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Old April 17, 2002, 12:04 AM   #20
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A Computer Rag's Take on the Situation

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By Paul McNamara
Network World, 03/11/02

Dell couldn't have picked a pricklier bunch to tick off with slipshod customer service. In fact, on any list of business gaffes best avoided, riling the National Rifle Association has to rate up there with egging on the IRS.

Granted, a slice of the blame for this fiasco must fall on the U.S. government and its often-silly technology export restrictions, but that wasn't going to help Dell calm the NRA's notoriously militant foot soldiers.

Here's the short version of what happened:

Jack Weigand owns a gunsmith shop in Mountaintop, Pa. His business specializes in the customization of target weapons.

Last month, Weigand decided he needed a laptop and ordered one online from Dell.

It never showed up. When Weigand called to ask why, he was told a software-based screening process designed to help Dell comply with export restrictions had halted his order because the name of his company - Weigand Combat Handguns - triggered an alert. The word "combat" raised a red flag, Weigand was told. (You can read the details on his site.)

"I was told Dell was afraid I was going to use the machine for illegal purposes," Weigand says in his online account. "When I asked why someone would think that, I was told it was because of the name of my business ... Because I'm involved in firearms I might be doing something illegal."

That's when the fuse was really lit. Weigand fired off missives of protest to online gun forums, and before you can load a revolver, Dell was being lambasted by NRA members far and wide for allegedly looking to rip laptops from the hands of law-abiding gun owners. The uproar reached such a pitch that Weigand found himself having to deny - quite vehemently - that he had accepted a free machine from Dell as a peace offering. (Why NRA types would see that as a sin escapes me, but I'm no gun owner.)

Anyway, Dell's public relations team eventually quelled the uprising by copping to "an unfortunate misunderstanding." The company says Weigand should have been called after his order was flagged, and that such a call would have cleared his delivery. But that call fell through the cracks.

The good news for Dell - and perhaps others - is that the lessons here are clear, and the mistakes correctable.

For online merchants it means making sure your humans do a good job of backing up your inherently fallible software.

For the government it means recognizing the futility of most technology export restrictions in a world where you half expect to find anthrax for sale on eBay. If Osama bin Laden really wants a Dell, chances are he'll find one with or without the company's help.
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