Customers Are Talking: Why Do Companies Continue to Do Such Dumb Stuff?

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Two blog posts struck a chord with me this week. First, Bob Sutton posted on Wal-Mart’s decision to stock Girl-Scout-cookie knockoffs (the delightfully-named “Thin Mint-y Gate“). Then David Pogue provided an update on “Take Back the Beep,” his campaign to get wireless companies to stop playing lengthy introductory messages to callers trying to leave voice mail.

Verizon’s ham-handed response fascinated me–especially considering the more mature and enlightened reponses of VZ’s competitors, and the high profile of Pogue’s campaign. Here’s how AT&T handled it, then Verizon:

Mark Siegel, AT&T’s executive director of media relations, wrote with some very encouraging news:

David: All the messages we got from customers really made us look again at how we handle voice mail, and we are going to make some changes. I commend you for raising the issue.

– First, we really appreciate hearing from the thousands of customers who have contacted us.

– As I know you know, any customer with our Visual Voicemail service does not listen to an upfront voicemail message. Today, our iPhone customers enjoy Visual Voicemail. In the near future, we will make Visual Voice Mail available on other devices.

– In the meantime, we are actively exploring how to shorten the voicemail message on our other handsets.

Verizon’s PR contact, Tom Pica, hasn’t responded to my request for a progress report.

He’s probably still irritated at me. When ABC News interviewed him about this campaign, he told them that customers can already turn off the instructions. Which isn’t true. So that night on Twitter, I said that he was lying.

He called me to let me know that he wasn’t lying—he was misquoted. What he said was that you can turn off *voicemail altogether* if you don’t like the 15-second instructions.

Besides the Schadenfreude factor, these stories are notable because they show how isolated large companies are from the outside world. In other words, they are able to take carefully-considered actions that, once revealed in public, are immediately ridiculed and seem perverse and self-defeating. “What were they thinking?” is the only sane response.

But there’s an explanation. Most large companies are hermetically sealed off from the outside world. Within the walls, these decisions don’t seem perverse. They seem sensible and logical. Verizon responded to Pogue’s campaign as an attack, not as a dialogue. They defended, counterattacked, and discredited. Pogue (who of course has the easier job here) retained his considerable sense of humor and used Verizon’s words against them. One can almost feel the VZ spokesperson’s frustration when he claimed he was misquoted–all his tactics conceived inside the company walls had backfired.

This bunker mentality infects companies when they deal with outside criticism. Wal-Mart has learned volumes of lessons on its responses to the environmental movement, union organizing, community protests, etc., and now much more sensitively deals with these outside critics (even learning from them!). However, Thin Mint-y Gate shows how inside-the-walls corporate strategy, obsessively pursued, can create “what were they thinking?” moments.

Sutton writes in his post:

The brilliance –and the Achilles heel — of Wal-Mart is that they talk and act as if the answer to every problem is to use their scale, bargaining power, and speedy implementation to tackle any problem by driving down the price they pay and pass it along to consumers.

Wal-Mart’s strategy has made them the largest retailer on Earth. So they apply it “to every problem” without enough reflection, questioning or dissent. Inside the walls, mint cookies are just another product, not a national symbol of the Girl Scouts.

Companies have increasingly realized that the outside world matters–whether in questions of sustainability, regulation, trade and economic policies, etc. They have groups that do face outward and deal with these issues. But the Wal-Mart case in particular shows that departmental approaches are insufficient.

It’s not enough to open the curtains in one part of the building to let the world (and all its messy opinions, obstacles and arguments) in, while leaving them closed in other parts. The light, too, must penetrate to the very center of the organizations, where people far from the customer, the press and the government continue to drive decisions that, when presented publicly, make their companies look stupid.

It’s time to bring the outside in, indeed.

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