Tag Archives: corporations

Sears: an example of why our corporations are dumber than you think

I just finished reading an article about the downfall of the business I grew up knowing as Sears, Roebuck & Company. Management seems not to know how to right the ship. To me it looks like RMS Titanic‘s bridge crew ordering everyone to grab a bucket and start bailing.

As a child, Sears was relevant to me. Sears was one source of catalogs that offered toys and gift ideas I could not find in nearby stores. Later in life, Sears added importance as a source of catalogs that depicted women’s lingerie. Sometimes one could see shadowy areolae, stuff of dreams. The Montgomery, Ward catalog also hooked me in early because Ward’s also sold toys and stuff with football logos. I dismissed the J.C. Penney catalogs until my aging brought them relevance as another source of lingerie photography.

To hear the article’s author tell it (see for yourself if you’d like), Sears’s executives have no idea why no one comes to Sears anymore. If that’s so, they are stupid. The author identifies one reason, which is that every shopping area touched on by Sears is covered better by a specialized competitor. But that’s also true of Wal-Mart. People still find a reason to shop at Wal-Mart (cheapness, or perhaps desire to see the grotesque underside of human nature). Why don’t people find a reason to shop at Sears?

The execs don’t know?

God, this is stupid.

Young businesspeople: if you think your competition is smarter than you are, just remember that those who rise to great power end up running corporations like Sears. They aren’t that smart.

Part of the reason is that the jobs available to young adults have been so crappy, underpaid, and futureless that they don’t have much money to spend, especially if they are trying to pay student loans. Also, or perhaps therefore, those young people aren’t yet buying homes. Despite historically low interest rates, many still can’t and many more prefer not to. Since they have never known exorbitant interest rates, they do not have an experiential apprehension of the hideousness of double-digit interest. The irresistible opportunity to build relatively inexpensive equity toward non-payment of rent one day falls on deaf ears. So does the notion that, for so long as they rent, they will remain at the economic mercy of landowners. They accept this, even in reasonably priced markets. Not all, but more than pure economics explain.

Sears never did mean too much to apartment-dwellers.

Once I became clever enough, then old enough to obtain more interesting depictions of the feminine form than Sears and Ward could publish in a catalog, Sears fell off my radar. I survived high school, attended college, went to work, paid my student loans (the sum total of which were roughly 1/4 of one year’s pay), and lived in one-bedroom apartments. I also had frequent enough opportunities to view the feminine form, live and in person, that I no longer cared whether I received a catalog. I was past toys, at least the kind found in a catalog. I didn’t go “clothes shopping.” If I needed suits, I went to a store that focused on suits. If I needed socks, I sure as hell wasn’t going to battle mall parking and traffic just so I could have the Sears experience.

By itself, my marriage at 34 did not by itself change the equation at all, because we still lived in an apartment. What changed, at 37, was home ownership. I had never before needed a lawn mower, or a really good vacuum cleaner, or a nice tool chest, or to replace a washer and dryer. Sears was different. If you had a problem with your Sears purchase, they had a good return policy, or you could call them and get help figuring it out. This was fantastic. All of a sudden, for a few short years, Sears mattered to me. Before I bought a table saw anywhere else, I had to ask myself what I’d do if I couldn’t figure something out. A garage door opener? With all that fussing and aligning? No other realistic option but Sears. If it didn’t work, I’d be able to get help on the phone.

Because we went to Sears for those sorts of items, we were inside the store. That may seem like a Captain Obvious moment, but marketing professionals don’t seem to grasp it. Because there was a reason to be in a Sears, we shopped for other things. My wife would browse their clothes. We might notice an iced tea maker. While we were there, we might pick up some socks. Tools at Sears had an excellent reputation. Because there was one sovereign reason to shop at Sears, one key factor that brought us to the store, we were customers. Was Sears the cheapest? Probably almost never. Did we care? If we had, we’d have shopped at the human zoo that is Wal-Mart. Anyone focused purely on the lowest price, cheep cheep cheap, is as foolish as my parents were. I grew up with parents who would buy only the very cheapest option at the very cheapest place, which meant that everything we owned was crappy and fell apart. I admit that this is a bias of mine. I came to hate what cheapness meant. As an adult, I intended to own things that didn’t fall to pieces. To me, the price was and is less important than the ability to buy with confidence. As a homeowner, Sears was essential to my world.

