Jeff Jarvis vs. Dell: Blogger's Complaint Becomes Viral Nightmare

Jeff Jarvis is not happy with Dell Computer Corp., and he's letting everyone know. Starting last month, in a series of posts entitled "Dell Hell," Jarvis enumerated on his blog, BuzzMachine, his struggles with Dell's customer support service. Jarvis, creator of Entertainment Weekly magazine, wrote at length about Dell's refusal to replace or fix his broken computer.

On Wednesday, Jarvis published on his blog an open letter to Dell Chairman Michael Dell and Chief Marketing Officer Michael George, in which he recounted his struggles with customer service and lambasted the company. While BuzzMachine frequently receives more than 5,000 visitors a day, Jarvis' "open letter" was the third most linked-to post on the blogosphere on Thursday, according to Intelliseek's BlogPulse. The post was also either linked to or discussed by at least .01 percent of all blog posts written Wednesday, according to BlogPulse.

In the days before the blogosphere, Jarvis might have been just another dissatisfied customer. But today, his widely circulated criticism has triggered dozens of other bloggers and hundreds of commenters to publicly complain about service they've received from Dell's technical support.

Now, some marketing experts say that the massive unfavorable publicity--call it a negative viral campaign--illustrates that mainstream corporations, even tech-savvy ones like Dell, still haven't figured out how to cope with consumer complaints on the Web.

Public relations consultant Steve Rubel said Dell might have headed off a public relations disaster had it simply tried to help Jarvis from the beginning. "Jeff has a tremendous media presence. That should have them shaking in their boots," he said. "Every company is going to have evangelists and vigilantes in the blogosphere, and they need a group of people focused on influencer relations, who are kind of watching all these different conversations and figuring out how to amplify the evangelists and how to calm the vigilantes."

The key problem that Dell--and other companies with call centers for customer services--face is that they are not prepared to handle how their customers can share their experiences virally, said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Intelliseek, a buzz monitoring firm. "Most call centers operate in a bit of a vacuum, divorced from the reality that both satisfied and dissatisfied consumers tend to be highly viral and work in vast social networks," he said. "You don't want people to think that you have to wait for the big fish like Jeff Jarvis to do something. Every company should be sensitive to how dissatisfaction is viral, and they have to build that into their financial modeling."

In the end, blogged complaints like Jarvis' can do as much damage as a negative advertising campaign. "What's important is that people had exposure to [Jarvis'] nasty-gram to Dell, and that's no different than the way advertising works," Blackshaw said.

Dell did not return phone calls for this article.