Ever wonder about some of the great customer service SNAFUs? Like, for instance, why Dell has such a terrible reputation for customer service, and did it arise from that notorious Dell customer service meltdown in the summer and fall of 2006? Who, you ask yourself, devised that customer service strategy?
We have the answer, in the form of an interview the author conducted in an undisclosed location in September 2006 with the consultant on that project, Hell CEO Mephistopheles:
Today we have a special guest for you, straight from Hades the CEO of Hell, Mephistopheles, who’s always willing to play “Let’s Make A Deal.” Thanks for taking the time to come by.
Meph: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
DS: We understand you’ve been quite busy recently, we’d like to talk to you about some of the deals you’ve been putting together, specifically your work with Dell Inc.
Meph: Hey, we have nothing to do with any batteries exploding or catching fire or what, as a matter of fact I know a couple guys in our Accounts Closing who’ve been affected by the recall, we definitely did not whiteboard that one. We do kind of admire it, though.
DS: What we’re thinking of is the work you’ve been doing with Dell’s call centers. Can you outline for us your organization’s thinking on the whole area of call centers?
Meph: It’s quite a compelling case. See, everybody thinks they want to be Southwest Airlines, they want to be Nordstrom’s, L.L. Bean, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the corner grocer who puts aside the last couple cans of asparagus if he knows you want it but you haven’t been in that week, everybody thinks they want that level of customer loyalty, but when they start thinking of all the effort and cost that goes with providing the sort of customer service that leads to such fanatical loyalty, when they realize that the road to heaven is rather narrow and rocky, as somebody said, they start telling themselves fire and pitchforks aren’t all that bad once you get used to them, really.
DS: So why are call centers such a lucrative area for you?
Meph: You know how 98 percent of all companies pronounce “call center?” “Overhead expense,” that’s how. It’s not much of a sales job to walk into a company and say you’re paying how many Americans how much and The Man’s taking how much out of your little daughter’s mouth for each one, well, let me introduce you to a place called India, my friend. They speak English there, they run VoIP, what more do you want?
DS: But is the quality of service the same as a call to an American agent?
Meph: We generally don’t frame that PowerPoint slide and hang it on the wall, we prefer to focus more on the positive, like how much money you can save by outsourcing your customer service to somebody willing to do the same job for a fraction of the cost.
DS: But isn’t that like paying to see the Rolling Stones and getting a Japanese Stones cover band instead?
Meph: Funny you should use that analogy, I was in Tokyo last week and caught one of those Stones cover bands. A few Sapporos and you almost can’t tell the difference.
DS: Isn’t scrimping on the quality of your customer service to save money in the short term while alienating customers long-term a deal with the dev… oh, I see.
Meph: We look at targeting call centers as concentrating on our core competencies. Much higher ROI than producing Helen of Troy for stunted adolescent Leipzig intellectuals.
DS: There’s not much of a full-court sales press needed to get companies on board?
Meph: By about slide 13 they’re pricking their finger to sign the contract. Usually the biggest problem we have is they’ve forgotten where they’ve put their soul in the first place, it’s not a 24/7 concern of a lot of people at that level.
DS: Any fish you can’t land?
Meph: Had a snafu with Apple, we went to Cupertino and said friends, you’re paying through the nose for call center staff in Texas and California, we presented Bangalore, very attractive to the bean counters, we showed a Metallica’s royalty worth of cash savings by going Indian. Everybody’s on board but about June they lost the plot and the upshot is the whole thing’s bollixed. I don’t know operational details, that was Screwtape’s department. Sure Apple’s customer satisfaction is higher than Hewlett-Packard, Dell or Gateway’s, but our position is there’s a balance between a rather abstract figure and the solid monthly expenditure numbers. But they’re the exception, the next six targets walked out of our presentation with dollar signs for eyeballs.
DS: So what happened with Dell, is that a textbook case for you guys?
Meph: McGuffey’s Reader. We gave ’em the shirt rap and they had their jaws up around the hand holding the reel. And we saved those folks a chunk of change, our organization gets a lot of negative press but those people served customers in India for a fraction of the cost of an American call center. Fraction. We held up our side of the bargain, nobody can ever say we don’t give exactly what we intend to give when we make a promise.
DS: Surfing through some of Dell’s customer comments here I’m seeing things like do not buy Dell, beware the service is Third World and hardly to standard, and it just can’t get worse than Dell customer service, and if ever there was an award for the worst customer service, it had to go to Dell, those don’t sound like folks who called back to ask for the complementary t-shirt.
Meph: Each one of those customers was serviced for less than half of what an interaction on American soil would have cost. Money in Dell’s pocket, each of those calls. We did have a situation with them in 2004, some whistleblower felt frisky one morning and brought up some out-of-context numbers up in a meeting, next thing you know Dell’s dropping a Bangalore center that was saving them wampum because of some isolated incidents of customer complaints about the quality of service. You had Dell people going off half-cocked, apologizing and saying they’d “learned their lesson,” it was pitiful, we had to throw a fire team on that one and re-focus their attention where it should have been, and I have to hand it to those guys, now we have Dell reopening in India and the Philippines, saving money every step of the way. But it was real touch-and-go there for a while, we saw a lot of our work hanging in the balance. Fortunately, thank Satan, we got everybody back on the same page.
DS: It looks like you’re getting closer to collecting on your end of the bargain, I see where the stock’s down, what, sixty percent in the past two years, every heavyweight stockpicker on the Street’s crossing over to the other side when he sees Dell stock for sale, and it’s not like batteries have been exploding since July 2004, the one consistent drag on the company that whole time has been bad customer service — specifically the outsourced call centers. It looks like the whole company is getting in the hand basket for the ride to your headquarters.
Meph: There are lots of ways to slice and dice the numbers, the market bounces up and down and you have to keep perspective, we don’t have a crystal ball, but let me underscore that we came to Dell with an action plan for operational savings, everything was on the table, and the organizational strategy Dell embraced included the vision of saving cash by opening call centers overseas instead of in America. And the point here is that our organization has delivered. Obviously Dell has their internal issues to work out, but we’re confident in the job we’ve done for them.
DS: Would you say Dell’s contract is a typical one for your organization?
Meph: Hey, you want us to save you money? We can save you money. Low-hanging fruit’s there to be picked, we have our own overhead to worry about too, you should see spot prices on brimstone on the commodities market. We open call centers overseas for you and you can count the savings right out of the gate. Mission accomplished. We don’t overreach in companies’ internal affairs… well, not until they’re down here with us. After all, we’re not in this business to be altruistic. You want that go Up There.
Original article in author’s archive.