Now Dell, working to shrug off that image and right recent business declines, might be on to a different kind of web-based watershed. In mid-February, it launched IdeaStorm, a place for customers to submit suggestions about its products that's become the repository for more than 5,500 recommendations and 24,000 comments. The community has already inspired 21 initiatives, much to the delight of observers such as Mr. Jarvis. Even he has softened a bit toward Dell.
Behold the present and future of customer service, a business function best understood as a one of those survival games where someone is dropped off in the middle of a forest sans map or compass and told to find his way home. As practiced by many companies, it now puts the average consumer through a dark wood of computerized directories, callbacks that never come and barely comprehensible customer reps with no real authority or information.
That game is nearing an end due to a simple fact of the digital era: The back-and-forth between companies and consumers, once contained in frustrated phone calls and letter-writing, is now being played out in public. The growth of consumer-generated media -- not just YouTube videos but the millions and millions of bits of product feedback floating in the web ether -- means that the little-used suggestion box nailed to the boss' door (long a symbol of corporate inertia) has been digitized and turned inside-out for the world to see.
"The customer-service function is extending into realm of social media, said Max Kalehoff, VP-marketing at Nielsen Buzzmetrics. "It's customer service becoming the new-media department, getting as close to the core of those experiences that prompt positive or negative media for brands."
More and more companies are seeing the benefits of what Sam Decker, a former Dell executive and VP-marketing and products at Bazaarvoice, calls "social commerce." For instance, recently rebranded Delta, part of an industry with notoriously low customer satisfaction, has created a website, Change.Delta.com, that hosts suggestions from consumers -- "Bigger blankets, please" -- as well as polls about features and offerings.
Companies in consumer tech, including Dell, HP and Toshiba and nine other industries have tapped Mr. Decker's firm to manage product reviews on their e-commerce sites. Mr. Decker said clients are often initially looking to use reviews to drive sales conversions, but "there's an evolution."
"It's like breathing customer oxygen into your company," he said. "It's operationalizing the customer voice. Sales and customer-service training can be based on what customers are saying. Product and brand managers, copywriters, online and e-mail marketers can all use it. The challenge is: How far can you take it to change your marketing strategy?"
'Walking media channels'
That, of course, means the strict boundaries between consumer affairs, PR, marketing and product development become about as useful as a Commodore 64. "The interplay [between these functions] just gets tighter and tighter as more and more people and companies realize that they themselves are walking media channels, able to freely produce and disseminate content on a whim," said Gur Tsabar, VP-new media strategies at PR firm Ketchum.
Realizing this, Dell made sure its social-media initiatives cut across disciplines and business units. Michael Dell, whose inspiration for IdeaStorm came from a similar site at Salesforce.com's, and other senior managers get the top ideas sent to them. IT, corporate communications, e-commerce and corporate marketing group are just some of the functions involved in it.
"You can't do digital media from one group with one point of view on the world," said Bob Pearson, VP-corporate group communications at Dell. "It just doesn't work. In fact, that's too marketing-oriented. There's a big difference between pushing your story out vs. becoming relevant in customers' conversations."
Mr. Pearson said that the community aspect of IdeaStorm, which allows users to vote ideas up or down and post comments, gives the company depth of insight into its customers' priorities and allows it to listen for a long period of time. "With the average focus group, you go in for an hour or two, give them some sandwiches and leave. We may be listening to conversation going on over two months. It's a totally different game."
Right after IdeaStorm's launch, the ever-vocal Linux community got active, demanding the open-source operating system be pre-installed on Dell computers. After conducting a detailed survey answered by more than 100,000 people, Dell selected notebooks and desktops equipped with the Linux-based Ubuntu. Last week, Dell kicked off an effort to create the most eco-friendly PC, and guess where it's soliciting ideas for how to go about it?
IdeaStorm is part of an effort "to make sure the customer is walking the hallways at Dell," in Mr. Pearson's words. It also includes blogging, through its Direct2Dell site, getting involved in online conversations about the company, and dealing with the complaints of angry customers who make that dissatisfaction clear on blogs, chat rooms, bulletin boards and the like.
Asked what impact this had on the Dell's image, Mr. Pearson has a radically transparent response: "That's a question for the community."
An unscientific survey of the blogosphere shows this work has made some difference, even if Dell, recently unseated as the No.1 PC-manufacturer by Hewlett-Packard, still has its work cut out for it. One party it's moved the needle with is Mr. Jarvis, who in April wrote a cautiously-optimistic 1,800-word Buzzmachine post based on a recent visit to Dell's campus.
"This isn't just crowdsourcing," he wrote. "This is crowdmanaging. Companies still fear this. But, hell, if even Dell can lean back and let its customers begin to take charge, anyone can."