Then my Sears vacuum cleaner stopped working.

It had been an expensive vac, we hadn’t used it that heavily, and I wasn’t planning to just chuck it. Over the past few years, I had noticed a general decline in the quality, attitudes, and quantities of Sears sales staff. Now I found out that the tree was not merely barked but girdled. “May I please speak with someone in vacuums?”

“We can tell you where to find the nearest repair center, sir.”

“That’s not what I want. I need help figuring out why this thing isn’t working any more.”

“We don’t offer that any more, sir.”

Oh.

Creative executive stupidity. In the erroneous opinion that the way to compete was cheap cheep cheep cheep megacheap lowest price just give me the best price cheap cheep cheep, they’d hunted down and eradicated the only thing that made their company unique. Instead of doubling down on that and making Sears an even better place to shop, they’d turned it into a Wal-Mart of sorts: one that didn’t sell groceries, but required one to go to a shopping mall. Brilliant.

I can’t even remember the last time I went to Sears to actually buy actual merchandise with actual money. Sears locations are mall anchor stores, complicating my path as I forge ahead for a commercial cattle raid. I pay little attention to the merchandise as I pass. I wouldn’t care if Sears collapsed, as I assume it must.

It was not me that broke up this relationship.

How could this have been avoided?

Sears stores are large enough to contain a Best Buy. Sears should have become Best Buy. It should have used its buying power to make itself the fount of retail technology, selling the TVs and computers inexpensively and offering helpful expertise. If that expertise went on site, it could charge for it. The area where the most people have the most need for someone to explain stuff to them, and the company whose wheelhouse was the ability to help people. Would it break even on the electronics? Probably a wash after paying all the people whose job it is to help Granny program her remote and be patient when she complains, “I can’t get my Explorer to download my browser email, and my hard disk thing keeps popping out, and the foot pedal doesn’t go down, and this keyboard isn’t like the ones we had when I taught typing; what do these F buttons do?” Would it have brought large numbers of new customers into Sears, walking past clothing and coffee makers? I think it would have. Of course, this did not occur. Sears typically had a decent TV selection, plus a computer selection that was an expensive afterthought.

Think on this next time you are tempted to assume that having corporate leaders run the government would be a good idea.

How to throw lightning bolts of consumer recompense

In our modern society, we too often tolerate the standard responses from our vendors. “That’s just our policy.” “We can’t change that, sir.” “We apologize profusely, but do not plan to compensate you.”

Don’t take that shit.

Here’s how to get some compensation for what was done wrong. It won’t always work; I wouldn’t bet on it working on the Comcastards, for example, or Arrogant Twits & Torturers. But if you don’t believe it can work, let me blow my own horn a little here, and then maybe you will change your mind. Bear in mind that not all letters are negative; good work can and should be highlighted:

I wrote to the CEO of Seafirst Bank (children, there once was a Northwest commercial bank by that name) to praise the conduct of an employee. (Someone had found my lost paycheck, taken it to the nearby branch, the employee had not contented herself with just mailing it to me, and phoned me to verify that it was mine and would I like to come get it. Exceptional.) I also praised her manager, whom I respected very much. The employee got a bonus check. Before long, the manager had a new placard announcing that she was now an AVP. Put it this way: from then on, any remotely reasonable request I made at that branch was considered ‘very reasonable.’

I wrote to Jeff Bezos to straighten out the quagmire of getting my contributing author credits right on books sold at Amazon. I heard from a very nice young man who sliced through the red tape and solved it.

I wrote to Michael Dell about the idiocy of continuing to send me ‘refurbished’ CRT monitors that came up very short in the furbishing department. I got a call from one of his personal assistants, and in less than a week, I had a new monitor. I am looking at it to compose this post.

I wrote to the Benton County PUD (Public Utilities District; stop giggling, you infants) about a stupid policy regarding billing cycles. Simply put, I saw no reason why my billing due date should be tied to my meter-reading date. I wanted to pay promptly in full each month, and I just wanted my bill to show up conveniently. That one was tough, but after four years of campaigning, and one final letter to the commissioners, they did it.

