Dell, which almost alone among computer vendors sells directly rather than through resellers, is working hard at improving the way it commicates with its customers and tries to meet their needs.
The company has had a rough ride of the last year or so, with battery recalls and SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) investigations having led to a decline in sales and revenues towards the end of last year.
In the last few months, however, it has made a number of changes that it hopes will help drive it back to its former glory.
Leading the charge was the return of founder Michael Dell to the day-to-day running of the company, but this was quickly followed by a number of initiatives designed to get closer to customers and find out what they really want.
James Quarles, marketing director of Dell’s South-East region, explains that initiatives launched towards the end of 2006 and early in 2007 are already starting to result in new products and ways of delivering them to customers.
Dell asks for input from its largest corporate customers through its Platinum Council, which consists of the CEOs and CIOs of its biggest accounts who meet with the Dell executives and share their thoughts.
Other data centre users contribute to the Customer Advisory Council which discusses the equipment and services needs of these large computer users.
For SME and consumer customers, Dell has set up a number of initiatives to reach and communicate both with Dell and one another, both through a viral networking site and more direct methods.
Direct to Dell is a site which boasts about 250 000 unique visitors and is where Dell commincated with SME and consumer customers about whatever issues are topical at the time.
"This is an information site, and it's about information sharing," says Quarles.
IdeaStorm was set up early this year to invite suggestions from Dell customers about how the company can improve its offerings and services.
Quarles says that people have already submitted 435 pages of new ideas.
Site users are asked to vote for ideas they like and they are then reviewed by the Dell team.
A number of the IdeaStorm ideas have already seen the light of day – for instance pre-loading of Ubuntu Linux on some PC models – and others are in the pipeline.
Quarles cites the example of a new chassis design: "We had two choices of what the new chassis would look like so we presented it to our customers and let them decide which one they preferred."
Another example was an overwhelming request from SME customers to eliminate "bloatware", the free applications that come pre-installed on many PCs from business machines.
Internally, Dell also runs an EmployeeStorm site, where staff members can put forward their own ideas.
Quarles stresses that the message Dell is hoping to give the market with so many customer touch points is not only that the company is listening to customers but that it is implementing their suggestions so quickly.
"The response we've had from customers is that they are excited – even somewhat taken aback – that these initiatives are not just lip service, but that Dell is actually implementing their ideas."