Teaching a Brontosaurus to run; My review of #DellCAP

by Mack Collier

Last Monday, as the driver approached Round Rock and Dell’s HQs, he informed me that “I’ll be taking you to Building #1.  That’s where Michael Dell is!”  Unfortunately, Michael was out of the country last week, so I didn’t get a chance to meet him.

However, when we arrived at ‘Dell’s campus’, the driver explained that there were 37 buildings.  That when it hit me; whatever good works Dell is hoping to accomplish via social media will have to permeate and take hold in all 37 buildings.  And that’s just in the world HQs, Dell has offices in several other cities around the world.  That just drove home the enormity of a company as large as Dell trying to introduce a ‘new’ way of communicating with customers, and via a new set of channels.

Yet Dell has been using social media to communicate with its customers for at least 4 years now.  That effort took a very brave step forward last week, when Dell hosted its first CAP Days.  CAP stands for Customer Advisory Panel, and you can get more background on the event here, which was spread out over 2 days, involving Dell interacting directly with 30 of its most passionate customers.  I was hired by Dell to help them plan the event, and moderate it both days.  I wanted to share some of what I learned from being involved in the project.

Prior to the event, Dell sent out surveys to all 30 participants to try to get a better feel for what issues were most important to them.  These results would then play a large role in determining the structure of the topics to be covered for both days.  On the first day, Dell met with 15 customers that had had a negative experience with Dell’s products or service (or both), and had used social media to voice their displeasure.  Since customer service had been a problem area for several of the participants, it dominated discussion during the day.  At first, many of the participants were able to share their negative experiences, or ‘vent’ about what had happened to them.  Then later in the day, the discussion turned toward companies that provided exceptional customer service, and ideas were given for how Dell could improve their own efforts.

I noticed two things that surprised me a bit, from both the customers, and Dell employees, during the first day of CAP.

Several times I heard the customers explain that even though they had been involved in a negative experience with Dell, that they wanted to see Dell succeed, and they were happy to be involved with #DellCAP.  One participant even asked me at one point ‘So did Dell think we were going to be the antagonists?’  I’m not sure Dell knew what to expect, but I think they were thrilled with the honest and helpful information they got from the participants.

And on the Dell side, I was surprised a bit that there was very little ‘PR speak’ (almost none, actually), and that the employees present at each session, were honestly listening and processing what the customers were telling them.  I lost count how many times I heard a Dell employee say “Ok so based on what you’ve told us so far, what if we tried to do this? Would that work for you?”  It showed the customers that Dell was listening, and taking their problems seriously.

The second day featured 15 or so Dell evangelists, and 3 hours of the most enjoyable conversations I have ever had in the last 5 years of being involved in social media.  Picture this: I got to lead a discussion on branding, marketing, customer evangelism, and social media with Dell’s Chief Marketing Officer Erin Nelson, Michelle Brigman; Senior Manager of Customer Experience for Dell, social media geniuses like Liz Strauss, Susan Beebe and Connie Bensen, and a dozen or so Dell evangelists.  It was an amazing experience, and possibly the highlight of the week for me.

Also, the morning sessions perfectly illustrated the value that such an event can hold for companies.  A portion of the morning session on Day Two focused on customer service (This had been a VERY hot topic during Day One’s chats as well).  The general sentiment being expressed by the #dellCAP participants was that they loved Dell’s products, but the customer service, especially when it was outsourced to another country, was letting them down.  Dell’s participants explained that the company purposely outsourced a good deal of customer support overseas for consumer products, in order to keep the price of the laptops and desktops lower.  Dell seemed to be telling the participants that this was a conscious choice because they believed that most customers weren’t willing to pay higher prices just to get better service.

But the participants mostly agreed that they WOULD be willing to pay more for a desktop or laptop, if they knew they would receive exceptional customer service if they had a problem with it.  This seemed to be a marketing disconnect for Dell, and the feedback from #DellCAP participants was no doubt invaluable to the company.

And in the end, I think the true value for Dell came from them getting a chance to interact directly with their customers.  Honestly, I was a bit worried that Dell might be using this as a one-off event to simply ‘build some buzz’ online.  But I noticed as soon as the sessions started on the first day that Dell’s participants were listening, and then probing the #DellCAP participants with follow-up questions, based on the feedback they were getting from them.  And of course, when Dell’s CMO Erin Nelson kicked off the second day, that removed any doubts as to whether or not the C-Suite was taking this initiative seriously.

I’ve always said that perhaps the smartest thing a big company can do is connect directly with its most passionate online customers, and Dell did exactly that with #DellCAP.  I was beyond excited to be a part of it, and cannot wait to see what the next steps are.

BTW, this event has generated a ton of feedback on blogs, etc.  I wanted to close by listing some of these posts and videos, so you can see for yourself what everyone thought.  And if you were at #DellCAP, what did you think?  What did you like, what did you dislike?  What would you like to see Dell do moving forward?

Dave’s review of #DellCAP Day One for Fast Company

Allen’s review of #DellCAP Day One

Lauren’s video review of #DellCAP Day One

Vance Morton’s review of #DellCAP on Direct2Dell

Sarah’s #DellCAP Day Two review

Liz Strauss’ #DellCAP Day Two review

Susan’s #DellCAP Day Two review

Dell’s Flickr sets of #DellCap Day One, and Day Two

BTW, each #DellCAP session was ‘visually recorded’ by the fantabulous Sunni Brown.  Dell will be sending us digital copies of the work she created during #DellCAP, but this shot from Susan gives you an idea of her work

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