Great Floors left my (at the time, vacant) house a mess. They replaced the carpet, but left shreds of it laying all over the property. Boxcutter blades on the bathroom floor. Dragged the carpeting over freshly painted wall corners, abrading the new paint right off. Tied up the drapes in knots and then didn’t untie them. Turned my heat off and then failed to turn it back on, in a cold climate, in winter. Left the extra carpet out in the winter weather, though there was a perfectly good garage handy. I wrote to the CEO, who tasked the local manager with fixing things. Said local manager tried to blame it all on a painting contractor who had no reason to be in most of the places that had damage, thus attempting to muddy the blame waters. Bad move. I wrote to the CEO again. One person was fired, one was demoted, and I got $500.

Frontier’s technicians were stupid. Not only did the company think I should have to change my email address because they bought the local DSL business from Verizon, but they had no one intelligent enough to figure out why I couldn’t access my email unless I wanted to use Outhouse Express. After a great deal of hellraising, I got them to give me $150 to pay for my new business cards and the headache of changing my address.

Centurylink, in defiance of several pointed requests, not only issued me a published phone number, but put me in the phone book. The Federal do-not-call list works about as well as most Federal anything, so that was no help. Every beg-a-thon in Boise dialed my number. In the end, I got them to give me a compensatory discount every month for a year, plus not charge me for an unlisted number in the future.

A Yakima Federal S&L loan rep promised me something, then failed to keep his promise when I’d gotten my paperwork together. “Sorry, program closed.” Not so fast, son, I’ve been at this a long time. I eventually called my way up to the chief lending officer. After a polite discussion where we got past all the usual fluff and were being fully candid, he said, “That’ll leave a lot of money on the table over the years.” “True,” I said. “And I will have all twenty of those years to tell everyone who will listen that YakFed is a highly principled bank that keeps its commitments.” He thought for a moment. “Done,” he said.

Bear in mind that if you call, you must follow the same principles as you’d follow if you wrote a letter. There are many more examples, but now do you believe me?

Good. Here’s what you do.

The Tale of Woe. First go through the normal channels. Sit on hold. Write down names and dates. Act like the typical dufus who can easily be blown off. You will spend a lot of time on hold, talking to foreigners who can’t solve your problem or compensate you fairly, getting annoyed a little more by the minute. Just take notes. The Tale of Woe gives you a story to tell about how you tried the normal process and were treated shabbily. There is also the chance–rare, but non-zero–that the normal channels may actually resolve your problem. That would be nice, too.

The Manager. Once you determine that the normal channels are a fail, call back and ask to speak to the manager. Explain that you are very frustrated and don’t want to tell the whole story twice, and that you don’t want to take out your frustrations on the person who answered the phone, as you know that isn’t fair. Try The Manager, who probably can’t solve your problem, but make a good faith effort anyway. (Stupid or unempowered customer service people are usually a reflection of middle management incompetence and evil, so I wouldn’t expect too much.) Continue to compile the Tale of Woe.

The Lightning Bolt. If you are not exceptionally articulate, find a friend who is. If you have no friends who are exceptionally articulate, then you should befriend some of us. We are helpful to have in your world. Find out who the CEO is, and find out how to mail him or her a letter–call the corporate office. Reassure them that you just want to write a letter and that a PO box is fine, lest in our modern paranoid day the receptionist suspects that you are headed over with a van full of bad things. Then throw the Lightning Bolt, which is a letter designed to persuade. Follow these principles:

