Monday, May 12, 2008

Save America’s corporations from their greedy CEOs and themselves. Complain like hell. Maybe this book will help.

I got a full time reporting job on a big city daily newspaper when I was still a college student – by writing to the editor of the newspaper.

I got my first advertising job by writing to the chairman of an ad agency.

Those were the days when chief executives seemed to read their mail.

I repeat, those were the days.

You may not be old enough to remember, kiddies, but once upon a time corporate chairmen felt they had a responsibility to somebody besides themselves, their wives and their mistresses.

Okay, come to think of it, scratch the part about their wives.

The four vanished pillars
of corporate success

CEOs once stood on a four-pillared platform, supported by the reciprocal loyalty of 1) their stockholders, 2) their customers, 3) their employees and 4) their communities. To inspire that loyalty, they respected and were responsive to all four constituencies.

I repeat again, those were the days.

Today some top corporate chiefs
are as responsive as a dead toad

Not so long ago, when Bob Nardelli was still busy enjoying total compensation from Home Depot in excess of $200 million – in exchange for which his stewardship as CEO led the company’s stock essentially nowhere – he evidently was busy not giving a damn about his customers, either.

It was back then that the Crank’s beautiful girlfriend, in an extremely rare fit of misguided optimism, allowed Home Depot to take a deposit against $25,000 of her money to replace the double-glazed windows in her country home.

This no-brainer installation took nearly a year. Among other problems, the salesman kept calling the Crank’s beautiful girlfriend at her New York residence and announcing that the job was done and demanding payment in full. She’d drive out to the country and discover that the job hadn’t been done. This kind of thing happened time after time, over many months. And I'm not even going to go into the tale of the custom-made window that they couldn't get to fit.

I foolishly suggested that she complain to Bob Nardelli. “He can’t possibly allow this to happen once he knows about it,” I insisted.

Big Bob's big silence

She wrote to him. His answer? We’re still waiting to hear from him – an extremely dubious proposition now that he’s been hauled out of Home Depot by his hind end, but rewarded for his failure not only with a king’s ransom but also the chairmanship of Chrysler where he’s evidently still busy counting his money.

Ditto, in terms of James P. (letters-from-customers-be-damned) Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, from whom this cranky customer is still waiting for a reply to a letter he sent on August 10, 2006. And no, I’m not holding my breath any more, either.

Has a top ad guy
cracked the code?

But now a former top ad guy (and – full-disclosure – old colleague) Bruce Silverman has written a book called How To Complain For Fun and Profit, indicating that the Beautiful Girlfriend and I may have been complaining the wrong way.

Silverman, whose many senior titles have included President of Wong-Doody, a West Coast ad agency; President of Asher-Gould, another West Coast ad agency; President of Western International Media and Creative Director at various Ogilvy & Mather offices and of Bozell South, evidently had a cute little sideline all these years – writing complaint letters.

While you and I might write a complaint letter because we’re irate to the point of exploding, Silverman complains for what appear to be different reasons. His complaint letter are not only an art form but also a sport. He has saved his winning letters all these years, along with notes tracking his success in getting freebies. And he does keep score.

Free clothing, free nights,
free money, free bananas!

 In a chest-thumping e-mail to me Silverman boasted like the complaint champ he is,
"Over the course of the past 20 years, I’ve written dozens and dozens and dozens (!!!) of complaint letters to airlines, hotels, car rental companies, cruise lines, retailers, banks, credit card companies, car dealers, movie theater chains, theatrical producers… and a huge percentage of those letters resulted in me getting something back from them… and the “something” wasn’t just an apology! I’ve gotten free stays at great hotels, first class airplane tickets, cruises… clothing… MONEY… even bananas!"
Now it may be that Silverman has been writing only to those rare senior executives who still give a damn about anything other than their compensation packages. Or it may be that when Silverman began writing to the top people, 20 years ago, we still had a different breed of corporate manager running things, and this has upped his overall kill rate. Besides, who knows what "huge percentage" means?

Even so, Silverman seems to be on to something. A careful reading of the book, which you can learn more about here, reveals some techniques that may help you get some kind of compensation for the misery some company has put you through.

My favorite: “Praise with faint damn,” a technique for what I see essentially as getting the CEO to lower his guard by sucking up to him – before you figuratively grab his private parts and twist. I love this stuff. That’s why I’m shamelessly endorsing my old colleague's book.

Go ahead, grab the
gorilla’s bananas!

Listen, in a world where even many CEOs have ceased to give a damn about their customers – and everybody who works for them is too scared, too lazy, or too dumb to solve an irate customer’s problem – you need Bruce Silverman’s book. Who knows, by complaining you might just save corporate America from itself.

Heck, had James Dimon so much as sent me a bunch of bananas, I might not be slamming him a second time on the Internet for being just another greedy corporate gorilla.

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