Dell Closes Longtime Customer Message Boards

The closure of Dell's popular Customer Care message boards last week has some Dell users fuming that the company, once the darling of PC buyers for the quality of its service, is now whittling that quality down.

Dell says it shut down most of its nontechnical message boards on July 8 in order to streamline service to customers seeking after-purchase help. However, some users of Customer Care--a collection of about six message boards that have provided friendly moderated forums for canceling orders and checking on rebates, among other after-purchase concerns, since 1997--are crying foul.

"Home customers are now left with no domestic support alternative," complains Mark Kelm, an IT professional who says the forums helped him order hundreds of Dell desktops and servers over the years for his publishing house. "I'm saddened that new Dell customers will not be able to take advantage of the top-notch support that longtime Dell forum moderators provided to literally thousands of customers and potential customers each year."

However, on July 20, Dell informed PC World and its customers that it was reinstating its General, Non-Technical message board. In a message announcing the reinstatement, Dell said, "Thank you for your feedback regarding the recent closure of Dell's Customer Care boards. Because some of your non-technical questions do not require the sharing of personal information and can be addressed effectively in the forum, we have reinstated the General, Non-Technical board."

Other Venues for Help

Dell is now asking customers with nontechnical after-purchase questions to use other tools on the site, such as the order status page, a chat facility, e-mail, a toll-free phone line, or a set of FAQ pages based on old Customer Care posts. Customers also can look for answers on the now-defunct forums by conducting a Message Search.

And the July 20 posting from Dell reiterated that, saying "Previous boards under Customer Care including order cancellation and status, mail-in rebates, credit and returns, service call status and billing will remain down, as these issues can only be addressed by authorized Dell representatives with access to customer information. Posts regarding these issues will be redirected to more secure online tools such as Della??s Order Status Web site or Chat."

However, using chat, e-mail, or Dell's toll-free support can mean having to communicate with a support person in another country--not one of the longtime U.S.-based Dell employees (known as Chandler, Samantha, Raquel, Reggie, Ross, and Daniel, among others) that many Customer Care users have come to know and depend on over the years.

"Now, to cancel an order, you'll have to speak to someone out of the country instead of talking to Chandler. It may make me rethink my purchasing now, frankly," says Kelm.

Dell closed Customer Care because it is more appropriate for customers to solve their nontechnical after-purchase questions through "secure" site tools, says Jennifer J. Davis, a spokesperson in Dell's consumer products group. "What happened was that Customer Care was being used by customers to get questions answered like, 'What is the status of my rebate?' The moderators could answer those questions; however, the forum was not the place to do that because of the personal nature of the questions."

Davis says that despite the name, Customer Care was never meant to be heavily moderated by Dell employees but was envisioned as a peer-to-peer help board similar to the technical-support forums Dell continues to maintain for a wide range of its products, including notebooks, desktops, and electronics. Dell maintains 125 technical message boards in all, in stark contrast to most of its competitors, such as Lenovo, which maintains no user forums whatsoever.

Using chat or the 800 number does not necessarily mean consumers will be speaking with a foreign support person, says Davis. "[However, it's true] we're growing our [support] contacts around the world, including India," she says.

Bad News?

Some forum users PC World contacted say they believe Dell closed Customer Care because it feared bad word of mouth on its own site. Interspersed among more prosaic postings about rebates and order cancellations was the occasional tirade about poor Dell support. The forum closings happened to coincide with a support dustup involving Jeff Jarvis, a consultant and former columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, who complained about a "lemon" Dell laptop last month in his personal blog.

"I sincerely believe that the decision to close the forums was based in great part on the amount of negative customer comments regarding Dell's faltering customer support," says user Kelm. "In particular," he continues, "many customers have found it frustrating at best to deal with outsourced, foreign-based customer and technical support personnel, where language and cultural differences complicate the experience."

Davis says that Dell's decision had nothing to do with support complaints and that Dell takes customer problems seriously. "One negative experience with Dell is one too many for us," says Davis. "We are the world's number one PC company. Every customer issue is important to us. We work very hard to resolve [problems like Jarvis's]. When we became aware of his problem, we submitted it to our advanced support care team."

Jarvis did not use the Customer Care message boards, but told PC World he finally received a promise of a refund on the latest of his four Dell PCs bought over the past five years. The refund offer came only after Jarvis sent a high-level Dell marketing executive a link to the blog where Jarvis complained about his unhappiness with his new laptop.

Good Business Decision

Brooks Gray, an analyst at Technology Business Research, says Dell's forum closure makes sense. "They're shipping 8 million PCs per quarter, and I would assume only a fraction of users use this message board. From what I know they've never marketed this forum as a preferred way of customer support. It's not an integral part of their support, so it won't matter to 99 percent of their customers."

Dave Black, a computer programmer who used Dell's Customer Care forums for the last four years, says he doesn't blame Dell for wanting to scale back moderators' involvement on their message boards.

"I think the [Customer Care] boards quickly degraded from what Dell had intended their use [to be]," Black says. "Dell wanted a board that was primarily user-to-user; that is, users helping each other out. It quickly turned into people expecting the moderators to help them out in every situation."

However, Black echoes other users' disappointment, saying he thought it was a bad idea to close down the forums altogether. "Many of the most helpful users of the board were able to help others just based on experience alone, and Dell is going to lose big on that front. I also believe, in the long run, Dell may lose a few customers from it.... I would also have appreciated a solid reason from Dell for the closing of the boards, but that was never given."

Black says he now finds Dell's chat to be the quickest, most efficient method of getting help with after-purchase questions. "E-mail is great, it just takes a long time. My average wait on the phone has been around 45 minutes, depending on time of day."

Black is also finding the Customer Care FAQ helpful, "but it won't replace someone actively helping you along, or giving you advice, or sharing their situation with you."

The Customer Care forums were "an interesting place to exist," says user Kelm. "It was fun helping other people."

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