Sunday, October 22, 2006

Customer Service, Please! I'd like more responsibility.

I'm dealing with an incident I had with a laptop battery (More on this in a future post; we'll see how it all turns out.), and have been doing some personal research on this most recent laptop battery recall and the incidents that led up to it. I must say, I applaud Dell in how it has handled this situation and led the industry.

There's a difference between Customer Service and true customer care, and Dell seems to have set the bar on the customer care and corporate responsibility with their most recent laptop battery recall.

I'm a marketer and not an expert in customer service (though I've worked with and for customer service operations related to marketing issues), but it seems to me that Customer Service is usually concerned with responsiveness, professional politeness, and ability to resolve a customer issue -- within a process that is accountable and measured (for process improvement). Customer Service issues can run the gamut: from a consumer being unable to use a product/service as they intended (which could be the consumer's fault, a misunderstanding, etc.) to technical issues (from simple to complex) to a complete, total letdown (bordering on a law suit) on the part of the company providing the product or service. In these situations, customer service personnel earn their salaries by remaining cool-headed, communicating often and well, and sticking to their process for issue resolution. (At least this is my view of customer service. I'm open to better definition and explanation.)

Every once in a while (hopefully), a Customer Service issue crosses a line and becomes an indicator of a potential danger. This is what happened with laptop batteries this past summer. Among all the calls about bad disk drives, lost data, irate customers looking to sue the company because they lost a big customer or missed their tax deadline because of a computer malfunction, etc. etc., a handful of calls were about laptop batteries overheating. These calls could be handled in quiet ways to satisfy the individual customer's situation, but an overarching question arises: is this a potential threat to consumer safety, and if so, what should the company do about it?

Some of us may recall (or you may have read about) one of the best examples of handling a consumer safety issue: The Tylenol poisoning crisis in 1982. Many believe Johnson & Johnson's handling of this incident may have saved the company. Today, Tylenol is still a leading, trusted brand. (Read an excellent study on the PR handling of this crisis by Tamara Kaplan of Penn State.

On the other end of the spectrum is the cigarette industry. Most of us are familiar with the cover-up used by the cigarette industry when they had tons of reports (scientific and anecdotal) of how cigarette smoking caused cancer. This is a stellar example of how a company fooled its consumers for generations, rather than stepping forward in the interest of public safety. The cost to these companies and the whole industry is not just in the dollar amount of the massive class action suits, but in the public mindset as well. Today, that industry is running away from itself in shame: How many employees would proudly state they work for the cigarette industry?

With this most recent laptop battery recall (and there have been others for years!), I think Dell has set the bar for other PC makers. The article in the NY Times on August 14th states the company decided to recall 4.1 million batteries after SIX incident reports. That's actually very few compared to other laptop battery recalls. Granted, some of those six incident reports were wild -- especially the one where the laptop battery fire set off ammunition which led to a pick-up truck exploding into flames.

The early responses to Dell's massive recall by other laptop makers were statements that their products are safe. Since then, Dell has been joined by SONY, Apple, IBM/Lenovo, Toshiba, Sharp, Hitachi and some others. This is industry leadership (simply defined as doing something in your industry and others following), and ultimately, Dell has seized the high ground of customer care and corporate responsibility.

One parting thought: In the NY Times article announcing the Dell recall, there was some discussion and quote from a former employee alleging that Dell has hundreds of examples of laptop battery burn-up and malfunction in their possession, recovered from customers by stalwart customer service personnel. If that's true, shameful! This leads me to two unanswered questions here:
1) What's the responsibility and proper course of action for the individual Customer Service representative?
2) What's the responsibility and proper course of action for the individual consumer?

1 comment:

JohnP@Dell said...

Sean -- As a Dell employee, it was heartening to read your assessment of how the company handled the recall of 4.1 million laptop batteries. We knew we'd take a lot of heat for being the first PC maker to recall, but we did pinpoint the vendor's manufacturing problems first (BTW, a very daunting process given all the variables involved) and as a company we do place our customers' safety first.

Regarding your parting thought, I can assure you that there is no validity to early reports that we had "hundreds of examples" of burned up notebooks.

Now that the facts have been sorted out and it is not a Dell-specific problem, we're finding a silver lining in people like you who can appreciate what it is to do the right thing.