The End of Dell Hell?

| About: Dell Inc. (DELL)
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My column reporting on my visit to Dell headquarters and my interview with Michael Dell just went up on Business Week. It’ll be in this week’s issue. Hell, it’s even the lead online.

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After giving Dell hell two years ago, I may well be accused of throwing them a wet kiss now. It’s a positive piece. But it’s hard not to praise them when they ended up doing everything I was pushing in my open letter to Michael Dell. I’m not saying that I caused that, just that we ended up agreeing and they ended up seeing the value in listening to and ceding control to customers. They reached out to bloggers; they blogged; they found ways to listen to and follow the advice of their customers. They joined the conversation. That’s all we asked.

The column — and Dell’s executives — acknowledge the company’s ongoing problems — the complaints I still hear in comments and emails to this day. But still, I come away concluding that it’s a big deal that a company that was vilified as the worst at blogs, social media, and customer relations in the broad sense is now, one could argue, the best at this. The company’s executives wouldn’t acknowledge this, but I wonder whether falling so far is just what set them up to be so bold in the blogosphere.

In my first draft of the piece, I wondered whether Dell had even become a Cluetrain company. I had to abbreviate that to being “bloggish” because it just took up too much space to explain the Cluetrain. But as you read the column, note Dell’s compliance with the manifesto’s first three theses:

1. Markets are conversations.
2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.

I don’t know whether this is the end of my saga of Dell Hell: the story come full circle. As I say in the column, I thought that end came three months after this began, when I returned my Dell. But it turns out that was the start of the real story.

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I found another story here, a media story, which I come to at the end of the column:

Dell and its customers are collaborating on new forms of content and marketing, but note that they are doing this without the help of media and marketing companies.

Dell realized that engaging in the conversation wasn’t just a way to stop blogging customers like me from harming the brand. We, the customers, bring them great value besides our money: We alert them to problem. We will tell them what products we want. We share our knowledge about their products. We help fellow customers solve problems. We will sell their products. But this happens only if you have a decent product and service and only if you listen to us.

Once that relationship is established, it replaces the less-efficient, the shallower relationship bought through media. Bob Garfield wrote about this in his second chaos scenario piece: Marketers’ overall spending on advertising and media may actually decrease. So I believe this is a cautionary tale for the media industry.

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Here’s video of my interview with Michael Dell. I’ll warn you: It’s not exactly scintillating. Dell is cautious — not surprising because he’s a CEO and also not surprising, I assume, because he was talking to me. I’ll say that I didn’t do a great job in the interview; I couldn’t figure out how to engage him on blogs.


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Something else that didn’t make the story — because it’s of more interest to us bloggers than to a Business Week audience, I decided — was the question of Michael Dell’s relationship with blogs. Does he read them? Every one of his executives insist that he not only reads them but that he will send them links to posts at all hours of the day and night. Their insistence was so consistent that I wondered whether this wasn’t on the Jarvis interview briefing sheet I saw on one employee’s Dell screen.

So will Dell blog? Not likely. He has been known to submit a comment in response to an idea on IdeaStorm, where customers tell him what to do. But blog? The execs fairly shuddered at the idea. I’m not sure why. I guess Dell just isn’t a bloggy kind of guy.

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I spent a very full day at Dell’s headquarters near Austin and also got a tour of their factory. I got lots of fascinating business intelligence and crammed as much of that into the column as I possibly could. I’ll probably blog more of it later. The execs I met at the company — heads of customer service, marketing, ecommerce, PR, and blogging outreach — were gracious and generous sharing their experiences and views with me. In other words: They didn’t seem to hold a grudge.

: LATER: This report about me collaborating on a Dell book is utterly untrue. I have no idea where it came from and have asked that it be corrected. I find it particularly damaging that this should be ‘reported’ on the eve of my column’s publication. I may well write about Dell in a book but not in collaboration with Dell.