Last week’s closure of Dell's popular Customer Care message boards has some Dell users fuming that the company, once the darling of PC buyers for the quality of its service, is whittling that quality down.

Dell says it shut down most of its nontechnical message boards on 8 July to streamline service to customers seeking after-purchase help. However, some users of Customer Care – a collection of six message boards that have provided friendly moderated forums for cancelling orders and checking on rebates, among other after-purchase concerns, since 1997 – are crying foul.

"Home customers are now left with no domestic support alternative," says one ex-visitor. "I'm saddened that new Dell customers will not be able to take advantage of the top-notch support that longtime Dell forum moderators provided to literally thousands of customers and potential customers each year."

Dell is now asking customers with nontechnical after-purchase questions to use other tools on the site, such as the order status page, a chat facility, email, a toll-free phone line, or a set of FAQ pages based on old Customer Care posts.

Dell closed Customer Care because it is more appropriate for customers to solve their nontechnical after-purchase questions through "secure" site tools, says a spokesperson. "What happened was that Customer Care was being used by customers to get questions answered like, 'What is the status of my rebate?' The moderators could answer those questions; however, the forum was not the place to do that because of the personal nature of the questions."

Some forum users say they believe Dell closed Customer Care because it feared bad word of mouth on its own site. Interspersed among more prosaic postings about rebates and order cancellations was the occasional tirade about poor Dell support.

The forum closings happened to coincide with a support dust-up involving Jeff Jarvis, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, who complained about a "lemon" Dell laptop last month in his blog.

"I sincerely believe that the decision to close the forums was based in great part on the amount of negative customer comments regarding Dell's faltering customer support," says one user. "In particular," he continues, "many customers have found it frustrating at best to deal with outsourced, foreign-based customer and technical support personnel, where language and cultural differences complicate the experience."

A spokesperson says Dell's decision had nothing to do with support complaints and that Dell takes customer problems seriously. "One negative experience with Dell is one too many for us," he says. "We are the world's number one PC company. Every customer issue is important to us. We work very hard to resolve [problems like Jarvis's]. When we became aware of his problem, we submitted it to our advanced support care team."

Brooks Gray, an analyst at Technology Business Research, says Dell's forum closure makes sense. "They're shipping 8 million PCs per quarter, and I would assume only a fraction of users use this message board. From what I know they've never marketed this forum as a preferred way of customer support. It's not an integral part of their support, so it won't matter to 99 percent of their customers."