Dear Dell: Customer service should be free

Charging consumers for access to American customer service agents - as soon as the computer is out of the box? This is clearly the wrong move at the wrong time.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

I never thought I'd be writing this, but Dell (yes, Dell), is charging customers a monthly fee to have access to its United States-based customer service representatives.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the PC maker is charging customers with a Dell account $12.95 per month to have access to an American agent or $99 per year for customers who buy a new PC from the company.

Those who don't pay the sum will be contacting center agents in India or the Philippines. But before you start your bellyaching, Dell is sweetening the pot: wait times are guaranteed to be 2 or fewer minutes!

Great. Thanks, Dell.

A Dell representative told the Post that the company has "heard from customers that it's hard to understand a particular accent and that they couldn't understand the instructions they were getting." Because of that, the company has instituted the policy to "illustrate Dell's commitment to customer choice."

This mouthpiece (and Dell, for that matter) is kidding, right? The company is charging us for access to American customer support agents on products we purchased from it that went wrong? What a joke.

When did customer service become the customer's nightmare? I understand that certain callers had trouble understanding the agents from international call centers, but why is it their fault? Shouldn't Dell, the company that has employed those call centers, be held accountable? Call me crazy, but I don't see what the customer is doing wrong here, and yet it's the customer that needs to pay the price. That's not right.

I absolutely understand the underlying business logic of reducing expenses and charging a premium on better services, but customer service? I don't understand that move. Sure, it's a better alternative to what's already being offered, but customer support should always be a free service (for a reasonable number of years) that helps customers and allows companies to address customer complaints or problems.

Then again, maybe Dell is emulating Apple's customer service strategy. Apple offers free customer support for 90 days and then offers them the opportunity to pay for three years of customer support for a set fee depending on the product they want to support.

The strategy has worked well for Apple so far--its customer service arm is consistently rated at the top of its class--but will it work for Dell? Apple isn't charging for "American" agents; it's charging for support. Period. Dell can try to make the case that it's charging for support too, but I disagree: I can already get help from Dell if I want to talk to someone in India. But if I want a "better" experience, I'll need to pay. The tiered-pricing strategy is lost on me.

One of the core components in any well-run organization is a solid customer support and service arm. It not only builds a better relationship between the company and its customers, but it typically leads to higher revenue, if it's done right. In other words, it's an investment.

But to charge customers for access to American customer service agents strikes me as the wrong move at the wrong time. I don't have any problem with companies charging customers after a few years of owning a product, but to charge them as soon as the computer gets out of the box for a service they should already have for free is ludicrous.

And from a PR standpoint, how can Dell justify doing this? If its executives thought logically about this, it would have built the cost of the American call center into the price of its machines and we would have never known the difference. Or, it could have followed Apple's model and created an all-around better experience for one set fee instead of employing a tiered approach that will only confuse and annoy customers.

A little common sense goes a long way in business. Unfortunately, I think that Dell abandoned it when it decided to charge customers for access to American call center agents.

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