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PARALLEL UNIVERSE: Could ‘Failure to Communicate’ Be One Cause of Big Three Automakers’ Disastrous 2006?

Posted by kinchendavid on January 29, 2007

By David M. Kinchen
Editor, Huntington News Network

Hinton, WV   – When the numbers come out in a day or so, we’ll find that GM and Chrysler will join Ford in the horrendous loss category of American motor vehicle manufacturers. Ford’s $12.7 billion loss for 2006 (web link: http://money.cnn.com/2007/01/25/news/companies/ford_2006_loss/index.htm?eref=rss_topstories) won’t be topped by the other two of the so-called “Big Three” automakers, but their losses are expected to be substantial.

I was mulling over this situation – the first time since 1991 that all the Big Three are reporting losses in the same year — about the same time as I received a wonderful commentary by HNN contributor Rene Henry on American bosses who don’t want to hear from their customers. This struck me as a truly amazing situation, but Rene is one of the nation’s most experienced public relations consultants, so I take his view as gospel. I knew and respected him when I worked as a reporter at the L.A. Times from 1976 to 1990 and my admiration has only increased since then.

For the full column, click on : http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/070127-henry-comment.html

Wanting to get the biggest possible impact, I ran my headline — COMMENTARY: Corporate America: It’s Time to Listen; ‘What We Have Here is Failure to Communicate’ – by Rene Henry – something I don’t usually do – and he approved. The quote, of course, is a reference to the Strother Martin line to Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke,” one of my all-time favorite movies. For those unfortunates who haven’t seen the flick, the Martin character, the road prison warden, is talking to Newman after he’s been returned to the chain gang after escaping.

We do indeed have “failure to communicate” when American CEOs – in contrast to the late Lord Taylor of Britain’s Taylor Woodrow – simply don’t want to be bothered with input from customers. Some examples from Henry’s commentary about that:

“Stanley T. Sigman, president and CEO of Cingular, refuses to respond to mail from customers and never answers the question about why someone should buy his wireless service. The response comes from someone saying ‘I am in the office of the president.’ But what can you believe when the woman responding is three time zones away in California and Sigman’s office is in Atlanta? Who’s kidding who about physically being located in the office of the president? Why not just tell the truth?

”If you write Edward C. Whitacre, Jr., chairman and CEO of AT&T in San Antonio, chances are someone also miles away will respond. Why wouldn’t Whitacre at least want to see some of the mail addressed to him and hear what customers are saying? Or encourage a customer to continue using AT&T?”

In sharp contrast, the late Lord Taylor – “He headed Taylor Woodrow, a British conglomerate involved in everything from building nuclear power plants and the English Channel tunnel to land and housing developments in the U.K., U.S., Canada and Spain ” — according to Henry’s commentary, was a hands-on manager who wanted input.

Henry: “Following a reception where a friend confronted him about a problem, he sent an edict to all employees that he be sent any complaint and failure to do so would result in immediate termination whether the employee was a secretary or division president. Because of his hands-on management style, within months complaints virtually disappeared.”

I wonder if the automaking CEOs and the managers reporting to them – people who typically are paid 400 times as much as the people who build their cars and trucks – are anywhere close to Lord Taylor! On a trip to London in 1979, Liz and I stayed overnight in a Taylor Woodrow project converting Ivory House in St. Katharine’s Docks, a short walk from the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, to offices, shops, restaurants and hotel rooms. It was a magnificent reuse of a building that was constructed in the 19th Century to store tusks from elephants and T-W was an adaptive reuse pioneer in the area.

This was in the pioneering stage of what has transformed cities like Chicago, New York, Dallas, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and even suburb-happy Los Angeles into what I call downtown-centric metropolises. I can’t help but believe that Lord Taylor was a visionary par excellence who listened and learned. Too bad the British car industry didn’t have visionaries like Lord Taylor. Let’s hope the men – and they’re all men (Could that be a problem? Men not stopping and asking for directions?) at the top in the Big Three will learn from the wisdom of Lord Taylor – and Charleston, WV native Rene Henry – and spend most of their days listening to what their customers really want. A final word from PR master Rene Henry, part of his commentary that I urge all HNN readers to memorize: “Understandably, CEOs of “Fortune 100” companies don’t have time to read every letter sent to them. But to stay in touch with reality, some time each week should be set aside to read a few letters and then personally answer them and tell a customer why s/he should buy the company’s products or services. In the long run, listening carefully to what the public wants could avert a crisis.”

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