy or an ever-changing workforce, consumers don't want a partner that will cause them to sit back and pause, Quintos insisted.

“The HP thing actually reaffirmed for us the direction that we were headed in,” she said. “[Our] traditional competitors are not necessarily going to be the competitors going forward.”

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