  • You must have fairly paid all money that you legitimately owe. People with bad payment histories have no leverage. You must always maintain an exemplary payment history, even if your notion of exemplary is different than theirs–you must be able to articulate it, show that it’s reasonable, and prove that you live by it.
  • Do your level best to keep it to one page. Bear in mind that if you succeed, a minion will be assigned to investigate, so no need to take a ton of time.
  • Spell names correctly, use gender-neutral language where suitable, and say Mr. or Ms. (or Dr., etc.). Take the time to get this exactly right. ‘Ms. Lynn Smith’ may actually be Mr. Lynn Smyth. Spelling correctly shows respect.
  • Write respectfully. You are pleading your case to a busy executive, an important person whose time is finite. You want the reader to see you as a wonderful customer who has been treated odiously by the firm, and who can be satisfied.
  • Be reasonable. If your position seems in any way unreasonable, you will get nowhere. Do not unfairly malign any person involved, or present an unreasonable wish. The customer isn’t always right, and only fools think s/he is. Reality: the customer is as right as the firm can possibly make him or her without giving away the store.
  • Be satisfiable. If you offer no hint as to what would make you happy, there is minimal reason for someone to attempt to please you. Offer a path to full restoration of your confidence and respect.
  • If at any point in the Tale of Woe, you got frustrated and were too harsh with someone, fess to it in some way, and apologize.
  • The Tale of Woe needs to be involved enough for you to keep one key painful event in reserve, so that if you are asked if that’s all there was, it isn’t.
  • No matter how difficult this is, avoid statements that sound like telling the CEO how to run the company. Those will be resented. The way around that is:
  • Above all, frame it in the firm’s business interest. You are writing to a very successful businessperson who wants the company to do well. You must present the case for why the change you want, or the recompense you want, works in the firm’s business interest. Retaining good customers? Positive PR? Rewarding people who pay promptly and in full? To appeal to a politician, you’d frame it in terms of the support you can mobilize and offer. To appeal to a business person, frame it in terms of doing the best business for the firm.
  • Offer something in return. First, make clear that this would satisfy you, because one good ‘something in return’ is making you go away happy. I swore to Benton County PUD to physically drop off my payment each month, just to make dead sure that when they changed the due date to make me happy, I would never be late, ever. You read what I promised the YakFed lending chief; I went him one better, and brought him my business again when we bought a house in their catchment area. I promised Centurylink to endure a year of phone nags without complaining to them about it again.
  • Normally I would say you should make sure to assure the CEO that if s/he calls you, you will be polite and reasonable, but think about it. If the tone of your letter fails to convey that without having to specify it, then your letter is already a fail. Write in such a way that the CEO might actually like speaking with you.
  • If you get bought off, stay bought. If you make a promise, keep it in every particular.
  • Thank the executive for his or her time and attention.
  • Provide your full contact information, because you’ll be hearing back.

Sometimes the CEO will call you in person–this happened to me with a credit union–but most of the time you should expect the CEO to hand this off to an assistant and say, “Fix this.” Expect the assistant to call and check your facts. If you overstated your case, you will look terrible. If you were a complete jackass, you will look terrible. If you lied, you will look terrible. If you don’t pay your bills, you will look terrible. If the assistant smells bullshit, the CEO does not expect him or her to waste the company’s time and money on a liar or a deadbeat, and will back the assistant when s/he phones you with nothing more substantive than a verbal apology.

You had better have been factual, if anything understating the pain. If you got even a little frustrated, your apology for the way you vented the frustration needs to have been in that letter. If you craft your words correctly, you will seem like the world’s best customer and most reasonable person, just seeking to do high-quality business with the firm, and that your business was treated as though it had no value, but that they can make it up to you.

Then let them.

=========

If you can’t bear to read a long letter, skip this addendum.

Here I include a sample Lightning Bolt, plus the follow-up letter (always of value, especially when the business is smaller and more local. It reminds me that I got the story slightly wrong above, but that’s okay, because the truth as presented is even more entertaining. First, here is my letter to the Commissioners of Benton PUD, all of whom I researched for useful references that would help me frame my position. It couldn’t fit in one page, but here I had a protracted tale to tell:

June 18, 2008

  • Mr. Jeff Hall
  • Ms. Lori Sanders
  • Mr. Robert Bertsch
  • Benton P.U.D.
  • POB 6270
  • Kennewick, WA 99336

Re: P.U.D. account #[number]

Dear Commissioners:

We’re having a P.U.D. migraine, and we hope you can help us.

