Let’s Clean Up Our Act

Tom Peters

TO: Mayor David Dinkins
Governor Mario Cuomo
President George Bush
FROM: Tom Peters

SUBJECT: Fixing the trade problem

In his book Customers for Life: How to Turn that One-Time Buyer into a Lifetime Customer, matchless car dealer Carl Sewell (Cadillac, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Lexus), along with writer Paul Brown, titles one chapter “Selling Should Be Theater.” It starts:

“I love Disney World. … (It’s) the image we keep in mind when we’re thinking about how our stores should look. We make sure the grass is always cut. I picked out every tree and bush. And we make sure the buildings are freshly painted. … (We even bought a street sweeper so that we’d be able to clean the roads in front of our dealerships.) … Why devote all this attention to the grounds? Because we’re setting a tone. … And it tells people what our values are; it’s in keeping with the kind of customer we want to attract.”

The message applies to any enterprise. Silicon Valley’s Applied Materials, though in the mercilessly competitive semiconductor-equipment industry, is by some measures America’s top exporter to Japan. (Fully 40 percent of its $650 million annual revenue flows from the land of the rising sun.) The company’s products are superb, but what really sets Applied Materials apart is obsessive
attention to detail, a la Japan, Sewell, or Disney.

In their book Cracking the Japanese Market, CEO Jim Morgan and his son Jeffrey write:

“(A) long-time Japanese friend explained to us the Japanese approach to business. “In the United States,” he observed, “you say the customer is always right. In Japan, we say, ‘okyakusama wa kamisama desu’—the customer is God.

“(Then) he told us about … a divisional president with a major Japanese conglomerate. … (The) division … was running a month late in delivering a giant turbine to a … power company. … When news of the delay reached the president’s office, he was mortified. The next day he traveled hundreds of miles to the (customer’s project site). He arrived late at night, but at daybreak he was at the home of the (customer’s) general manager. … When the general manager left for work that day, he found the distinguished division president down on his knees in the driveway. The president asked for forgiveness … for the problems the delays were causing.”

Although Applied Materials’ Morgan hasn’t literally been down on his knees, he’s often groveled symbolically. And it’s paid off. The full-blown Sewell and Morgan sagas reek with such attention to “the little things”—starting with customers’ first impressions. And that brings me to the point of this memo.

New York City is a national treasure. It’s the world’s “brainwork” center (entertainment, media, advertising, fashion, finance, professional services, etc.)—in a brainwork-driven economy. New York City’s product, like Applied Materials’, is sound.

But the first impression literally stinks! At the end of a recent trip to Manhattan (to develop “brainware” to be distributed globally—a corporate training film), my wife and I hopped into a cab and headed out to Kennedy Airport.

Somewhere along the Van Wyck Expressway she blurted, “What a pigsty.” I turned my undivided attention to the sides of the roadway, and though I’ve made the trip many times before, I was dumbfounded by what I saw.

Burned out cars. Lots of graffiti. And trash. And more trash. But worse than trash: filth. Filth by the roadside. Filth strangling almost every tree limb. Filth climbing the embankments. At one point, my stomach started to turn. I had to look away. Honest.

That’s when I started thinking about our troublesome trade imbalance, Walt Disney, Carl Sewell, and Jim Morgan.

In the course of a year, thousands of top Japanese executives visit New York to do business. The war of insults between Japan and America aside, how can we expect fastidious Japanese believers in “okyakusama wa kamisama desu” to trust the products and services of a nation that greets visitors with such a disgusting spectacle?

Yes, Mssrs. Dinkins, Cuomo, and Bush, I know your agendas are full. Healthcare. The homeless. Space stations. A million drains on a miserly revenue stream. Nonetheless, in the name of balancing trade and boosting overall national competitiveness, I beg you (I’ll come to Washington, Albany, or Manhattan and get down on my knees in your driveway) to CLEAN UP OUR FIRST IMPRESSION! You can find the bucks—perhaps enlisting corporate America as a point-of-light partner.

(Or to jump-start the process, let’s assign all congressional rubber-check writers 100 hours of community service to launch, with fanfare, the clean-up effort. Competitiveness Council chief Dan Quayle could supervise the miscreants.)

Jokes about Congress aside (who can resist these days), I am deadly serious. Please, please, listen up!

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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