A few years back, I wrote a column called "The Worst Company in America?" I had some unkind words for Comcast
What happened next may surprise you.
I must have received an email from every Comcast employee on Earth-- 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 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 retired pilot who pined for the golden era of the U.S. airlines. I don't need Warren Buffett to tell me not to touch that stock. But should we short it? Good question.
Which brings me to a subsequent run-in with Best Buy
I was headed back to the store armed with a defective, 13-day-old LG home theater system in an old Xerox 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 truant Geek Squad, and disappeared into a back room.
Here's the funny thing ...
When the Best Buy customer service lady sent me packing an hour earlier, I hadn't ranted or raved. I hadn't threatened to launch a letter-writing campaign. I never hinted at a column like this. Of course, I was thinking all that stuff. I just went home and loaded up my box like I was told.
You can only imagine my surprise when this guy meets me at the door, walks off, and returns minutes later with some gentle words and a brand-new stereo. Apparently, he'd been watching as I was passed around the store earlier and didn't want me to have to "wait around" any longer.
I was blown away. Somebody at Best Buy 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. You see, I'm not suggesting you should short a company's stock because of an isolated bad customer experience. Rather, that bad treatment 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.
In other words, we're not talking about shorting stocks as "retribution" here. Rather, as a Fool named Arthur put 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!
Apparently, the brass at Best Buy realizes that this is the 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 is holding up, 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?
OK, not everyone agrees with me that how a company treats its customers is relevant to investors. But if I were running a 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 stuffed-shirts on Wall Street are behind the curve. They forgot in the last 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 platform that collects community intelligence -- like Motley Fool CAPS does -- 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 quantifying tens of thousands of individual customer experiences.
The best of both worlds
Of course, that could explain why this "community intelligence" captured in CAPS has been particularly 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 longtime Fool Jeff Fischer have refined the powerful CAPS signal and are harnessing it as we speak. Now, 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. For the next six days only, David and Jeff are enrolling new participants 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. This recession is shaking 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.
This article was originally published Jan. 12, 2009 as "Short These Dogs! Part 2." It has been updated.
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.