This love letter goes out to Dell. I hope they’re listening, because I want them to succeed and thrive and sell millions of computers. But they’re sure making it hard for me to buy just one. Here’s my story.
Dell has a lock on the low-mid range laptop market. They seem to have dozens of models priced between $450 and $600 (after sales and promotions) with all the right hardware. I’ve owned about a dozen Dell laptops, and they’ve ranged from mediocre to excellent. And the support I received with my last issue (a burned-out XPS motherboard) was excellent.
I’m (now) a small-business owner. I run Foskett Services and organize Gestalt IT and the Tech Field Day series. I’m crazy busy with all this, but have found the best-ever part-time employee to help me out. She lives in Denver, I live in Ohio, and the Internet lets us get our work done.
She needed a better computer to get all this work done, and we agreed that a Dell laptop would fit the bill. So I hopped over to TechBargains and located a few nice models. First issue: Why does Dell sell a seemingly limitless variety of different notebook models with little explanation of the differences? They sell computers with the same name but different specs and prices on their Home and Small Business sites. They sell computers with different names and prices but seemingly the same specs on the same site.
What’s the difference between an Inspiron 15 and 15R? TechBargains says it’s the “brushed finish” but I’ll be darned if I could find that on the Dell site. I found two “Inspiron 15” models with exactly the same specs but a $100 price difference listed next to each other on one page. If it’s completely impossible for a techie to figure out what’s what, imagine how the average joe feels!
I returned to TechBargains to find what was for sale. There was a nice Inspiron 15R with a Core i3, 4 GB of RAM and a 320 GB hard drive, on sale for $499, so I clicked through to the Dell site. But the page I reached didn’t list all the specs and there was no way to return to a general description of the computer. I went back to the site manually and browsed the Home site to find they every one had the lesser Celeron or Pentium CPU listed. Where was the model I was interested in?
Then there are the popups. Every page I browsed included a modal animated popup with a picture of a supposed employee asking if she could help me. I should be able to locate a computer without popup help. And I should be able to look without a friendly face disrupting me and drifting slowly across the text I’m trying to read. And when I click “go away” it should stay gone. Yes, I need help. But I don’t want some clicky virtual screen sharing chat session. I want a web site that works.
Where’s You Go?
I finally just gave up on Dell’s site and used TechBargains to shop. Claire clicked through to buy the Inspiron 15R at $499, trusting it would be what she needed. The specs were right, the price was right, so she clicked “Review and Checkout.”
This is when the price changed. Suddenly the $170 discount disappeared! Perhaps we shopped at just the wrong time, but I was annoyed that Dell would let me click “buy” on something at one price and then present a different price at checkout. This should never happen.
We found that computer again a few days later, but the price was now $549. Still a good deal, but not as great anymore. But we needed to get some work done and had been wrestling with the Dell web site for hours, so she tried buying it again. The free shipping vanished, too, but $10 seemed like an acceptable price to send it to Colorado. The price had mysteriously risen by 12%, but we bought it anyway.
Am I A Fraud?
I charged the laptop to my American Express card for delivery to Claire’s home office in Denver. This apparently set off an alarm at AmEx HQ and they denied the charge and immediately called me. I approved it and instructed them to process the charge. Dell’s ensuing email said they would retry the charge the next day.
All seemed to be going smoothly, with the laptop listed as being built, a delivery date added, and no more calls. Until this morning.
Today, at 8:30 AM, I received a call on my home phone (with caller ID “Private”) from a woman claiming to be from Dell. She asked for my birth date to verify the laptop purchase, but I was confused. We never provided my home number to Dell. Why did they need my birth date? Hadn’t I already approved the charge?
She replied that the charge had indeed been processed but that they needed my birth date so they could call American Express on my behalf. She then asked for my previous address, and mentioned the town I used to live in. She claimed that they had some “yellow pages” listing for me and would verify it against that.
This is particularly annoying to me. See my post, Training Consumers To Jump For Phish to find out why.
I refused to provide any of this information – why does Dell need it? How would they verify it anyway? I suspect it was a credit check, but she never said that. And American Express does not (yet) show the charge from Dell online.
I’m just trying to buy a computer for an employee. I think this makes me an ideal customer for Dell, but they have made it as hard as possible to do this, their core business function. This is a serious issue, and I am about to give up and buy some other computer and mail it to Claire. Or maybe I’ll buy her a MacBook – it’ll cost more but the product line is infinitely easier to understand, with sensible names, simple configurations, and an easy (and non-obnoxious) web site.
I understand that fraud happens. I understand that it’s somewhat suspicious to order a computer online for delivery to a different person at a different address. But people do this legitimately all the time, and I already approved the purchase multiple times. What am I supposed to do?
Will Claire ever get her new Inspiron? Time will tell. I do have some suggestions for Dell, though:
- Simplify the product line. You have way too many model names, too many configurations, and no clear explanation of what makes one better or more desirable than another.
- Make the web site easier to use. I should always be able to check the specs for what I’m buying, regardless of where I enter the site. I should be able to locate all available models. I shouldn’t need popup help windows, and when I say no they shouldn’t come back on the next page.
- Don’t train your customers to submit to phishing. Don’t cold-call customers days after an order has been placed asking for personal information. Don’t make vague claims of working with American Express and validating the information against some secret database. Don’t block your caller ID. Talk to me like a real person and let’s get this worked out!
- And finally, please help me buy a computer. Tell me where that $499 deal went when I tried to buy it. Tell me what is up with my order.
Update: Dell and American Express customer service contacted me about these issues. The laptop has been delivered without any more “verification call” hassles, and it appears to be a decent machine. Dell also offered a $50 credit to make up for the fact that the price changed while I was ordering the machine. The buying experience remains painful, however, and most of my comments stand. See my related post, On Being a Squeaky Wheel (Where’s My Grease?)