Promote Economic Patriotism: Howl About Product Misfires

Tom Peters

In his book The Joyless Economy, iconoclast Stanford economist Tibor Scitovsky wonders about the plethora of high-value consumer goods pouring into the U.S. from Europe. Since American and European production methods are essentially the same, he argues, the reason for the deluge comes down to “the greater choosiness of the European buying public. European producers, catering mainly to their own, more demanding, more quality-conscious markets are forced to provide … better quality … than American producers.”

That’s a damning indictment, but I fear an accurate one. Tennant Co. CEO Roger Hale reinforces Scitovsky’s point in the book Quest for Quality, chronicling the launch of his company’s stellar quality-improvement program. “(We were) known for producing top-quality floor maintenance equipment,” Hale writes “But during my visits with our Japanese … partner in the late 1970s, I had been hearing complaints. … Why were the hydraulic leaks happening only in the machines we sent to Japan? As it turned out, the leaks weren’t just happening in Japan. Machines we sold here at home were leaking too. (But) U.S. customers accepted the leaks. If a drop of oil appeared on a freshly polished floor, they simply wiped it up.”

In general, we de-emphasize the demand side of economics. But in his book The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Harvard Professor Michael Porter, like Scitovsky, argues that demand drives quality. Consider Japan’s excellence in consumer electronics. The modern Japanese consumer plays the lead role: Flush with cash, limited in living space and gadget-mad by habit—what better way to spend their big bucks than on small, exotic, expensive electronic goods? Japan’s export prowess in consumer electronics is a byproduct of value-added demand at home.

Likewise, the U.S. holds a commanding lead in many varieties of medical equipment, Porter reports. It’s largely a result of what syndicated columnist Michael Schrage calls our longstanding “bionarcissism.” Americans are health fanatics. For example, we spend twice the share of GNP that Britain does on health care. This creates a dynamic market for all things medical in America—and thence export success.

Porter translates all this into a hard-nosed strategy for corporations: Firms bent upon being the best should seek out the toughest customers possible. McKinsey and Co.’s Kenichi Ohmae puts a slightly different spin on the issue; to enhance competitiveness, he urges companies’ internal components producers to sell one-third of their output to the parent, one-third to tough domestic competitors, and one-third to the best global competitors. Case in point: Soon after GM began to encourage internal operations to sell to competitors, one unit bid for Honda of America’s business. The effort riveted the plant’s attention to quality.

As a business person, then, your best friends are your prickliest customers. Which brings me to a plea to all consumers: If you want America to stay atop the economic charts, change your ways and start howling—over even the slightest product or service quality lapse.

During a recent airline delay snafu, I was dismayed to see two or three bystanders lambaste a passenger who had the temerity to complain vociferously about the rotten service. Yes, the passenger “attacked” (with strong but not abusive language) an “innocent” front-line employee. And that’s not fair.

Or is it? Don’t knock the dealer, it’s Chrysler’s fault. Don’t hound the gate personnel at USAir, it’s management’s fault. Don’t rip the waiter, it’s the chef’s fault.

In fact, the airline employee’s only response in this case, beyond stonewalling, was, “I suggest that you complain to top management.” The complainer replied, “Why should I ‘pay’ for your behavior by spending another hour writing a letter! You tell top management what transpired.” The front-line employee allowed as how it would do no good.

Sadly, she had a point. But not much of one. The bigger issue is that German and Swiss and Japanese consumers won’t put up with such crap. We do: from car companies, floor-cleaning equipment companies, hotels, software providers, etc. And as developed economies’ consumers increasingly turn to high-quality, high-service goods, we are taking a drubbing as a result. It’s U.S. producers’ fault in part. But we consumers are even more culpable—like it or not.

Understandably, patriotism is in the air. And I intend to become an economic patriot. That’s the opposite of circling the wagons, joining Lee Iacocca, and shouting for protection from foreign goods. To the contrary, I intend to fire verbal Scuds at those who provide poor service or quality; I say Scuds, because I’m willing to blast the innocent (front-line employees) along with the guilty (their bosses). Furthermore, I plan to start carpet bombing consumers I come across who refuse to complain in the face of shoddy quality or service—perhaps handing them little red cards entitled “economic traitor.”

It’s high time we listen to Scitovsky, Porter, Ohmae, and Hale—and understand that our quality problems start with the person who lets any U.S. manufacturer or service provider get away with economic murder.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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