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Want to complain on Dell's website about its customer service? Too late - the Customer Support Forums, operational until last Friday, have been shut down, apparently to try to quell bad publicity there about Dell products and especially after-care service.

While all the other equipment forums are still working - last time we looked - the areas where you could vent your anger or delight about Mikey Boy's company were shut with a peremptory notice saying that "The Customer Service boards on the Dell Community Forum will be retiring at 3:30pm this Friday, July 8th. ... Customer Service FAQs will still be available to help answer your questions. If you need further assistance, you may contact our customer service team via Chat for any non-technical issue you may have." (The UK site appears not to have such a forum.)

Why? Could it be anything to do with the unbelievably corrosive effect on Dell's reputation that has followed its insistent refusal to deal with problems with the Dell Dimension 4600 power supply?

Noted Windows expert Ed Bott, who has been tying together some of the threads of the tale, comments: "Dell continues its race to the bottom with the new management strategy: If your customers continue to ask annoying questions, stop listening."

Dell didn't have a response to our query about why it had shut the forums, although in a chat with Christoper Carfi one Dell service bod said: "We are closing the Customer Service boards on the Dell Community Forum for the time being as there certain updates which needs to be taken care of."

Dell is not the first company to find its customers revolting online; Apple has taken similar measures in the past, though not gone quite as far as deleting an entire category of discussion.

Part of the problem seems to have stemmed from Jeff Jarvis, a columnist on the San Francisco Examiner, who summed up his anger in a letter to a Dell VP, saying: "This machine is a lemon. Your at-home and complete care service is a fraud. Your customer service is appalling. Your product is dreadful. Your brand is mud."

That has snowballed into growing pressure on Dell to improve its customer service, at precisely the time it has been driving ever-harder to improve margins. Unfortunately, the two conflict: excellent customer service can't be measured by standard accounting metrics because it doesn't show up until people renew purchases or service contracts - which is a future, uncertain, event. However, you can cut costs in customer service today and it shows up in the bottom line.

Jarvis's travails sparked a little civil war in Blogistan, where some thought he deserved special treatment from Dell as an "A-lister" and "influential", while Bott pointed out that "Google Dell customer service problems and you get 2,950,000 hits, which seems like a lot by any standards. (Just to check, we did "Britney Spears" customer service problems and got only 181,000 results. It's good, Britney, but there's still work to do.)

In fact Dell's growth has clearly been putting increasing on its customer service operations. In 2000 it won high marks in a PC World survey of subscribers. But fast forward to 2004 and it was slipping badly.

Meanwhile, Jarvis found his own solution to his problems. He bought an Apple Powerbook. Doubtless Apple's moderators are already readying their "delete" keys. ®

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