Computer maker loses quality cushion between H-P, other rivals
Elizabeth Corcoran, Forbes, MSNBC, Apr. 28
Dell moved product support for business accounts from India back to the U.S. It seems some customers were not happy with the prior arrangement.
Dell can assemble and ship a new computer for a customer in 24 hours. But it took six months for the company to get Karen Anderson’s name right. Anderson, who lives in Calistoga, Calif., endured dozens of phone calls before Dell issued her a promised $200 rebate for a computer she ordered last October. Dell also gave her the wrong Internet service provider. And her printer broke. “I just want to scream when I see Dell’s TV commercials,” Anderson fumes.
Dell is number one in the PC industry, but recently has been earning more than its share of complaints. Last year it shipped 5.4 million personal computers in the U.S., ahead of rival H-P, which shipped 5.2 million, according to IDC. Dell’s high marks for quality notwithstanding, it has unhappy campers.
Last year the central Texas Better Business Bureau logged 3,726 complaints against Dell from consumers throughout the U.S. That’s up threefold from 2001, a period in which Dell’s sales volume grew two and a half times. H-P earned only 1,362 complaints nationwide for that entire three-year period, according to the Better Business Bureau of the Silicon Valley. Last year the Texas attorney general’s office logged 504 complaints against Dell and Dell Financial, more than double the pace of 2002. Complaints about the Round Rock, Texas firm for the first four months of this year are running even with last year’s.
Business customers have been having issues with Dell, too. Technology Business Research, a consulting firm in Hampton, N.H. that has been tracking corporate customer satisfaction with PC vendors since 1997, ranked Dell far ahead of its competitors for years. Those marks began sliding a year ago. TBR’s most recent data on satisfaction with desktop computers show Dell below unbranded “white box” computers and tied with competitors HP, Gateway and IBM.
What happened? Cost control. Dell was among the earliest computer companies to route customer service and technical support calls to India. Dell set up its first center in Bangalore in 2001 and opened a second site in Hyderabad last year. Language and cultural rifts between disgruntled U.S. customers and Dell’s bright but unseasoned Indian support staff fueled the flames. U.S. customers say they got frustrated when Dell employees fielding calls seemed unwilling to depart from a script. TBR began hearing complaints about Dell’s telephone support from business customers in early 2003. In November Dell took the rare step of rerouting its large-and medium-business support work out of India and back to Austin. Support for small-business and consumer accounts remains in India.
M.D. Ramaswami, who helped establish Dell’s Bangalore center, is proud of Dell’s early hires. “We put them through eight weeks of training — four weeks around accent and culture and another four weeks around Dell products,” says Ramaswami, who now runs his own consultancy in Bangalore. “The biggest challenge was working on the accent and culture. That challenge still remains — for all companies across the board.”
After Lisa Ross in Colt, Ark. had problems with a $5,000 PC she bought from Dell in 2002, she spent two weeks exchanging e-mails with customer support, trying to learn the manufacturer and part numbers of components to ensure there would be no fatal compatibility errors. She still doesn’t have all the answers. “I worked in technical support for Gateway for 14 months,” she said. “I feel sorry for Dell technicians if they don’t have that information. They’re on the front lines.”
Analysts point out that Dell’s service isn’t bad — just no longer dramatically ahead of its competitors’. The March issue of Consumer Reports gave Dell a 62 (out of a possible 100) for its desktop PC support — down from its December 2001 grade of 74 but still ahead of H-P and its Compaq brand, which last year received scores of 54 and 51, respectively. For consumers, Dell’s desktop service and reliability scored an “A+” last July from PC Magazine, even as the magazine pointed out that “many readers are extremely unhappy with Dell [service] practices.”
Concedes Bobbi Dangerfield, director of Dell’s U.S. consumer customer experience, “Last year we experienced some challenges in customer support.”
Carrie Hurt, president of the central Texas Better Business Bureau, says that Dell meets with her staff quarterly and works diligently to resolve complaints.
Despite its partial pullback to the U.S., Dell remains committed to its overseas operations and plans to open more call centers around the world. A year ago Dell also kicked off a “Voice of the Customer” effort aimed at improving product quality, fixing problems faster, making it easier to reach Dell and simply being nice.
This March Dell simplified the automated menu of options customers hear when they dial in for support. To cut wait times on the phone, Dangerfield says that Dell added more people to its call centers. Beginning last November Dell also prodded its customer support staff to team up with technicians to answer technology questions, thereby cutting by two-thirds the number of times a caller is transferred. Six months ago Dell began to roll out a new database of tools for resolving technology problems and later this year will put those tools on the Web.
Any improvements would be welcome news for Daniel Summars, a Lewisville, Texas software engineer who says that over 24 months he had 21 part failures or replacements in the same Dell notebook model; Dell replaced it twice. “I submitted it to the Guinness World Records,” he says.
© 2004 Forbes.com