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How talking to customers changes an engineer's job

by Dell on June 3, 2010
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How talking to customers changes an engineer's job

How does a Dell engineer’s job change when they get to talk to customers?  It opens up an information flow so they can co-create something better.

You have to earn the right to sell to somebody. That’s why Dell is building relationships with customers and becoming trustied advisors through the Dell TechCenter where enterprise level employees can connect with Dell technicians and engineers.

Dell’s TechCenter emerged from Dell’s recognition that they wanted to build a community specifically for enterprise-level IT administrators, a place where they could share ideas for building better solutions. From the beginning, Dell envisioned this as something much more than a customer support site. Instead, this was a place where enterprise-level IT administrators – whether or not they were Dell customers – could compare notes on issues directly related to their business, things like how to build better solutions using VMware, how to optimize storage, how to get more users on an exchange server.  But it’s also, frankly, a place where technically savvy IT administrators can get away from the naïve questions of newbies and bond over shared complaints about the less adept folks they have to work with every day.

Today, the site has four times the monthly traffic as it had one year ago, Scott Hanson, Senior TechCenter Engineer who has managed the site since it launched in 2007, says the free flow of comments has driven much of the success of the online community and led to a more inclusive community “We didn’t delete posts, we never squashed comments. Even if you were off base or asked a newbie question, we never bumped them off the site.”

Another key to the site’s success is the peer-to-peer interaction that goes on between and among customers. When customers are evaluating products or thinking about moving in a new direction, they don’t just want to hear from the manufacturer. Obviously, testimonials from other customers mean as much if not more. The TechCenter provides a place for that conversation to take place – and at a level of technical detail that suits the administrators who will actually be using the products.

A shift like this – giving customers and critics a voice on a site managed by a company – can raise concerns among executives who are used to having tight control over the company’s image and marketing messages. “The risk of someone saying something extremely negative is the first question that other executives ask about when they first learn of the site,” says Rishi Dave, Global Large Enterprise Online Sr. Manager.  But in more than three years of operation, only once has someone posted a message that had to be taken down.”

Hanson explains that the site’s audience is made up of users with long experience connecting online.  “Online communities are nothing new, particularly for sysadmins who have been working in online communities for 20 years or more,” says Hanson. “Communities like this tend to police themselves, and people know their professional reputation is on the line.”

Hanson says one of the most interesting outcomes from the site is how it changes the job of engineers when they talk directly to the customers.  Over past three years, the site has delivered substantial feedback to the engineers who develop Dell’s enterprise-level solutions. “Often times, our developers didn’t know about the different ways our systems were used. But the customers tell them about ways they use their products – sometimes in ways they never imagined.” Dell’s engineers can then work with the broader product development to optimize subsequent releases to work more in the ways that customers want.

The site also drives sales. Hanson knows of several large enterprise sales that have resulted from TechCenter users who were not customers at first who gradually became comfortable with Dell’s team and interested in Dell’s solutions. In one case, he received a direct message in response to a tweet promoting TechCenter content. That direct message led to a conversation that eventually resulted in that administrator switching from a HP’s system to Dell’s Enterprise Solution. The customer was amazed at how similar and easy to use our system’s management toolset was compared to HP’s.. 

The TechCenter’s success in developing a community will make it something of a template as Dell’s marketing strategies evolve. “Our entire strategy going forward involves taking what we’ve learned from the TechCenter and turbo charging,” says Dave. “We’re looking at new ways to incorporate more activities into the TechCenter, getting more people involved, rewarding community members for their participation.”

Hanson adds that there just isn’t the option not to engage online with customers like this anymore. “New engineers want that work style, they’re well trained on social media and they expect these kinds of easy and instant connections with their colleagues and their customers. They want to work in a Facebook-like environment.”

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