#DellCAP Group Photo courtesy of Dell

Last week Dell brought members of its inaugural Consumer Advisory Panel back to Austin to showcase the progress they had made over the past year. Dell formed its Consumer Advisory Panel (DellCAP) last year in response to customer complaints about issues ranging from product quality to customer support–and everything in between. The company hosted 30 Dell customers in Austin for two days. 15 who were unhappy with their Dell experience and 15 who were Dell evangelists. Dell executives met separately with both groups for long days; days filled with complaints, observations and suggestions for improvements.

When Dell approached me about taking part in their first Customer Advisory Panel I almost declined. I had been a Dell evangelist for many years but had had a frustrating experience with an XPS laptop that soured me on the brand. And yet…being able to share my frustrations with Dell directly was compelling. I accepted. So I was flown in to be part of the first group–those with negative Dell experiences.

The meetings could have been rancorous. Ugly even. As it was, it was hard. Hard to see people who obviously cared so much about the Dell brand hearing firsthand from the really frustrated customers. At times the tension mounted. And yet, before long, we had settled into a pattern of give and take. As unhappy as many of us had been before the meeting, as the day wore on we  began to work together–offering ideas about how to make things better. At the end of our sessions we felt drained but many of us felt very hopeful. We had met with people who were dedicated and invested in improving the quality of the Dell customer experience. We weren’t certain that Dell would implement the suggestions we made and we weren’t sure that Michael Dell would really support his company’s efforts to rebuild, but we were very encouraged. I was impressed with Dell’s willingness to listen to our complaints and to our suggestions.

Fast forward to last week’s event. Dell flew 13 of last year’s 30 DellCAP participants and three new attendees to Austin and put us up at the Westin hotel. We were greeted with whimsical hats and treated to a smörgåsbord of lovely foods and beverage. (Note: fresh mango mojitos are delicious. Who knew?) Mack Collier, able moderator of last year’s DellCAP days, led us in a live version of #blogchat, a form of discussion typically reserved for Twitter. We were joined by members of the Austin Social Media Club and I was delighted to meet a longtime Twitter, friend, Connie Reece, face to face for the first time. The #blogchat conversation was energetic and at times, passionate, which kept it interesting and entertaining.


DellCAP participants Ed Tittel, Claire Celsi, Allen Mireles and Michelle Brigman., courtesy of Dell

The following day’s session was a combination of discussion and show-and-tell from Dell executives. The entire day was video taped and streamed live online. We were encouraged from the outset to be candid and to share with our networks, using the #DellCAP hashtag. As the day wore on it became clear that not only had Dell been listening, they had implemented many of the suggestions made by DellCAP members the year before.

It was so exciting.

A year ago Dell had a social media team of only ten people. Today, the Dell Social Outreach Services (SOS) team numbers 70 and monitors conversations in eleven languages. The team works out of the Social Media Listening Center, which features a customized Radian6 monitoring system with six different large displays showing global mentions of the Dell brand in real time. I was entranced. It was like seeing into the future.


Dell Social Media Center, courtesy of Marketing Eggspert, Susan Payton

The Dell social media team monitors more than 25 thousand mentions of the brand name each day and directs issues to specific departments or experts as each require. One of the challenges of social media is finding the technology and people to scale effectively and it appears that Dell is doing this successfully now. As my new friend Ed Tittel wrote in his post for ReadWriteWeb, social media messages that request or merit a Dell response receive an acknowledgement or answer of some kind in no more than 24 hours. During the time we spent at the Social Media Center, several groups of executives toured the facility. Judging from their rapt expressions they had reactions not unlike mine. I had trouble concentrating after seeing the Social Media Listening Center and wanted desperately to get closer to the monitoring system and play with it.

We were joined by Michael Dell for 30 minutes of Q and A, which was also videotaped and has been shared online. Michael Dell seemed relaxed and welcoming and gave  thoughtful answers to the questions we peppered him with. It became very clear that he not only gets social media, he embraces it and has empowered his executives to act on the company’s behalf in their social networks.

We learned about Dell’s social media training programs, designed to educate Dell team members on its overall social media strategy, governance and principles, according to program director, Amy Fowler-Tennison. I had a chance to watch one of my favorite Dell people, Lionel Menchaca work at his station and then to have a quiet one on one conversation about his love of the work he does for Dell. His comment that he is having more fun than now he has ever had in his career with Dell was echoed by several other Dell employees during the day.

Since the inaugural DellCAP days last year, Dell has hosted DellCAP events in both Germany and China. To its credit it continues to seek and act on customer input about its products and solutions.

We concluded the day with more updates from Dell, more brainstorming and animated conversation and, as another surprise, “elote” (grilled corn on the cob with Mexican seasoning) eaten on a stick. I remember tweeting that I had never eaten corn on the cob in a business meeting before and was hoping the video cameras weren’t recording my stealthy attempts to remove corn bits from my teeth as the discussions continued.

When Mack Collier signaled the end of the day we were all surprised and even disappointed. In contrast to last year’s event where we felt drained and tired, this year we weren’t ready to stop talking. We were energized and excited and having a grand old time.

Dinner that night was on Dell at a delightful Mexican restaurant whose name escapes me. We were joined by the Dell executives we had spent the day with and the conversations continued. At the end of the evening, we regretfully parted ways and headed back to our rooms to pack and get ready to head home the next day.


Mack Collier and me at the end of our DellCAP session last week

Mack Collier’s moderation of the event added just the right touch of friendly, relaxed yet business like direction to the free flowing conversations. Director of Dell’s Social Media Command Center, Michelle Brigman’s, introductions and closing statements hit home in their grace and warmth. I enjoyed reconnecting with friends from last years’ event and meeting new friends at this one. I am not alone in feeling that the DellCAP participants are eager to continue to help Dell share the information about its programs and technology solutions and I look forward with excitement to watching the innovation continue.

Dell did listen. Dell is listening. And taking action.