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DELL-ving Into the Future

The biggest watershed in Dell‘s five-year effort to transform its business occurred in late October, when Founder, Chairman, and CEO Michael Dell and investment firm Silver Lake Partners took the public company private. It’s a move that marks the company’s acceleration of what it calls Project North Star, an internal push to strengthen Dell’s stature as a provider of enterprise services and solutions, as opposed to strictly corporate and consumer PCs. Supporting this move is an internal shift in the way Dell markets and, equally, the way in which the company supports its customers, many of whom are B2B clients.

The company’s recent struggles in consumer markets have been well documented: In IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker released in July, Dell was a solid third behind Lenovo and HP in terms of market share. But Dell now sells the bulk of its PCs—71% according to RBC—to corporate entities. And as Dell moved resources into developing corporate software and services, it became abundantly clear that the Dell Dude—the company’s surfer-chill spokesperson from the early 2000s—promoted too narrow a message.

“If I’m a CIO, what am I thinking?” says Bobbi Dangerield, Dell’s VP of commercial sales operations. “What kind of image does [the Dell Dude] portray? Part of the North Star project was about connecting our purpose and values to our marketing campaigns and having a more consistent message across the company rather than a consumer message, a message for small businesses, and a message for large businesses.”

Going private allows Dell to make the investments it needs to make and to tweak its messaging without the constant slings and arrows of public scrutiny. “We [have] a lot of the foundational elements in place,” Dangerfield says. “I’d like to see us get to the end. Get to the place where we’re viewed in the market as the number one provider of solutions and services and where we’re known for our exceptional customer service.”

Marketing, meet sales

Becoming a solutions and services provider has changed the nature of Dell’s sales process, and its sales team’s relationship to its marketing team. When Dell focused solely on computer hardware, salespeople would talk to procurement managers at client companies and ask them how many PCs they need. Today, conversations are with chief sales officers or members of the board of directors, discussing long-term strategy and pain points that Dell can help solve.

The sales approach is based on four pillars—or themes—that marketing created for Dell’s sales messaging: transform, connect, inform, and protect.

“All of our technology solutions ladder up into one of those key pillars,” Dangerfield says.

Sales, however, needs to fully understand the intricacies of Dell’s technology portfolio, which is now more complicated since it’s not made up exclusively of hardware. For the past six months Dangerfield and her team have been training Dell’s sales force on the new product and services line.

“We started with a sales competency assessment,” Dangerfield says. “We have about 6,000 salespeople now who have been through this competency assessment. It rates them on technical skills and on consultant and selling skills. Once you take the assessment you’re given a personalized learning plan. These are the training courses you need to take or you need to get a coach or a mentor in these areas.”

Dangerfield adds, “We’re also taking our managers through the Dell sales management system…to build high-performing sales managers so they can more effectively coach their sales team.”

The role of marketing, throughout this process, is to generate leads for the sales team through branding and brand management. Indeed, Dell’s transforming business has forced greater collaboration between sales and marketing.

“As you move toward [selling] solutions and services, the need for collaboration between marketing and sales has become increasingly [important],” Dangerfield says. With hardware, sales and marketing can be separate—marketers make the product look sexy or compare it favorably against a competitor, and the sales staff sells the product. “You don’t have to talk to each other,” Dangerfield says. “Now we’re highly dependent on each other and you see much more collaborative meetings going on, the chief marketing officer and I work for the same business unit head.”

Sales handles the Dell business models, execution, and inventory management, while the marketing team does the pricing, demand planning, and forecasting. “We have to be very well connected with marketing to make sure that we know what their projections are going to be, and what steps we need to take with sales to make sure that the inventory is moving,” Dangerfield says. “There’s a lot more connectedness today than there was in the past.”

Social services

This connectedness extends into customer service, which had not always been Dell’s strong suit. Just as salespeople are being trained on Dell’s new product offerings and sales approach, its customer service staff also requires training on its more vigorous service approach.

Dell’s discipline in customer service is a reversal from just a few years ago when its poor reputation routinely contributed to the virality of angry blog posts and memes taking the company to task. Dell became an early pioneer in social media support in 2006 when it experienced a battery problem afflicting one of its products. It was impossible to ignore the online howls of customer discontent.

“We had to go out and participate in these forums that were just incredibly unpleasant,” recalls Allison Dew, Dell’s VP of marketing. “But because we were willing to do that and grow thicker skin, we got a lot of credit early on. And now our @DellCares [dedicated Twitter account for customer care] is one of our more effective and efficient means of customer support.” Dell learned the importance of being transparent to customers—and it achieves this transparency by participating in social conversations. “@DellCares was one of the first places where we turned someone from a detractor into a raver,” Dew says.

Today Dell’s social presence—even beyond Twitter—is staggering. The company’s aggregated social media sites on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Slideshare, Flickr, Pinterest, and more are so extensive that Dell has a webpage explaining the different accounts.

But Dell’s shift into business software and services complicates its strategies in social customer care. It’s not enough for a company to simply communicate with customers on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn; it must first and foremost solve genuine problems. And problem-solving becomes increasingly difficult with more complex product lines—something Dell is experiencing firsthand as it extends its reach into B2B software and services.

