Dell Moves to Help Businesses with Battery Shuffle

The PC maker says it's setting up a tiered strategy to help corporate customers handle its recall of 4.1 million notebook battery packs.

Dell said its working to ensure its massive notebook battery recall doesnt amount to an equally large logistical headache for senior IT managers.

The Round Rock, Texas, PC maker on Aug. 14 announced the recall of 4.1 million battery packs—the largest recall thus far in computer history—many of which were installed in Latitude business notebooks and shipped to customers between April 2004 and July 2006.

Dell said the Sony-made battery cells inside the packs present a fire hazard as they could contain manufacturing defects which could cause them to overheat.

As part of an effort to get ahead of the process of collecting recalled batteries and distributing new packs, Dell officials said the company has rolled out a wide-ranging program designed to proactively assist its corporate customers.

Dell began by equipping its sales representatives with detailed technical information and recommendations for plans of action those representatives can supply to their customers.

Depending on the size of a given customer, Dell expects to vary from replacing one or two batteries—a process that involves the customer communicating with Dell via its Web site or phone service—to replacing hundreds or thousands using kiosks or on-site clinics it sets up.

"We worked hard with our product group [run by Alex Gruzen, general manager of Dells Notebook Product Group] and our corporate communications group to create a comprehensive communications package…targeted at a number of levels from the single user or consumer all the way up," said David Ornelas, director of commercial sales and service operations at Dell in Round Rock, Texas.

"One of the real advantages of having the direct relationships [with customers] is that it really gave us a good distribution channel for real time information" on the recall.

However, the recall presents a sticky situation for Dell, whose financials have been hurt of late by sagging customer satisfaction levels—a challenge it said it would meet by investing in service, support and product design—and tough competition in the corporate space, which it said lead it to issue a second-quarter profit warning on July 21.

Overtaxing its service and support organization risks further damage to the companys reputation, analysts said.

So far, "they have handled it pretty well. Its unfortunate, but if I was an IT guy and I saw that Osaka incident where that [Dell] notebook caught fire, all of a sudden Id have some anxiety. Now at least I have the information," said Richard Shim, an analyst at IDC in San Mateo, Calif.

However, "the success of this effort will be all in the execution. The bottom line is this is where [Dell] has the opportunity to either strengthen that relationship or blow it."

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about the Dell notebook that caught fire in Osaka, Japan.

Where consumers began flooding Dells phone lines and Web site on Aug. 15, at least a few senior IT managers, whose jobs include administering large fleets of Dell notebooks, felt they were left to their own devices to find out how the recall affected their companies.

Tom Miller, director of IT at FoxHollow Technologies in Redwood City, Calif., he said had to take the initiative and contact his representative to request information on the best ways to locate recalled battery packs from among hundreds of machines and then make arrangements for replacing the packs, some of which are located remotely with traveling salespeople.

Miller said he has begun working with his sales representative—the first line of communication under Dells plan to work with corporate customers—to use Dell service tags to track down which machines among the hundreds of Dell Latitude 600-family notebooks his company has deployed need new battery packs.

"What were really looking for are the vendors to come to us and say Mea culpa. We have an issue. Heres how were going to help you solve it," Miller said.

"I see this as an opportunity for Dell…to differentiate itself by really focusing in on the customer service aspect, to become forthright and say, We realize we need to do a better job."

Indeed, for larger corporations, the most expedient process may be to begin by looking at data associated with Dells service tags, a process Miller said he was exploring.

Dell uses the tags to reference the inventory of the original bill of materials of reach systems it sells to a customer, including its battery identification number.

However, the information must still be verified, as batteries are often replaced by companies as they wear out.

The PC maker is also exploring an alternative that could speed the process of identifying recalled batteries for large customers.

That process would involve using management software to take a remote inventory of a companys notebook batteries. But Dell has not yet determined if it will be possible to gain the most vital information, Ornelas said.

"One of the dilemmas with the battery is that it is not typically one of the commodities or components that is searched for by standard inventory tools," he said.

Tools from companies such as Altiris can identify a battery, but dont collect each packs identification number, the key number Dell needs to determine if a replacement is necessary, he said.

One IT director at a large energy company, who asked not to be named, said he also wished for more information from Dell after learning of the recall. However, for the moment, he said he would reserve judgment.

"Youve really got a notebook user without a battery for the duration of the turnaround," he said. But "I think every company is going to have one or two of these [problems]. Its how they handle them and how they learn from them" that counts.

To date, Dell has received only six reports of "incidents" with battery packs in the United States and a handful more outside of the country, including the Osaka machine, the company has said.

PC makers such as Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo Group, thus far, have said they have not experienced problems with battery packs.

The list of notebook models whose batteries have been recalled includes Dell Latitude corporate notebooks with model numbers D410, D500, D505, D510, D520, D600, D610, D620, D800 and D810; Dell Inspiron models 6000, 8500, 8600, 9100, 9200, 9300, 500m, 510m, 600m, 6400, E1505, 700m, 710m, 9400 and E1705; and Dell Precision mobile workstation models M20, M60, M70 and M90 mobile and Dell XPS, XPS Gen2, XPS M170 and XPS M1710 models, Dell has said.

Customers can check the numbers and receive other information via Dells battery recall Web site or call the company at (866) 342-0011, the company has said.

/zimages/6/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news in desktop and notebook computing.