In Canada, for example, Dell expects to double its employee base this year, according to general manager Greg Davis. Most of the new hires will be for its contact centre in Edmonton. At its Ottawa location, Dell will be bulking up its back-office, sales and federal government support staff. On the Internet, meanwhile, Dell recently launched IdeaStorm, a Digg-style forum for user-generated feedback.Although Dell may not launch a Canadian version of IdeaStorm, the company might be able to monitor it for themes and patterns that resonate with Canadian users, Davis said.

“There have been small communities for Dell users that have been going on through the Web for years, and we’ve helped facilitate those,” he said. “We want to understand what challenges customers have, and to be easy to contact.”

Apart from a small site that focuses on its Axim handheld product, however, there are very few traditional Dell user groups. In contrast, rivals such as HP and IBM regularly sponsor or support regional, national or international customer gatherings.

Darin Stahl, research lead for data centres, servers and storage at Info-Tech in London, Ont., said there is little point in starting a Dell user group now.

“What would a user group contribute to Dell’s strategy? Would they be able to contribute to operational efficiencies? Probably not,” he said. “Dell over time has demonstrated the ability to absorb criticism and make changes. That said, if (Dell) had more direct imput (from customers), it might be more gentle than having that criticism played out in the blogosophere.”

Though it’s not a formal user group, Dave Favreau, IT manager of operations at Calgary-based AltaGas, said he has attended several afternoon sessions with fellow Dell customers sponsored by the vendor.

“Usually Dell takes the lead in terms of doing a presentation, and I’ve done a presentation as well in terms of our use of Dell,” he said. “It’s really up to the local Dell reps.”

Other vendors also get customer feedback through their reseller channels, but Davis said Dell’s approach promises a faster response. “A reseller typically reports back every 45 days,” he said. “By the time you get that data, typically the issues have been resolved.”

Dell does quietly work through some resellers, including Vancouver-based Netdigix. Nathan Jang, the firm’s president, said Dell has shown little interest in soliciting his expertise to improve customer satisfaction.

“No, never. They send out the odd questionnaire, but it’s mostly due to support requests,” he said. “They definitely need to do that.”

Despite recently reporting fourth-quarter profits well below expectations, Davis said Dell’s approach still works because it offers custom configuration to meet unique needs. Stahl, however, suggested many large enterprises aren’t as unique as Dell thinks.

“As an IT leader, how much custom build do I actually need on my desktop? They deploy technology at the desktop or server layer with standard configs with one or two tiers of users, based on their role and job. Where is the need for customization in an enterprise market space?”

Among its other problems, Dell is also in the midst of an investigation of its accounting practices by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. Earlier this month Dell said in an SEC filing that it is conducting its own internal investigation as well.

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