In 2006, Robert Scoble and I published Naked Conversations, a book about why businesses should blog. It began with the statement, “We live in a time when most people don’t trust big companies.” We went on to argue, that our largest complaint with big organizations is that while they shovel messages at us all the time, they just don’t listen to customers, prospects or critics.
Shortly after publication, a now-famous event took place remembered as “Dell Hell.” Essentially, a celebrity blogger complained about the awful treatment he was receiving from Dell Computer company Then other people posted similar complaints. Starting as isolated complaints, a grassroots movement took hold; and as people coagulated in focus against Dell, the movement amplified. Forbes magazine the bloggers as an “unwashed mob, lighting torches and attacking in the night.
I was a part of that unwashed mob. I had been a Dell customer for 15 years. I had made a fair amount of money by investing in Dell stock. But when keys started falling of the keypad of my six-month-old Inspiron laptop, Dell support advised me to buy a new computer. I became mad as Hell. For me, the blog noise was not part of a mob designed to get Dell, so much as a peer support group for those who had suffered poor company support.
Then something amazing happened. Dell demonstrated that it had started listening. It started a blog and endured a flood of hostile and abusive commentary. At some point, Lionel Menchaca, the principal blogger uttered words that you just don’t often hear from enterprises spoespeople.
He said Dell was sorry.
A collective sigh seemed to resonate across what was then called the blogosphere. People became surprisingly polite toward Dell and have remained so for the most part. The company was among the first to start engaging, in two-way conversations with customers and from the perspective of social media proponents became a poster child for how to do it right.
But that was then and this is now. Dell Hell has become an old story. In social media years, 2006 is comparative roughly to the second Ice Age
The answer is a whole lot. The company has turned social media listening into a strategic imperative. At the heart of this strategy is an impressive investment into a war room-like facility called the Dell Listening Command Center. From there, it monitors and average of 22,000 conversations related to Dell every day, then distributes the most relevant of them to the few people who should know among the Dell team of about 100,000 employees.
The Listening Center went live a few days before Christmas 2010, when company founder Michael Dell ceremoniously flipped the switch and a room full of computer screens suddenly went live.
No one person can take credit for this long-planned, complex project. But Manish Mehta, Dell’s vice president for social media and community deserves much of it. The former Three Mile Island engineer has been at Dell for the last 16 years. He’s responsible for establishing Dell’s strategies, global programs, best practices, policies and measurement of social media across the company.
He chairs Dell’s Social Media and Community Leadership Council involving each of Dell’s businesses and departments across the company. I have known Manish for a while and find him consistently candid and responsive, characteristics that I do not always experience when talking to enterprise executives.
I asked Manish to fill me in on the command center.
1. Most companies still use social media primarily to broadcast messages. A few actually look at engagement. Now Dell is shifting emphasis to listening. Can you explain to me the business advantage to listening?
Five years ago when we really began to focus our efforts on social media we discovered that one of the biggest opportunities in this space was to listen.
You will learn where your customers are and what they are saying and interested in. In that respect, listening, learning and then engaging is at the core of what we have been up to for the past 5 years in social media.
I think what you are now seeing is not so much a shift to listening. Rather what you see Dell doing is operationalizing listening and scaling it across the fabric of the company so that Dell team members across various functions and business units are hearing and seeing what our customers say every day.
Being close to the customer enables us to hear our fans; we gain a first-hand understanding about what they love about Dell’s technology, products and services–and, we can hear instantaneously, across the Web what our customers wish we would do more of, as well as learn about where we need to improve. This kind of listening is global, robust and covers all our businesses (Consumer, Small and Medium Business, Large Enterprise and Public Sector and Services) and various functions within the businesses and across them.
2. When and how did the idea for a Dell Listening Command Center start? How did it evolve?
The Social Media Listening Command Center began its evolution about a year ago. We started embedding social media use across the entire company. We gave Dell team members the tools to listen, learn and engage, directly, and from there it evolved.
Three key points became clear:
First, even as you democratize social media use across an organization, there is still a need to continue to have a global, aggregate or corporate perspective.
