VIEWS: When Tech Support Doesn't Understand Energy Efficiency Questions

Note: The following missive comes from Scott Kleiman, one of SSC's Summer Interns. We thought it was a great story about how frustrating the pursuit of basic environmental information can be...and how important it is for companies to educate their employees about their corporate CSR issues...enjoy!

Strategic Sustainability Consulting publishes an annual Sustainability Report that reviews how effective we've been as a company in minimizing our firm's environmental impact as we work. As part of this effort, Jennifer asked each of the summer interns to track and calculate our own ecological footprints associated with our internships over the past several months.

Most of us work remotely, communicating primarily through conference calls, online "meetings," and email. Our efforts largely go towards supporting SSC's senior consultants' client-work, through researching company and industry information, brainstorming solutions, and helping write reports. We also contribute to SSC's ongoing knowledge base of solutions, case studies, webinars, and white papers. Consequently, the majority of our time is spent on computers. Indeed, as I put together my own footprint data, my largest impact was the electricity used by my 5+ year-old Dell laptop.

Having spent the summer reading and writing about specific strategies and steps for businesses to incorporate sustainability into their operations, and being familiar with Dell’s new energy efficient computing campaign, I expected determining the energy used by my computer to be a relatively straightforward process: multiply the watts used (a rate) by the number of hours I spent working at my computer for SSC, and I'd get a rough estimate of my total related energy usage for the summer (in Kilowatt-hours). How I was mistaken...

I purchased my computer before my freshman year of college, at that point of my life having little conception of energy efficiency, so I never thought to ask about my computer's energy footprint when initially configuring it. As I began looking for energy usage information, my first thought was that it would, of course, be noted among the maze of notations printed on the bottom of my laptop or its power transformer cube. Voltage requirements, as well as some other certification gibberish were there, but nothing specific about energy consumption.

Perhaps it was on the "Spec Sheet" Dell had included when it shipped my computer? Being the packrat that I am, I knew I had it stashed away in the front part of the second right-hand drawer of my desk at home, and I ran upstairs to check. Nope – it just showed me that I needed to clean my room.

“It’s the age of the Internet,” I thought. The information I didn't have myself should certainly be just a click away on the Dell website. After 15 minutes of navigating through endless attempts to convince me about the fantastic characteristics of Dell's many new computers that it sells, I concluded that my search terminology must have been wrong and decided to call Dell customer support.

The 20-minute call, which included 8 long minutes of listening to Dell's ubiquitous muzak, concluded with me trying to convince a supervisor that, "No, there's not a problem with my system. I just want to know its energy consumption. In watts. Please....". This was followed up by an email detailing instructions detailing how I should return my defective part to Dell, succeeded 2 weeks later by an express mailed Windows System Restore CD directing me to resinstall my operating system to fix my problem.

Realizing the phone call was fruitless, I returned to the Dell website and booted up their online chat for customer support. Maybe typing out my problems would overcome the language and/or culture barrier that seemed to be preventing the very nice customer support agent from understanding my question over the phone. I excerpt from the instant message conversation below:

Scott: "I'd like to know about the energy usage of my Dell computer"
Scott: "Dell Inspiron 8200"
Agent: "I do understand that you are wanting to know the energy usage and I will do my best to assist you.
Agent: "For references - The warranty expired on the system on 07.30.2005. Is this your first contact with Dell regarding the energy usage?"
Scott: "I'm not sure --"
Scott: "I'm not having a problem with my system"
Scott: "I only need information about its energy usage"
Agent: "Scott, allow me 3-6 minutes to research this information."
Agent: "Thank you for holding. I do apologize for the delay. The power information that I have is that the system uses a 8 cell battery and a 65 Watt Adapter."
Agent: "Scott, it has been a great pleasure working with you today. I'm going to send you some important information for your records. I apologize for its lengthiness. Let me know if you have any questions about it."

My struggle illustrates one of the many challenges that remain as both consumers and companies look for ways to become more sustainable. (To read how this same issue manifests for many corporate IT managers, check out Andrew Binstock's article "How Many Watts Does that PC Consume Exactly, and Why?" from GreenerComputing News.)

In many cases, the enthusiasm and marketing efforts voiced by high-level executives are not consistently matched by the products and employees that support them. As Dell aims to be a leader among computer manufacturers in selling environmentally responsible systems, it must ensure that relevant environmental impact information about its products is both easily available for consumers online, and that its customer support staff understands corporate priorities in being able to communicate that data.

Even if new, environmentally innovative product lines are slower to evolve than the processes to publicize those accomplishments, developing corporate habits of transparency and openness towards customers can go a long way to helping companies of all sizes and sectors attract the attention of the new green consumer audience.

Neil from Dell Responds (in record time!):

I’m at Dell Headquarters in Austin, Texas and I just read the post on your blog but comments were disabled. I’ve worked in support here at Dell for a long time on the phones, in chat queues, and now in the blogosphere and can honestly say that I’ve never heard that question so I had to do a bit of looking around. What I found was a site;, that has energy calculators and other info that you were seeking, only not for the system Scott has. I was only able to find it for later model servers, workstations, and the Optiplex and Latitude lines of desktop and notebook computers.

I realize this isn’t ideal for consumers with Inspirons and would imagine that as more consumers begin to seriously factor that sort of thing into their purchase, it will become available. I haven’t been a part of this site so I don’t speak from experience on this, but I would guess that the reason only the newer models of business machines were featured is that it is only a consideration for companies going forward and other factors will still dictate when the current systems are to be phased out either way. I can inquire about a specific system if you’d like but I think the general rule of thumb with the newer, dual-core machines is to enable the power saving features, kill unnecessary visuals, and not leave it on unnecessarily. If there’s any info you’d like me to find, I’d be glad to try and help track it down.