Dell Computer Corp. is often praised as a company that fully understands the customer-service dimension of e-commerce. Certainly, the Austin-based firm's success at Web-based selling offers ample supporting evidence. By the end of 1999 Dell was chalking up $40 million a day in online sales -- accounting for 43% of the company's total revenue. Today its Internet sales alone would rank it among the 125 largest companies in the U.S. But when Dell established its Web site seven years ago, it wasn't preoccupied with creating an e-commerce bonanza. It was simply looking for an effective way to provide technical support to existing customers. "Initially, Dell.com had no commerce capability," recalls Manish Mehta, director of online support. "It wasn't until three or four years ago that we began to change the face of Dell.com from being a technical-support Web site to one with commerce capability." From its origins as a reference site for technical information, the award-winning site has evolved into a multifaceted source of assistance to customers. One of Dell's objectives, Mehta explains, is to improve its cost efficiency in interacting with customers. "The other half of the equation is the e-loyalty that is generated, both for individual consumers as well as corporate help-desk customers. If a large customer with 10,000 Dell systems has this online support capability, it makes it harder for them to decouple from that and buy from someone else. Loyalty increases repeat sales." Dell has followed a four-pronged approach to building online customer relationships:
- Customer-to-system -- based on the unique identification number assigned to its products, a five-digit "service tag" code found on the back of each computer. "Every time you call Dell to talk to a customer service rep or a technician, you provide that service tag and they can access our database and look at everything about your system," Mehta says. Similarly, customers can go to the Support.Dell.com section of the Web site and find a wealth of information about their systems, including the warranty status.
- Customer-to-knowledge -- enabling customers to search a database of information related to Dell products and installed software. For example, the site's "Ask Dudley" feature allows users to pose natural-language questions. Created for Dell by the firm that developed the popular "Ask Jeeves" Internet search engine, the application now handles more than 150,000 questions a week. Knowledge content for the responses is prepared by technicians in the Dell call center, based on questions they've fielded over the phone. Ask Dudley was developed after a series of focus-group studies examined how customers surf the Dell Web site. "We discovered that a fair percentage of them are willing to spend a few minutes online, if they have the opportunity to ask a question or two -- but they don't want to spend hours online trying to find what they need," Mehta says.
- Customer-to-customer -- The site's "Dell Talk" feature allows Dell customers to post messages to each other. So far, more than 200,000 customers have registered for the chat room, including a sophisticated core group that enjoys solving problems for other Dell owners.
- Customer-to-technician -- e-mail-based technical support similar to that offered by other high-tech companies. Dell has a dedicated team of technicians devoted solely to responding to the 25,000 or so messages that arrive each week. When Dell first launched this service three years ago, its support staff was overwhelmed by the volume of incoming e-mail requests, but it now tries to ensure that queries are answered within 24 hours. "We're trying to staff up to the point that we can ultimately get it down below 12 hours," Mehta says.