) customer support is slipping -- a claim bolstered on Aug. 16 by a University of Michigan study that showed a hefty decline in customer satisfaction from a year ago. So the last thing Dell needed was for someone to turn the customer-service issue into a cause célebrè.
Enter Jeff Jarvis.
Over the summer, Jarvis began writing in his personal blog, BuzzMachine, about his lengthy quest to fix a $1,600 computer, an ordeal he said included countless e-mails, some unanswered, and phone calls to Dell's customer-service line.
"A LEMON." Jarvis wrote in his blog that he bought a service package including in-home repairs, but when the PC overheated and malfunctioned, he was told to send it in.
It still wasn't working when it came back, however, according to Jarvis. So he launched a series of attacks on Dell, including an Aug. 17 open letter to CEO Michael Dell saying: "The bottom line is that a low-price coupon may have gotten me to buy a Dell, but your product was a lemon, and your customer service was appalling."
He got a refund on Aug. 22. A day later, Jarvis blogged that Dell's new policy of tracking down unhappy bloggers "is a start."
The Jarvis affair seems to have struck a chord with other Dell customers. Daily visits to BuzzMachine have doubled, to more than 10,000, estimates research firm Intelliseek. Among the responses: "Dude, get an Apple."
GETTING PROACTIVE. Given all the links and other digital references to the Jarvis diatribe that are floating around the Web, "The most sensitive question for the brand is this: What's the net impact of a curious buyer stumbling into Jeff Jarvis' nastygram?" says Intelliseek's Pete Blackshaw. "This is where brand reputation and purchase behavior take a hit."
John Hamlin, Dell's senior-vice president for the U.S. consumer business, says Dell is adding more call centers, each employing about 2,000 workers, and improving training for phone reps.
"The customer experience is one of the most important issues for us," says Hamlin, adding that a year ago, to make sure customers' machines are working, Dell began contacting those who its records show have sought help at least three times over the course of one week.
As of Aug. 24, Dell had not replied to the open letter from Jarvis. But a spokeswoman says Dell is "happy to talk with him as a customer."
That might yield a happy ending -- if Jarvis doesn't get put on hold.
Lee is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau