About two weeks ago I got a new Dell notebook PC from my company. Ordering an extra battery for it on my own from Dell.com turned into a personal productivity nightmare. Dell’s famed model business model feels creaky, which may hold lessons for BigLaw. 

After getting my new PC, I went to Dell.com to order a docking station and battery. The docking station was easy to identify Not so the battery. I could not find the exact model of my PC, Latitude E4310, at dell.com. Hmm. I found batteries listed for Latitude E but the web descriptions did not include compatibility listings by PC model numbers. I lost quite a bit of time trying to figure out which battery was right yet ended up ordering an incompatible unit. As a veteran web shopper and ex-CIO, I found this rather frustrating.

Fixing this was a time sink, which I attribute to Dell’s, in my opinion, inadequate e-commerce capabilities. In getting the return merchandise authorization (RMA), the agent was unable to pull up my correct e-mail address, even though she had my order number. So I had to provide it orally. So much for back-end systems integration. The e-mail confirming my return lists the battery as ‘CUS BTRY 12C SONY’, which bears no resemblance to the ‘9-Cell/85 Watt-Hour Primary Battery for Dell Latitude E/Precision Mobile WorkStations M2400/ M4400’ that I ordered. This does not inspire confidence.

To compound frustration, I could not order the correct battery with the same person who takes care of returns. Transfer and hold. The sales person then tells me a part number to buy. I inspect it on the website but do not see a definitive listing that it is compatible. I ask for other choices. The second part number he gives me is not on the website at all. I ask about this and the agent tells me that not all batteries appear on the wesbsite. I find this baffling because I have no way to compare specs and prices.

So I ask to speak to a supervisor. After a long pause, I am connected with customer care. The agent immediately says “Our systems are down for updating, can you call back.” That is not what I call ‘customer care:’ I am amazed that Dell would take systems down at 9:30am Eastern. Further, one might expect customer care to offer to call back when the system is available.

At this point, I went to plan B: Twitter. My Tweet to @MichaelDell put me in touch with with someone in Dell Global Social Media. It turns out that since my company, a business customer ordered the computer, accessories for it are not listed at dell.com, which I was told was for consumers. That is not clear on the website. Moreover, I cannot be the only person with a company-provided computer who wants to order accessories and expense them.

Once I was in touch with a person, Dell did make the situation right and I got the battery I needed quickly. It is hard for me to understand though how or why anyone might consider Dell an e-commerce leader.

Dell was the PC king for years. They now lag HP and Acer in market share. Dell stock price is way down from its all-time high. A business model that worked magic for many years stopped working as well as it had. Beyond any IT and e-commerce lessons, law firms might take this as a cautionary tale about their own business models. How many ‘tried and true” law firm models will work in new economic circumstances. For an example of pressure on law firm models, see Adam Smith, Esq.’s post Innovators at the Barricades, in which he discusses the impact of legal outsourcing on BigLaw.