Second, customer conversations might well be relevant to more than just one business unit. Perhaps a Bluetooth driver needs updating, for example. That could cross various product lines and business units. In these cases, we wanted to be sure we would be able to have that broader perspective and ability to coordinate, rather than have five different groups trying to solve for the same issue.
Third, the Social Media Listening Command Center also serves as a focal point to ensure we are following up on matters that we learn about from listening. For example, some conversations on the web may not need to be followed up today, but they should still be tracked to ensure we get to that information as soon as we can.
3. Can you give me some sense of the investment in time, financial and human resources involved in creating the listening center–not counting your obvious savings in hardware and cloud computing costs?
It is pretty difficult to size “listening” when you think that we trained more than 5,000 Dell team members in the last half of 2010 to use social media and listening tools as part of their job.
The Social Media Listening Command Center, while physically in Austin today, is staffed 24×7 globally covering 11 languages. Our global team members around the world use the same tools as the Social Media Listening and Command center in Austin, except they have the tools on their desktops. I suspect, in the future, various parts of the world will have their own Social Media Listening Command Center.
4. Radian6 has received lots of credit as your monitoring partner. But what other social media tools are you using? I’m particularly interested in the analytics you are extracting.
The aggregation of information and the insights from conversations across the Web about Dell are still evolving. Much of this is instrumented and developed in house with various data sources and coupled with the listening data. Current analytics cover such matters as:
- · topics and subject of conversations
- · sentiment
- · share of voice/volume of commentary
- · geography
- · trending topics, sentiment, geographies
Within the Social Media Listening Command Center we can display that information in a variety of visual ways, formats and combinations
5. Can you walk me through just how this Center works, from when a Dell issue is “heard,” to how you distribute it to the right person or persons?
First, let’s be clear. Not all social media conversations are about issues and the Social Media Listening Command Center is about more than just issues.
For example, there can be conversations by Dell fans and long-time loyal customers. There can be customer conversations that are about suggestions to improve our business. These are important customers to connect with and further establish Dell’s direct relationships.
We like to share their stories across our businesses, thank them, and understand more about their loyalty to Dell. We want to hear firsthand how our technology products and services gave them the power to do more or what else they want us to do. As you likely know, we have also connected with some of these folks, brought them to Austin and held Customer Advisory Days listening to more about what they had to say on the Web.
There are also customers looking for support and help. @Dellcares on Twitter and the Social Outreach Services (SOS) team are listening for customers who need help across the social Web. They are embedded within the business and using the listening tools to follow up with customers. They don’t rely on the Social Media Listening and Command Center, nor are they assigned tasks from the Command Center. However, they do work closely together and compare notes on topics to ensure we are tracking and following up on the most critical issues.
Ideally, we strive to have the Dell team members equipped and responsible for matters impacting their customers and business first.
The Social Media Listening Command Center is focused on issues that may be percolating over a period of time; ensuring we have the right teams on any matters that need attention; they are ensuring we have the business processes and procedures to continue scaling our listening efforts; they make sure we are following up on action items; and finally they provide the macro perspective and trend analyses around what listening tells every part of our business, every day
6. How much of the process is automated and how much human review is involved?
The searches are all automated. The tracking and coordination is all about people and business processes that enable us to further scale the use of social media.
7. Other than response, how else are those messages used by Dell?
The aggregation of the information, location, sentiment across 22,000 conversations per day informs various business analytics. For example, we are garnering insight and real time conversation information about our brand, sentiment, who is talking about us and why, the matters that need help, early warnings on quality issues, suggestions for changes to our products, services and business processes, and places where we need to do better. We hear it all and share the trends across Dell’s businesses and executive teams
8. If other companies follow your thought leadership, will you be willing to help them–other than selling servers and services?
Yes of course. We met, or had phone calls, with more than half a dozen other companies over the last couple months sharing best practices. Frankly, we always look forward to these opportunities because we also learn from others. That learning is critical to us as we seek to forge ahead in new ways that will continue the journey of realizing strategic business benefits of listening, learning and engaging using social media.