“It’s relatively easy to train somebody in social, but those people need to be able to solve a customer support problem,” Dew explains. “You get into some of these IT decision makers or the B2B side of the business and you have to be able to understand the technology.”

Training day

So how can Dell make sure its customer service representatives actually know what they’re talking about? By having its in-house experts moonlight as customer service representatives.

This idea isn’t new; many businesses have long used the practice of linking its in-house experts with customer-facing forums like contact centers. But the always-on nature of social channels gives this concept true viability.

Dell’s redesigned customer service strategy puts employees through social media training seminars and encourages them to engage with customers, on their own social pages, based on their role. Dell’s sales staff can engage on their own terms with customers with sales questions, whereas those knowledgeable about the technology can fulfill a tech support role. The idea is to turn Dell’s employee network into an army of marketing and service soldiers. Central to this initiative was the December 2010 introduction of the Dell Social Media Command Center.

“We saw it as a no-brainer,” says Richard Margetic, global director of social media at Dell. “We knew that our employees were in social already.” And if they’re already out there, might as well give them some solid training.

Dell’s social media certification program includes a minimum eight hours of training. Employees must complete a basic series of classes to get certified and can take additional classes to learn more specialties (to date, Dell globally has 9,000 social media–certified employees and almost 17,000 employees who have taken at least one class).

These classes give employees a basic understanding of FTC guidelines, and what it means to communicate as an employee of Dell through social media channels. For instance, FTC rules require employees of a company to disclose their relationship if they talk about that company’s products in social media.

“Even if you share links, you need to disclose who you are working for,” says Amy Tennisson, global lead for Social Media Activation & Training Programs at Dell. The company’s legal team helped create the hashtag #iwork4dell to provide that disclosure on social media posts.

Another feature unique to social media: It blurs the line between customer service and marketing since activities related to both occur in the channel. For instance, a prospect asking for advice on which product to choose presents both marketing and service opportunities. This duality makes training all the more important.

“Training is a smart move because companies need to make sure their employees are representing the brand well in social networks,” says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at The Enderle Group. “They have to make sure that employees aren’t releasing information that’s confidential, and make sure that they’re creating a professional dialog with a voice that’s not too young, not too old, not too snarky. That’s really what they’re teaching [employees]: How to use social media, but remember that they’re at work.”

Dell’s social media classes are tiered: The first is on basic policy; the second focuses on getting started, marketing strategies, and using social media to solve business objectives; the third is about incorporating the branded Dell voice into each employee’s own personal voice; and the fourth class focuses on specializing in certain platforms, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Upon graduation, employees are allowed a branded @Dell Twitter handle.

“It gives employees more legitimacy to have a Dell-branded account,” Tennisson says. “Customers know that they’re talking to someone who is knowledgeable about that product or solution.”

At the same time, Dell is wary of over-saturating social media with its presence. For instance, the company instructs its employees that 80% of social media messages they post shouldn’t be about Dell specifically, but about industry-related information that Dell’s audience might care about. If Dell is mentioned at all, Tennisson wants to make sure employees weave the reference into the conversation “in an authentic way.” Employees are also encouraged to use their own personal language, so that customers feel that they’re speaking to a well-informed person, and not just a company flack.

Listen mode

Margetic is emphatic that social media is a relationship-building vehicle for Dell, more than a sales channel. “When people are in social, they want to be social,” he explains. “When people want to shop, they let us know and we guide them into the commerce path.”

That said, Dell puts a tracking code on the links disseminated through social media so it can identify which sales or engagements can be attributed to which social media page. Through this, Dell can assess what pages and messages resonate most.

Additionally, the improving quality of natural language processing (NLP) technologies in recent years has made it possible for Dell to automatically track and synthesize unstructured social conversations.

“That information would have been impossible to process a few years ago,” Margetic says.

Much of Dell’s social media monitoring and tracking is focused on helping the company understand what types of topics customers are searching for and consequently what type of content Dell needs to provide. A conversation around data storage problems, for instance, might catalyze the production of content designed to help solve them.

There’s an additional soft benefit to Dell’s social media activity: It’s become a valuable market research tool. The company now spends less money on traditional research around products and competition, focusing instead on social monitoring.

This monitoring also provides insight on marketing campaign performance. Consider a recent video of a businessman using a Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook to create a graphic novel during his commute home. It was a one-off type of deal, a quick bit of creative to showcase a new computer. But once the video got 7 million hits on YouTube, Dell realized that the theme resonated and began expanding on it.

“The idea is to show how I use technology to help my personal passion,” Dew says. “The message is about personal attainment. We launched that campaign around the Super Bowl, but it resonated and it had this cumulative effect.”

All of Dell’s changes—its marketing pillars, sales strategy, and social customer service—focus on one thing: the customer. Because, ultimately, that’s what will help Dell achieve its goal of being the leading technology provider among its competitive set. “It’s just taking care of the customer,” Dangerfield says. “Take the time to get to know your customer, build the relationship, and build the trust. At the end of the day, people buy from people they like, know, and trust.”

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