We are P.U.D. customers with service at [address], Kennewick. When we bought this home nearly seven years ago, we discovered that our P.U.D. billing cycle could vary as much as nine days, depending on when the meter was read. This concerned us (not the meter reading itself, simply the billing), for we are rigorously creditworthy people who pay all their bills—in full—on the 4th, 5th or 6th of each month. (Exact timing depends on weekends and holidays. We don’t even take vacations during that time.) Where necessary, we work with vendors to ensure that their bills show up in time to pay them promptly. As a result, our credit is excellent.

Unfortunately, the irregular billing meant that sometimes we had the P.U.D. bill in time to pay, and sometimes not. When we first saw the situation, seven years back, we phoned the billing office to seek a solution. The representative brusquely told us that the billing system couldn’t be changed and that we’d just have to live with it. We didn’t expect the meter-reading route to change for one household; we just wanted to get our bill at the same time every month, in time to pay it immediately. Evidently, that was considered unreasonable.

We didn’t appreciate the brush-off, and decided that if that’s how the P.U.D. felt, we would simply pay whatever P.U.D. bill(s) we had in hand when we paid all our other vendors. In practice, that meant that some months we had one bill, some months none, and some months two plus a late fee. Whatever was there, we paid. Having tried hard to repair the situation, we resented those late fees, but since one can’t really switch electricity vendors, we had no choice but to clench our teeth and pay them.

We operated that way for about four years. Once a year we would phone the P.U.D. office, again seeking a resolution, and each year we got the same answer. We still felt our request was reasonable, so we didn’t back down.

In 2005, the annual phone call finally paid off. The billing department put us on what we now understand is called a Protected Billing Cycle, and we in turn agreed to an unusual step: henceforth we would hand deliver the P.U.D. payment to the drop box, rather than entrusting it to the mail. As we saw it, since the utility had met our request, we had the ethical duty to ensure that we were never late (even by accident). We felt we had a mutual understanding, and it delighted us to keep our bargain—which our account history will demonstrate that we have. We subscribed to your Green Power initiative; given the evidence of good stewardship, we knew you’d use the money wisely.

With our May 2008 billing, we received a survey. We were pleased to rate the P.U.D. favorably in all categories, and included a special note of praise for the billing resolution. We included it with our payment.

Imagine our surprise when our next invoice came, and the due date was June 30! We’d like to hope that someone didn’t read our survey and hand it to a supervisor who said, “What special billing arrangement? Cancel it!” It looked as if the P.U.D. had abrogated our understanding without even so much as the courtesy of a notice, and without the slightest provocation by us. Most likely it was a coincidence; if so, its timing was awful.

Surely there had to be some mistake, so one of us (Jonathan) stopped by the Kennewick office to speak to a supervisor. We discussed it at length; the supervisor pulled our payment history and verified our claims. Her answer was that the P.U.D. was doing away with these Protected Billing Cycles, and our turn had simply come. We made most of the points we have made in this letter; she remained unmoved. She offered various justifications and suggestions, but the short version was ‘sorry, tough luck.’ She invited us to write to the Commissioners.

Very well.

Our position was and is simple. We are honest people who just want to get our bill on time and pay it promptly in full. We submit that we are your dream customers. What percent of your customers try to weasel out of paying? Probably more than a few. Those people harm us all; they deserve no accommodations from the utility. We, however, are the people who can and wish to pay.

All of you are successful businesspeople outside the P.U.D., so we hardly need point out that every business wants reliable customers who use the product or service, make no spurious complaints, and pay promptly in full. We believe you’d agree with this statement: any business practice that makes it harder for willing customers to pay promptly in full fails a fundamental test of good business.

What, then, do we ask of you? Simple as can be: assure that our monthly bill is mailed in time to arrive by the end of each month, with a due date not earlier than the tenth of the next month. That’s all. For our part, we will assure prompt payment in full each month: we’ll make sure you never regret it. In short, we would like a return to the fair and helpful understanding that resolved the longstanding awkwardness (for a couple of years, at least). We have made every effort to resolve this amicably over the years, to the P.U.D.’s advantage as well as our own. We feel we have earned an affirmative reply.

