When Dell invited me to take part in its first Customer Advisory Panel (#DellCAP on Twitter) my initial response was to decline. I was done. I had been a brand evangelist since 1997 and had bought, leased, recommended and talked about Dell computers–for years. Then I had a long, drawn out and frustrating Dell experience that included hardware failures, technical glitches and customer service frustrations. Bad enough to sour me on the Dell brand.

My XPS sits mutely on my desk mocking me now. When it’s turned on it beeps at me shrilly while line after line of random characters flies across the screen. Like technology possessed. And that’s just the most recent manifestation of its issues.

So I was done with Dell.

I thought. Then I thought again and decided to accept the invitation and participate. I am so glad that I did.

Dell’s Customer Advisory Panel has been organized into two separate days of meetings; the first with 15 unhappy customers and the second with 15 brand evangelists. All of us are active in social media and many of us have extensive social networks.

The unhappy customer group represented a range of occupations, interests and uses of Dell products. We had several people whose role was to manage the IT function for their businesses, a web designer, social media consultants, bloggers and a dental hygienist who reviews products and services on user review sites like Yelp!. We were a diverse group with many shared complaints.

We participated in a day filled with panels covering topics including purchase process, effectiveness of Dell.com, customer service, product usage and sustainability and recycling. The day started early with intense discussions and the occasional heated comments. But it was punctuated by laughter, observations and ideas. As the day wore on the tenor of the meeting morphed into brainstorming and idea sharing. So Dell didn’t need to put on kevlar vests after all.

The range of Dell’s products, services, and programs is much larger than I had understood. The genuine passion, conviction and caring expressed by the Dell participants was obvious and impressive. As is the magnitude of the challenge Dell faces in fixing some of what is perceived to be broken.

As with so many things, the situation is complex and problems exist on many levels. Yet, I was left feeling hopeful. I was impressed with the people I met, the solutions Dell is already working on that I was unaware of, and the apparent willingness to make change and to continue innovating to meet the demands of many markets; inside the United States and throughout the world.

I know some of our criticism was hard for the Dell people to hear. They said so. I felt bad for them at times and yet, hearing, truly hearing, what their unhappy customers came all the way to Austin to tell them offers them powerful insights and opportunities to improve. Dell was listening and that was impressive.

We have agreed that we will all continue to communicate. As Vance Morton says in the Direct2Dell post, Dell has committed to delivering on their promise to execute ideas and key changes where possible and to stay accountable for taking our feedback seriously. And, I find that encouraging.

So I went all the way to Austin, met fabulous people, laughed a lot, learned new things and had a chance to express my frustration and share the input I had received from my networks. Thank you Dell for the experience.

Here’s what some of the DellCap participants had to say about the experience.