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Putting your angriest customers to work: CEOs benefit by getting fed-up customers to tell it like it is.

Certain anecdotes about turning around troubled businesses are so poignant that everyone should know them by heart. One such anecdote was recently published in a Wall Street Journal column debating whether now-deposed Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina should have been more forthcoming about how dire her situation had become in the days leading up to her termination. The general feeling expressed by various experts consulted by the Journal was, well, it depends.


Fiorina's fate has been discussed at length elsewhere and need not be rehashed here. It was actually an anecdote at the tail end of the story that caught my attention, a story involving Ken Freeman, former chairman and CEO of Quest Diagnostics, who had once headed Corning's TV glass business. At the time, the Corning division found itself in such dire straits that Freeman had to persuade employees that quality had to improve or they'd be without jobs. His warnings went unheeded, so Freeman shut the factory for nine days and invited the company's best customers to address the work force. One customer threatened to "stop buying Corning products in six months unless the quality improved," he says. The tactic got the staff's attention and within a year, quality was again Job No. 1.

How nice it would be if more companies would adopt this iconoclastic approach to motivating the work force. Companies spend a fortune researching consumer attitudes, but rarely does this involve actual face-to-face meetings. Yet such tete-a-tetes would surely be a boon to everyone involved. Software engineers would actually get to meet the people who try, with no great success, to master the more arcane commands in their mystifying user interfaces. Technical writers would have to go toe-to-toe with bewildered, infuriated laymen who have no idea what their preposterous jargon signifies. Customer service reps would have to deal with customers wondering what happened to all that service they were promised. And airline employees would get an up close and personal view of their customers' biggest complaints: Stop lying about departure times, being surly to customers because of your salary gripes with management, and showing four-year-old Minnie Driver movies to captive audiences who have already suffered enough. At least give travelers a fighting chance. Another case in point: A few years ago, subscribers to my local newspaper began writing letters to the editor complaining about cell phone abuse on local commuter trains. The transportation company claimed it received only a few "official" complaints, suggesting that the problem was being exaggerated. Had the relevant higher-ups merely spent a few days interfacing with commuters riding the trains, they would have seen that the problem was by no means isolated and needed to be addressed--which it has been, in part, via public service announcements warning against cell phone abuse.

There are many other industries where informal interfacing sessions could really help cut problems off at the pass. Telemarketing is an annoying yet vital element in both commerce and fund-raising, and it is not going away. But wouldn't it be nice if telemarketers and Mr. John Q. Public occasionally got together to iron out some of the kinks in their uneasy liaison? And wouldn't it help troubled television networks to actually talk with ordinary people and find out what kind of programming they do and do not enjoy? (Hint: No more sitcoms.) Finally, wouldn't it be a great boon to us all if our nationally elected officials actually went out and conversed with ordinary people in ordinary settings to find out what's on their minds, rather than in choreographed, stage-managed "town hall" meetings where no one gets to ask a serious question and no one ever gets a straight answer?

Obviously, arranging face-to-face encounters between employees and customers, between retailers and suppliers, between voters and politicians is fraught with the potential for heated confrontations. But this seems a small price to pay if the end result is that a seemingly intractable problem finally gets untracked. Any company that finds itself in trouble should take a page from Mr. Freeman's book and invite customers in for a nice chitchat. That means you, GM. That means you. American Airlines. And that definitely means you, Amtrak.
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Title Annotation:FLIP SIDE; Chief executive officers
Author:Queenan, Joe
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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