Competition in the fast-growing 'SoHo' (small office-home office) sector is particularly intense: at present dealers may only be making pounds 50 profit on each personal computer sold, according to one industry source.
Ironically, sales and after-sales support costs in this sector of the market are disproportionately high. Buyers shop around, generally buy only a single computer and often need help to use it. The solution for Dell Computer Corporation, the dollars 2bn US manufacturer, has been to centralise its operation.
The personal computers that it sells throughout Europe are already manufactured in the Irish Republic. Now the company has started to relocate its telephone sales and support staff there too.
Its 'telecentre' at Bray, south of Dublin, houses the company's entire telesales and support facility for the UK and Irish markets. Three similar operations in Europe deal with a further seven countries.
'We handle 5,500 calls per day,' Maurice Cowey, Bray's general manager, explained. Customers dial a UK telephone number, but a digital exchange at the company's European HQ in Bracknell automatically switches the call to Bray at no extra cost to the caller.
Although Dell has traditionally offered Freephone advice, it has discontinued this for its latest, cheaper range of machines. Free lifetime support remains, but users have to pay for the calls. In addition to what Dell describes as 'first line' support, the Bray centre also handles 'second-line' support for Europe, dealing with trickier situations where more expert advice is required.
A recent addition to Bray's commitments is first-line, multilingual, out-of-hours support. When the support operations in France, Germany and Scandinavia close at 8pm each day, calls are routed to Bray until 8am the next day. Bray now provides 128 hours a week of out-of-hours multilingual support - 12 hours on week-nights and 48 hours at weekends.
The UK users' helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Chris Norton, customer service manager, said: 'Late-night calls tend to be mission-critical network support and drunken people installing games.'
The Bray operation opened in January and already employs 270 staff. Most have been locally recruited and intensively trained, with relatively few brought over from the headquarters in Bracknell.
The company found little difficulty attracting potential recruits from the Irish Republic's pool of unemployed graduates, and salary levels are lower than in the UK.
Surprising amounts of hidden expertise were available: thecustomer care manager, Christina Byrne, had recently returned to Ireland after spending 20 years in a similar job for a Canadian cable TV company.
In addition, the European Union and the Irish government make substantial grant aid available to incoming businesses. Dell's competitor, Gateway 2000, a recent arrival from the US, is located near Dublin, as are software companies, Microsoft and Lotus.
The combination of grant aid and centralisation had enabled the company to make 'huge cost savings,' according to Mr Cowey.
Nevertheless, the investment in technology has been substantial, particularly in the complex telephone switchboard equipment. Computer programmes monitor how queues of calls are building up and supervisors can swith resources from area to area to try to keep the waiting time for callers as brief as possible.
An important part of the operation is the initial 'technical distribution' desk, the first port of call for queries. The people staffing this desk are supposed to answer within 20 seconds. They have a further 40 seconds to ask sufficient questions of the caller to be able to identify the broad nature of the problem and the level of expertise of the user.
Another important element, Mr Norton said, was the company's on-line technical libary. One part of this, known as Sphinx, is a 1,000-megabyte CD-ROM library containing 10,000 pictures and drawings of specific items on every Dell computer ever made.
Callers can then be 'talked through' detailed instructions while both parties refer to exactly the same image.
With home computer sales booming, and a Mori survey showing that one in three British families plans to have some sort of computer-related present under the Christmas tree this year, Christmas Day at Bray looks likely to be just another working day.
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