The representative at Kennewick did offer one creative idea for us to propose, and we wish to credit her for it. Perhaps, she suggested, the Protected Billing Cycle concept might be reinstated as a benefit available only to clients with outstanding payment histories. That makes sense to us. We would surely qualify, and it would reward the most responsible, honest customers. We’re open to any solution that puts our bill in our mailbox by month-end, due by the tenth of the next month, so that we have it in hand to pay in full.

We don’t think it’s too much to ask. We hope you’ll concur.

Sincerely,

[us, address, phone number]

The short version is that they did as we asked. To make them feel excellent about having done so, we followed up:

July 22, 2008

[the same people]

Dear Commissioners:

Today we received a call from [employee’s full name] about the billing cycle issue pursuant to our previous letter, and she informed us that the Protected Billing Cycle will be reinstated for our account.

We could hardly be more delighted. We want to thank you for a) taking our concerns seriously, b) recognizing our strong payment history in a proactive way, c) solving the issue to our complete satisfaction, and d) assigning Paula to the communication task. She made an excellent impression for the utility: professional, pleasant and informative.

We were confident that if we described the full situation, we would receive a fair and considerate hearing. Obviously our confidence was well-placed—and just as obviously, the public trust is very well-placed in the hands of the current commission.

For our part, you can be assured that our payment history will remain exemplary. The P.U.D. deserves that of us, and you shall have it.

Sincerely,

[us]

We never again needed to ask the Benton PUD for anything, but I suspect that if we had, a phone call to that employee would have obtained us the most favorable consideration. Note also that those PUD Commissioner slots are elective positions. While I wasn’t so crass as to come out and promise them my vote, be assured that they got the message. It spoke to their personal as well as business interests.

Anyway, that’s how it looks with live ammunition.

Moneychanging in my temple

The journey of the English language is much like a walk through modern Detroit. It evolves, but never comes through history unscathed. However, of late some of the scathing is beginning to offend my delicate sensibilities.

I’m pretty disgusted at some of what the Oxford Dictionary people have now decided is all right. They have evidently decided, for example, that ‘literally’ (a word we very badly need to separate wild metaphor from candid description) really does also mean ‘very,’ since enough people misused it long enough. That’s basically the equivalent of deciding that if men can’t hit the urinal, we’ll just remove the urinal and let them miss the toilet instead. However, they aren’t the most annoying abusers of the language. Even the text generation, with ‘ur’ for ‘your’ and ‘lol’ used as a comma, aren’t the worst. They are like copious spitters on the sidewalk, throwers of chewing gum on it, and occasional urinators in the alley. They make English gross and crude, like the floor of a baseball dugout, but they aren’t really doing much damage.

The business-speak word coiners aren’t even the worst. I hate to say it, but they aren’t even that awful. I’m talking about stuff like morphing ‘downsizing’ to ‘rightsizing,’ or addiction to words like ‘best practices.’ Most of it is baloney, but the baloney is mostly heard and believed by its inventors, who do not usually take it out into polite society where it could offend cultured persons. This is like butchers putting filler into the ground meat products: it lowers the overall quality of English a bit, but rarely poisons anyone.

No, the most irritating is made-up vaguely positive-sounding terms used as the actual names of corporations. Thrivent. Meritage. Exelon. Centene. Qwest. Visteon. Agilent. Actavis. Exelis. Altria. Viacom. Aramark. Meritain. Verizon. Navistar. Celgene. Entergy. Taligent. Cingular.

Credit to JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Electronic Arts, Monsanto and even AT&T, a rogues’ gallery of the vilest: at least their names are real words that refer to some real thing, person, etc.

These invented words go into the public mind and manipulate it, and cannot be extracted. They are goosing English in the crowded bus when they know there’s very little she can do about it, molesting her dignity and personal space. They are created by people who want to create a fiction in the public mind, hopefully one at variance with the truth (that the company only cares about quality and service if faults in those areas cause corporate harm). Don’t think that corporate invented-names are picked by employee contests. No, some very sophisticated psychological and literary sellouts get involved. Above a certain level of social control, accidents become very few.

This is crap. ‘Cingular?’ Really? ‘Thrivent?’ Seriously? ‘Meritain?’

I want to say “They cannot be serious,” but I’d be wrong. They can. They are.