Direct from Dell, by Michael Dell with Catherine Fredman
HarperCollins, 235 pages, $26

Michael Dell has been trying to improve efficiency since the third grade. When he heard an advertisement that said he could receive his high school diploma by taking just one test, he sent away for it immediately.

Although he didn't get to graduate high school at 8 years old, he did eventually create a company that now makes $12 million a day -- Dell Computer Corp.

In Direct from Dell, Dell shows us how his business grew exponentially from its legendary beginnings in his University of Texas dorm room because of one thing he figured out before anyone else: He could offer customers better quality at a lower price by eliminating the middle man and selling to the end user directly.

He also increased efficiency by using what he calls the "direct model" -- spending time with customers to figure out exactly what they want before the product's made and customizing orders. Listening to the customer ahead of time takes the guesswork and wasted resources out of the equation altogether.

In addition to the familiar tale of Dell's road to success, he lays out specific, innovative strategies on improving customer service, cultivating supplier relationships, making employees your most valued resource, and achieving vertical integration.

For example, Dell says that to develop a "customer-focused philosophy," you should "always think bottom line -- but not just yours. Consider your customer's bottom line as well. Can you save them money while enhancing your partnership with them? Think strategically about your customers' businesses, and find ways to help them cut cost and increase profits, all the while improving how they can serve their customers."

Chapters are devoted to outlining practical advice like this, and Dell's story provides a framework for how it can all be put into action. It's a worthwhile book for people looking to guard or gain a competitive edge.

I'm Not an Installer!

One simple way that Dell improved customer service was to make his salespeople install their own computers. Although unhappy about the directive, the sales force gained hands-on experience with the equipment they'd be selling. It put them in a better position to help customers make informed decisions, Dell said, as well as solve problems with the product.

Copyright 1999 Soundview Executive Book Summaries