By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
From a business standpoint, I have long been impressed by Michael Dell who started assembling PCs in his college dorm room and parlayed his talent into the multi-billion dollar Dell Computer. Dell is legendary for their low-cost computers, resulting from efficient and innovative manufacturing processes. Plus, the idea of custom ordering your exact computer over the Internet and receiving it a few days later is both compelling and inviting. Yet none of this admiration and knowledge prompted me to actually buy a Dell computer. At least not until the recent advertising campaign with the tagline, “Dude, you’re getting a Dell.”
Encouraged by the “Dell Dude,” as he was affectionately called by his admirers, I soon found myself at the Dell website ordering my first Dell computer. Although it took some patience to tweak my new system into the proper balance of features and price, I soon placed my order and the computer arrived shortly thereafter. Since then I have ordered two more Dell computers and am sold on both the value of the product and the convenience of ordering it online.
The Dell Dude promotion motivated many others to act as well. The promotion was credited with a surge in Dell computer sales and a recapturing of the top stop as industry leader. Suddenly, the Dell Dude was everywhere and there was even talk of a Dell Dude clothing line. It seems, however, that not everyone was as enthralled with the Dell Dude as I was. In fact, some found him to be irritating and annoying. Eventually he was retired in favor of the more low key but less captivating “Interns” ad campaign. Although I miss the Dell Dude and his endearing and enthusiastic hawking of Dell computers, I plan to remain a Dell customer.
When Dell recently announced their intent to do for printers what they had accomplished with computers, I was a bit skeptical. Would their “reach exceed their grasp?” Could they really manufacture a quality printer at a low price and take market share from the well-established and entrenched printer vendors?
I was determined to take a wait and see approach and resolutely decided to continue to buy from my favorite printer vendor. After all, I had been buying their printers exclusively for 15 years, racking up several dozen purchases for my company, others, and myself. Throughout that time, my experience was overwhelmingly positive. Repairs had been minimal and reliability had been high.
A few years ago, one of the oldest printers, still chugging away after 12 years, had a paper jam. After clearing the jam, however, paper would no longer feed into the unit. I discovered that a small broken roller to be the source of the problem. I tore the machine apart and set out to find a replacement part. The local dealers were no help, but the Internet was. In about a half an hour, I had drilled down into my printer vendor’s website and found a detailed parts diagram for my model. From there I determined the part number and called to order it. The order department agent informed me that the part was only 26 cents, but embarrassingly added that shipping would be $12. “That’s fine,” I replied. “Please send it.” (I was actually expecting to pay more.)
The part arrived a few days later. I installed it and reassembled the unit. It even worked when I was done!
Last month, one of my newer printers broke. It was barely a year old. I tore it apart, too, and found that a small plastic arm had broken. Slightly irritated that it was not constructed better, I confidently returned to the website. Again, I drilled down to the section with the parts diagram, but one was “not available” for my model. Try as I might, I could not locate any part numbers for that printer except for a few housing components and the ink cartridges. Gamely, I called the order department and explained my dilemma. Confidently, the agent replied, “That’s not a problem; I’ll look it up for you.” Relieved, I described the part to him.
After several minutes, the agent reluctantly informed me that the part was not available for purchase. However, I could send in the unit for repair. “That could cost more than to buy a new printer,” I whined. The agent acknowledged that could be the case, but thought it was not likely. As I thanked him for this time, albeit not as nicely as I should have, I realized that this was just the push I needed to switch printer vendors. “Dude,” I said to myself, “You’re getting a Dell.”
I was shocked at my fickleness. I consider myself to be a loyal to a company that serves me well, looking for a long-term relationship. (Astute readers may recall an earlier column, “Customer Since 1978”, where I admitted using the same brand of gas for over 20 years.) Yet here I was, ready to abandon ship at the first little trouble.
There are three insights that I gained from this experience. The first is that if a loyal, long-term, satisfied customer is willing to change brands at the first disappointment, so too, will a long-term, satisfied call center client be willing to change providers when a single phone call goes awry. With call forwarding commonplace and long distance inexpensive, it is a simple matter for a client to switch call centers. Even if they happen to be under contract, all that is accomplished is that you have a few more months of their business, while they stew and fret about that one errant call and look for other things to complain about.
The second lesson is to not lose sight of the big picture. Whether the printer vendor simply overlooked the parts diagram or if it was a strategic decision, I do not know. They may have been hoping that I would merely buy a new printer. What they overlooked is the fact that a printer’s lifetime cost of ink cartridges far exceeds the one-time cost of the printer and if they push me to another vendor, they have lost out on both. So make sure that your call center does not push clients away with policies that are “penny wise and dollar foolish,” such as charging for things that cost you nothing or piling on numerous trivial and questionable charges (such as what most phone companies do).
The third item is consistency. The printer vendor was inconsistent with their website, hence affecting my view of their company. The first time I searched for a part, I found it and my expectations were exceeded. The second time I searched for a part, the results did not match my previous experience and my heightened expectations were not met. I judged the company unfavorably as a result. I often tell my call center clients, that it is better to provide consistently poor service than inconsistent service. After all, if you provide consistently poor service, your clients know exactly what to expect and you meet their expectations every time. However, if you provide inconsistent service, the poor call one day will be judged critically compared to the excellent call the day before and your standing with your client will suffer. Inconsistent service will drive them away quicker than consistently poor service. Indeed, had I not found the first part, I never would have looked for the second one, completely avoiding the disappointing episode.
So don’t give your clients even one reason to leave you, avoid self-defeating actions, and above all, be consistent. You clients will thank you.
(For the record, I replaced the broken plastic arm with a wood screw and the printer works fine.)
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.
[From Connection Magazine – November 2003]