Horrified Dell executives scrambled this week to undo a public relations nightmare that erupted after one of its salesmen equated buying IBM/Lenovo PCs with support for China's communist government.
A Chinese paper published emails from a US Dell salesman identified only as "Chris" which contained unusual tactics meant to sway IBM customers from buying Lenovo hardware. After the emails were printed, Dell China apologized to Lenovo and said it would enforce disciplinary action against "Chris". Dell can little afford bad press in a high-growth market where it has struggled to outsell local rivals.
In one email cited by Chinese news agency Xinhua, "Chris" says: "From a IBM perspective, and please do not think I'm throwing stones. As you know Lenovo is a Chinese government owned company that recently purchased IBM's desktop/notebook business.
"While the US government has given its stamp of approval (no US secrets are in jeopardy) to continue to purchase these units people must understand that every dollar they spend on these IBM systems is directly supporting/funding the Chinese government.
"Just something to think about."
Something to think about indeed.
"Chris" rightly points out that Lenovo, which last year acquired IBM's PC business, is partly owned by the Chinese government. So, some sales money would in fact make its way back to The Reds. It seems, however, that encouraging potential customers to contemplate the anti-capitalist, anti-American nature of their purchases isn't a strategy a firm wants to go public.
"We have a code of conduct that we uphold here for Dell in the U.S. and worldwide, specific guidelines for not commenting on competitors from an employee's standpoint," a Dell spokesman told the AP. "We're pretty serious about it."
In March, the US government approved IBM's deal with Lenovo, saying it felt comfortable with a Chinese company supplying tons of PCs to government and corporate clients. The Dell salesman, however, seized on some of the fears the Feds debated in a second email with the potential customer. When asked if he had proof "every penny" of IBM computer sales go to Mao's children, "Chris" replied:
"No proof at all on my end except extensive reading and discussions with my peers. IBM's desktop and notebook business has been sold to Lenovo, which is a state sponsored/owned company. Some of my Army customers take issue with this so makes for interesting conversation. If I happen to see any interesting articles I will forward over to you."
A Lenovo spokesperson was quoted by several papers, chastising Dell for failing to "respect national governments and enterprises".
The Dell email story quickly made its way through local papers and had Chinese analysts fuming at Austin's über-capitalist attitude.
"Dell is the bane of China's IT hardware industry," Fang Dongxing, an IT analyst told Xinhuanet. "It not only undermines the advantages of Chinese companies in cost and price, but also threatens its Chinese rivals with the strong weapons of global purchasing power and international brand recognition."
The paper went on to cite an online survey that had 88 per cent of the 82,000 respondents saying Dell's stance was "a serious violation of fair competition rules."
Of course, we've heard this sort of thing before - usually from US businesses bitching about the rise of China's IT sector
The Dell salesman's tactics were particularly comical given the company's embrace of foreign workers. While still a young US company relatively speaking, Dell already owns a staff made up mostly of foreigners. The most patriotic company it ain't.
As for "Chris", no further word on his fate. However, we can't help thinking that should Dell decide to dispense with his services, a well-paid career on US talk radio beckons. ®