Dell Spiffs Up Its Service

Dick Hunter explains what he's doing to cut customer hold times and develop an army of computer "supertechs"

Dell long ago mastered the skill of efficiently assembling a PC. But in recent years, the quality of customer service offered by the world's largest PC seller has slipped. That's become a source of exasperation for customers forced to wait on hold for long stretches or struggle to find technicians capable of fixing their machines (see, 6/25/06, "Dell: In the Bloghouse").

Now, Richard "Dick" Hunter, Dell's new head of customer service, is on the hot seat to fix service problems that analysts say are impeding efforts to end a string of disappointing results (see, 5/19/06, "From Servers to Service: Dell's Makeover").

BusinessWeek Correspondent Louise Lee recently spoke with Hunter at Dell's headquarters in Round Rock, Tex. The eight-year Dell (DELL) veteran was up front about what went wrong, explained why call centers need to be treated more like manufacturing plants, and highlighted some improvements already under way. Edited excerpts follow. (See also, 6/25/06, "Dell: Facing Up to Past Mistakes.")

Your background is in manufacturing. How do you view customer service and call centers?

Customer support is a giant process. The call center is like a call factory. The input is calls, e-mails, and questions on the chat board. There's tens of thousands of people in the center following a process. The output is satisfied customers. That's the theory.

In our factories, we've made improvements in manufacturing, in on-time delivery, completeness of the delivery, improvements in cost, all while increasing volume. But our customer experience and customer satisfaction metrics have declined, particularly among consumers. As we grow in consumer, we have to deal with calls from customers who aren't as sophisticated as the corporate user.

How and why did Dell's service deteriorate?

In the quest for efficiency, we became efficient but quite ineffective. Management has put rules and regulations and hurdles that the phone agent has to jump through. They're in the interest of cost, but not the interest of consumers.

For instance, we set up specialized phone queues for consumer Dimension hardware tech support only, and another for small-business Dimension hardware tech-support only. So you would call and a desktop tech would answer, but you have a laptop.

The net result: We were transferring, and still today, are transferring close to 45% of calls. That's out of a half a million calls from consumers a week. That's a lot. That's terrible. It's like delivering materials to the wrong factory 45% of the time. You could be transferred to four countries. That's not a good way to do it.

You've done a lot of new hiring in the call centers to help cut down the hold times. Just how bad did hold times get?

In the past it was seen as O.K. to hold for eight to 10 minutes. But my goal is to never be on hold more than four minutes. We've made great strides. In November, we answered 20% of calls in four minutes or less, and 3,000 callers in a week waited more than 30 minutes. Now, we've got 80% answered in four minutes or less. And last week, 80 people waited more than 30 minutes.

What are some of the ideas from the factories that you would like to apply to the call centers?

In the factories, the builders are cross-trained to assemble different kinds of PCs. And they can also do other jobs, including boxing and testing. But in the call center, right now, typically a tech is trained in just one area -- for instance, in hardware support for the Dimension desktops.

We now want to also train them in Inspiron hardware support, or in wireless technology. Some will also get training in customer care, such as in changing an order or changing shipping terms. A lot of our techs will want to learn more, and they'll be paid more.

While there's not the intent to train all techs to do everything, there are those who will work their way up to be "supertechs." My belief is to put all functions in the call center. We need to be set up to handle 95% of issues within the center.

How will increasing the expertise within each call center help?

It'll reduce transfers to another center and usually another continent. When the call stays within the center, the site manager has to take ownership of that call. In the factory, if there's a problem, he flicks on a light and the next level comes running. It should be the same in the call center.

How are you planning to help call-center workers speed up the flow of calls?

In six weeks, we're putting in real-time dashboards, or monitors, up on the wall to show the calls waiting and show the oldest calls. We don't let orders get old in the factories. In the North Carolina factory, the monitors are updated every three seconds. We want the same discipline in the call centers. I'll have access to all the monitors from here. Big Brother is watching.

A common complaint we hear from unhappy Dell customers is the techs' apparent inability to stray from the script to ask more questions or try alternative ways to solve a problem. How big a problem is this?With thousands of agents, that occurs. We want to have a disciplined way of understanding the problem. You've got to have rigor. But we want to have balance between rigor and freeing the agents. On simple problems, we follow a process. On complex problems, we empower them to delve into the problem creatively. As we get more supertechs, they'll want to solve the most complex problems.

Improving customer service sounds like a costly effort.

Ultimately, we want this to pay for itself, by training agents also in sales. A tech will have records of what the customer has bought from Dell and see that he has a laptop. He can say, "I see you have a laptop that's several years old. Did you know that batteries do wear out?"

Call centers aren't factories. How will Dell make sure it doesn't treat customers like widgets?

What we're trying to do is apply discipline. Any characterization that customers will be treated like widgets isn't right. The real measure that counts is: Is the agent solving customers' problems? My goal is to have less than 10% of calls require a transfer. My goal is to have 90% of problems resolved on the first call. When that happens, we'll be high-fiving each other and having a recognition luncheon.

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