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Dell falls off the Cluetrain

CNET's Charles Cooper says the company is in danger of ignoring a core truth about the Internet age.

I first met Michael Dell in 1989 and, like most reporters, walked away from the encounter enormously impressed. Here was a tech exec who actually cared about the customer experience.

That normally wouldn't rate as revelation, but keep in mind the PC landscape looked very different back then. Before Dell made his mark, the mail-order computer business was populated by all sorts of scalawags. All you needed was a splashy magazine advertisement with a 1-800 phone number, and you were off to the races.

Unfortunately, truth in advertising was a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance. As mail-order purchasing caught on with more people, the buying public discovered an unpleasant truth: Customer service was a veritable crapshoot. While geeks could fend for themselves if their systems wigged out, laymen were often out of luck.

Isn't the very purpose of a message board supposed to be the free exchange of information?

By the early 1990s, the fly-by-night operators had been crushed in an inevitable shakeout that saw Dell vault to the top of the mail-order PC business. Other companies had lower prices, but Dell was simply more dependable. People learned to trust the brand, and that paid off in the coin of customer loyalty. Dell successfully parlayed that "put the customer first" strategy over the course of the next decade and ultimately become the world's No. 1 PC maker.

Considering its customer-friendly track record, Dell's recent decision to shut down its Customer Care message boards is getting pilloried as an act of monumental stupidity, if not monumental arrogance. The company says the closure is necessary because authorized Dell representatives--and not customers--need to handle the oh-so-complicated issues that were being handled on the message board.

Am I missing something here?

First, that cock-and-bull explanation is something I'd expect to hear out of the mouth of White House spokesman Scott McClellan. The folks at Dell are too smart to believe that sort of pabulum.

Isn't the very purpose of a message board supposed to be the free exchange of information? Technical boards are a great place to get fast answers--especially when a company staffer's not immediately available. Dell chose to shut down the forum rather than engage with its customers. I suppose you can shrug it off as an isolated example of bad judgment.

Sometimes, companies get a clue, and sometimes, they remain clueless.

The closure got extra attention because it occurred around the same time that Jeff Jarvis published his much-cited Dell Hell commentary about Dell's lousy tech support. The fact that it was Jarvis, a high-profile journalist-turned-blogger, doing the kvetching doubtlessly drew more attention to the issue than if it had been Joe Schmo.

Viewed against the backdrop of intermittent complaints about Dell service, the decision sends the wrong signal.

Talking about how the Internet is altering the relationship between companies and their customers, Jarvis and others have correctly seized upon the idea of the ongoing conversation that should be taking place. (The best reference point is the Cluetrain Manifesto).

Sometimes, companies get a clue, and sometimes, they remain clueless. We're still quite early into this Internet/blog revolution, and it's not yet clear how it will all end up. Still, it's safe to predict that any institution (including a news organization) that ignores the conversation does so at its own peril.