As a Summer Solstice shout-out to four dozen brands, companies, and notable names, I’d like to start with my past week:
- My six-month-old Epson printer wouldn’t fulfill its primary function – printing. It was seemingly stymied by clogged ink-jet nozzles, except those nozzles couldn’t be cleared because the unit was experiencing a – phantom – paper jam.
- My Time Warner Cable feed went south. This quarterly adventure, which I’m told has something to do with the TiVo interface, forced me to call the automated help line, say “yes” or “no” to a series of questions, wait for a pulse to be sent to my cable box, and watch as only the local broadcast channels re-appeared – which forced me to call back and again wade through the menus until a live person figured out that I needed a service call to restore E!, Al Jazeera, SyFy, and the hundreds of other channels I will never view.
- My newly serviced Black+Decker lawnmower refused to start after its gas tank was refilled; causing my partially mowed lawn to look like a Mr. Peanut crop circle (don’t ask).
I’m not alone, of course, in being subjected to the glitches and frustrations of our cyber-electronic-fossil-fuel life. And that’s the problem – for which I blame Bill Gates. His Windows-powered Microsoft personal computers were a revelation when they hit the market in the early 80s, but they were also as buggy as the Everglades. Dealing with the Blue Screen of Death, disappearing documents, and endless software patches made us long for a Soviet-era breadline. And yet, we consumers rode along.
It could be argued that we were never a very discerning bunch:
- We opted for the captured-war-footage quality of VHS over the vastly superior Sony Beta format.
- We put up with the less-than-high-fidelity MP3 music downloads even though an ostensible reason for switching from vinyl to CDs in the 1980s was because of superior audio quality.
- We decided that dropped cell phone calls and barely-there audio was a fair price to pay for a device that also allowed us to tweet, Instagram, and crush candy.
We are no longer completely surprised that our world features faulty GM ignition switches, Sirius-XM satellite radio signals with the fidelity of an RCA 8-track, bad batteries in Boeing 787 Dreamliners, Ticketmaster algorithms that take a Starbucks break just as we’re about to order Miley Cyrus tickets, or – coming in 2015 – Netflix streaming of Star Wars VII that we know will buffer just as Harrison Ford breaks his foot on the Millennium Falcon set (director’s cut only).
This incurious consumer attitude about modern technology is bad news for companies. For example, even though the retainer that General Motors is paying its PR-damage-control specialists could probably buy enough Corvettes to stretch from Midtown Manhattan to Manhattan Beach, the damage to the automaker’s reputation will have long-term and even more expensive consequences. Loyal customers will look elsewhere (get ready, Kia), rival companies will learn (one would assume) from GM’s manufacturing and corporate-culture mistakes, and none of this will bode well for the efficacy of GM’s (hoped for) self-driving cars.
Some companies do get it:
- Apple’s Genius Bar is – well – genius. You can have your iPad’s retina display tweaked while you succumb to the lure of Beats headphones or a two-terabyte Porsche Design hard drive and charge $300 to your Mastercard (which you hope was not hacked during your purchase of Fresh Step cat litter at Target).
- L.L. Bean is a paragon of online, on-phone, and in-store customer service. Need a Garmin GPS and Teva water sandals for your Old Town tandem kayak? No problem, they’ll be at your house tomorrow. Free shipping.
- Google, for all its “don’t be evil… but rule the world” ethos, works as advertised: You type in “celebrity selfies” and Rihanna, James Franco, and Anthony Weiner’s NSFW photos magically appear.
Call it arrogance, incompetence, or the complexity of running a business, but many companies are headed for oblivion simply because a customer-first attitude does not exist. Yes, survival of the fittest is at play here, but why consciously aid in your company’s extinction? I’m looking at you, Air France.
For me, it comes down to the simple protest that Howard Beale (Peter Finch) expressed in the movie, Network: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to – ” Oops. Sorry. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the rest of that line – my Samsung Blu-ray player is reloading.