Back in June 2005, I let fly a column called "The Worst Company in America?" I had some unkind words for Comcast
I must have received a call or email from every Comcast employee -- from the director of customer service at my regional office to the third in command at Comcast intergalactic headquarters.
Does it even matter?
I think so. Sure, Comcast only reached out to me because I have a big mouth and my rant got picked up on Yahoo! But at least they responded. At least they cared enough to explain that they were trying to clean up an industry renowned for mistreating its customers.
As for American Airlines, I heard from a few retired pilots, mostly pining for the golden era of the U.S. airline industry. I don't know about you, but I don't need Warren Buffett or Howard Schilit to tell me not to touch that stock. Which brings me to my recent run-in with Best Buy
When we left off, I was headed back for my showdown with customer service, armed with a defective, 13-day-old LG home theater system in a tattered box. That's when the strangest thing happened. I was met at the door by a guy with an empty shopping cart. He asked for my receipt, whisked me past the Geek Squad, and disappeared into a back room.
The funny thing is …
I hadn't ranted or raved when the Best Buy customer service lady sent me packing an hour earlier. I hadn't threatened to launch a letter-writing campaign. I never hinted at writing a column -- much less one that would incite a supermarket clerk to question my literacy and jockey for my job. Of course, I was thinking all that stuff.
I just went home and loaded up my box like I was told. So, you can imagine my surprise when this new guy meets me at the door, walks off, and returns minutes later with some gentle words and a brand-new system. Apparently, he had seen me getting passed around the store earlier and didn't want me to have to "wait around" any longer.
I was blown away. And not because I hooked up the new system all by myself and figured out how to turn it on. Or because it's worked perfectly ever since. I was blown away by the fact that somebody at Best Buy -- as one kind reader wrote in -- had gotten the memo. Somebody had recognized that there was a systemic problem and was trying to fix it.
Is that enough to call off the dogs?
Well, it's a start. And remember, I never implied that you should short a company's stock because you had an isolated bad customer experience -- though it sure as heck should raise a red flag. And if you dig around and find evidence that the behavior is systemic, at least consider heading for the exits.
If nothing else, do as Fool reader Arthur does before he invests in a consumer business and ask yourself this: "If I'm not buying at a place that is giving poor service, are there others who feel the same? And are they also taking their money to a business that IS giving good service?"
In other words, we're not talking about shorting as "retribution" here (don't you be silly). Rather, as Arthur puts it, "Long-term, there is a reason why one store is full of customers and another is having a going-out-of-business sale. My money is on the winners." Right on, Arthur! No customers … no business … no stock!
The top brass at Best Buy seems to realize that this is the ugly chicken that came home to roost in this recession: Killer apps and clever business models work in go-go markets. But when times are tough, a business that doesn't give a damn about its customers isn't long for this world. I don't care what the analysts tell you … or what you read on page 72 of last year's 10-K.
So, are there still winners?
To find out, I took an unofficial survey of Motley Fool writers. A few names surfaced again and again. Apple
And then there's Amazon.com
"And not to be skipped, the gent on the phone was very pleasant, apologetic, and helpful." Say what you will, I don't think it's a coincidence that Amazon had its best holiday shopping season ever, while traditional retailers are singing the blues. I was surprised (and pleased) to hear similar praise for the customer service at Dell
So where to now?
Apparently, some of you disagree that a company's regard for its customers has investor relevance. Maybe. But if I were running one lonely shop on Main Street, I'd be making darn sure my customers were happy right about now. Maybe this fundamental equation breaks down once a company goes public, but I doubt it.
In fact, I'm convinced this is partly why there are opportunities out there, both on the long and short side: The spreadsheeters and financial statement slaves on Wall Street are behind the curve. They forgot in the bull market that U.S. public corporations aren't arcane financial instruments, but living, breathing businesses -- with customers (at least for now).
And that's where I think a community intelligence platform like Motley Fool CAPS adds value. I'm not convinced that the investors who rate stocks on CAPS are geniuses. Or that they're better at reading a cash-flow statement than I am. I think the power of the "ratings" is in numbers -- and that the CAPS platform is stealthily quantifying tens of thousands of individual customer experiences.
The best of both worlds
Of course, that could explain why this "community intelligence" has recently been most useful on the short side. Thousands of foot soldiers on the ground are identifying troubling trends before they reach the financial statements. If you think I may be on to something, think about this.
Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner and his partner Jeff Fischer are harnessing this powerful community intelligence signal as we speak. Even better, they are combining it with old-fashioned fundamental, bottom-up analysis to manage a $1 million long/short portfolio made up of stocks, options, exchange-traded funds, and other investments.
If you like, you can follow along with them. Starting today, and for the next 10 days only, David and Jeff are enrolling new members in this unusual project. It's called Motley Fool Pro, and you can join them by invitation. If you'd like to learn more, including how to claim your invitation, simply enter your email in the box below and click the button.
Meanwhile, think long and hard before giving a pass to any business that treats you like you don't matter. I have a hunch this recession is going to shake out some bad actors. It may be the one silver lining in a dark cloud -- but you don't want to be holding those stocks.
To see how you can profit on the long and short side of this historic market, enter your name in the box below and hit the button. You'll hear from David Gardner shortly.
Fool writer Paul Elliott doesn't own any stocks mentioned. The Fool owns shares of Best Buy. Apple, Best Buy, and Amazon are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Best Buy and Dell are Inside Value picks. To learn more about Motley Fool Pro, simply enter your email in the box above and click the button. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.