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Dell's Hearing Test

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NEW YORK If you want to know something that keeps Dell CMO Mark Jarvis up at night, type "Diet Coke" into Google. The problem is right there in front of you: "Don't Drink the Diet Coke" is the third result, directly in the middle of the screen, a blog post written about how artificial sweeteners can lead to depression. This is the same problem Dell itself faced two years ago, when consumer rage at its customer service failings and product problems clogged result pages for some of its products with unflattering commentary.

"Your home page is Google," said Jarvis. "It becomes really important the right things are appearing on it."

Since then, the company has embarked on a concerted effort to turn around its image online, reaching out to consumers in blogs and soliciting advice on how Dell can improve. The end goal for Jarvis is not touchy-feely: He wants to spend less, not more, money on advertising. One way is to cut down on the need for advertising altogether by having satisfied customers spread positive word of mouth.

"The Germans and British no longer believe anything you say in an ad," he said. That makes advertising pretty pointless. You have to think of how you're going to reach people in different ways."

One key way to achieve this is to move as many customer interactions -- Dell estimates it has over 2 billion per year -- online and away from expensive distribution like catalogs.

Not coincidentally, improving customer service was deemed fundamental to fixing the company's problems. Dell was not entirely to blame for the battery problem, but it happened at the height of a rough patch for Dell, which was founded in 1984 on the idea of letting people customize their own computers and buy them directly. Over time, though, it strayed from its customer-focused roots, treating customer service as a cost center and acting aloof from customer complaints online. In the most notorious example, popular blogger Jeff Jarvis, who is not related to the Dell CMO, lambasted the company for its poor service in a series of "Dell Hell" posts in 2006 that drew hundreds of comments from customers with similarly negative experiences. Dell couldn't ignore how the posts touched a chord with consumers.

The numbers weren't pretty either: The company's own 2006 analysis of its "share of voice" online found 48 percent of chatter about Dell was negative. Its renewed focus on customer communications coincided with the rise of the social Web, as more people gathered online to share thoughts, rate products and contribute to a community Web experience.

"The company was founded on the idea of having a direct relationship with customers," said Dell's Jarvis. "The social media thing was a natural fit for Dell because we've been conversing with our customers for 24 years."

Over the last two years, Dell has worked day by day rebuilding its ties to its customers. Its problems could not be solved by an ad campaign with a cheery message, Jarvis said, but a reorientation of its culture to solving customer problems and listening to their complaints and advice.

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