Tag Archives: consultants

Three Reasons Why the Election is Running on Empty

It’s fitting that a freakish storm (or fears of a freakish storm) should interrupt a presidential campaign that has shied away from discussing climate change. As the New York Times noted after last week’s third and final debate, neither candidate broached the subject in the course of the debates; nor did the vice-presidential candidates or moderators or the model citizens in the made-for-TV town hall.

Those who fear some conspiracy of silence on this issue, or think our candidates are cowards only when it comes to climate change, should be reminded that on nearly every issue before the country, the 2012 campaign has been almost entirely devoid of substance. Both sides have offered nothing more than zingers, soundbyte-sized bromides and unprincipled pandering.

You know things have gotten really bad when the TV pundits – who trade in platitudes and talking points – start complaining about the lack of substance in the campaign. That’s starting to happen, at least in the pseudo-serious world of public television. Last Friday on Newshour, Judy Woodruff asked Mark Shields and David Brooks why they thought the campaigns had been so lacking in real substance and so unwilling to engage on the issues. Neither correspondent gave the most obvious response – which is that this hollowing out is inevitable when you conduct politics on TV.

Instead, David Brooks fixed the blame squarely on the “consultants,” who have “taken over,” he said. This wasn’t much of answer, but – since this was TV – it sufficed; the segment was soon over and the discussion closed. Brooks could have easily implicated people like himself, the press and the punditry. He also could have added that what most of these consultants do, in one way or another, is package the candidates for TV audiences and attention spans.

At the very least, Brooks failed to go far enough. Consultants aren’t the only ones to blame. Off the top of my head I can name at least three other reasons why this election is running on empty.

First and above all, Citizens United: this is the first election held after the Supreme Court ruled, in 2010, that unions and corporations could spend without restriction in political campaigns, because they were entitled to the same free speech considerations as human persons. The consultants are simply following the money. So far, the glut of ads – someone the other day estimated that it would take 80 days to watch all the ads currently airing on TV in Ohio – has made even the candidates wince. The ads are superficial and offensive to anyone with a modicum of intelligence because they are always a ruse: they make up a cover story so that big money can pursue its aims through the electoral process.

Second, we’ve had no meaningful participation by third party candidates in the political process or the presidential debates. The two-party show airs without interruption and without challenge. This partly has to do with the control exercised over the debates by the Presidential Debate Commission, which produces the debates for TV. Run by lobbyists and sponsored by major corporations, the Commission approves questions, debate topics and moderators, and disapproves of outsiders who want something other than Coke or Pepsi, Red or Blue, Obamney or Romama. As Jill Stein (who is suing the Commission for keeping her out in 2012) remarked when she was arrested outside the debates: “It was painful but symbolic to be handcuffed for all those hours, because that’s what the Commission on Presidential Debates has essentially done to American democracy.”

Third and finally I would point to the deliberate, regular and daily conflation of the election with the popular vote. This helps perpetuate the illusion of a tight race and distorts people’s choices. It also makes the election a choice between candidates rather than an opportunity to talk about issues on a local, state and national level. The emphasis ought to be on the issues people bring to the election – which is where democratic elections begin – and not exclusively on the candidates or even their platforms. Polling focuses on how people feel about the candidates from one day to the next instead of providing data and insight about changing attitudes toward the enduring and emerging questions we, as a people, face. Who’s going to win? is the last question we should be asking ourselves in an election year. Or in any year. And it only gets worse the closer we get to election day.

The list could go on. But when all is said and done, the consultants and the pundits and the pollsters aren’t really to blame: we are. That may not be something you can say on TV, but if there’s a real battleground this election year, or in any year, it’s American democracy itself. It’s something we have to fight for and claim for ourselves and for every citizen, against politicians, powerful forces and against all odds. That’s not just highfalutin talk. Ben Franklin was right: we will have a republic, if we can keep it. I wonder if we can. I know the consultants have taken over only to the extent that we have surrendered.

Asleep at the Wheel

While most of the business press was focused on Ford Motor Company’s recent announcement that they had called in Alan Mulally to revive the ailing automobile giant (or at least to help it die a graceful death), I was busy looking at the way Volkswagen runs its US operations.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m intrigued by the creative destruction taking place at Ford, but I’m not a business journalist, so I’m not bound to comment on it. (As you may notice, I’m not even bound to update this blog on a regular basis, which is probably the only reason I’ll continue to update it.) Nor am I an automobile industry analyst who holds a brief for Ford or Volkswagen or any other automaker. As far as the auto industry is concerned, I’m much more important than any analyst or expert, or at least I ought to be: I’m a customer. And last week I wanted to find out what kind of trade in I could get on my Honda Civic toward the purchase of a VW Beetle.

Ordinarily I would have taken my Honda into the dealership, swallowed the bile I feel rising in my throat every time I have to talk to a car salesman, or a salesman of any sort, and started the conversation. But when I went to VW’s website to check the MSRP on the New Beetle, I was invited to take care of things right there, or right here, from my desktop. For those who share my aversion to salespeople, VW (like most manufacturers) has created a “build & get a quote” feature on its site. After you choose your model, and decide which features you’d like, the site then gives you a list of dealers in your area. Choose one or as many as you like, email them the list of specs you’ve created, and they will contact you by email or telephone with a quote.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. And, if you read the hype from IBM and SAP about the CRM installation they did for the German car manufacturer, that’s exactly how it will work, driving sales, improving the bottom line, making the whole operation smoother and more efficient. The only thing they won’t tell you is that they can’t really guarantee that your people are going to do what they’re supposed to do as customers fill the network with data, requests, preferences and choices. So after I designed the Beetle of my dreams, or at least the Beetle my budget would permit me to design, chose a nearby dealer, and sent a request to the dealer specifying that I would like to be contacted with a quote by email only (and not by phone, thank you very much), I was led to believe that I’d have a response within pretty short order.

But nothing happened. Nothing at all.

Maybe I’d somehow projected my dislike of car salesmen when I submitted my request. Or maybe I am a victim of a technology glitch. But isn’t it more likely that somebody at my local VW dealership just failed to do what he or she was supposed to do when the CRM system did exactly what it was supposed to do?

You can deliver the leads directly into the salesperson’s inbox, you can track the lead to determine whether the salesperson has read it or needs another notification to follow up on it, but none of those measures will matter — none of the technology will matter — if the salesperson simply doesn’t care enough to follow up, or can’t be bothered to look, or if the prospects coming into the showroom are hotter than anything coming from online. Maybe the showroom clerk can do better slapping on the same cheap cologne, sidling up to the same uncomfortable looking prospects, and talking in a cheeky way until they’re sitting down and signing their name to a lease. Maybe most car shoppers are still old-fashioned tire-kicking empiricists: they’ll brave the sales pitch to take it for a spin, look under the hood, smell the new interior.

IBM of course doesn’t deal with such issues in their case study of the VW CRM installation. Like most technology pitches, theirs assumes that people are already on board with new technology, that people are (wholly) rational actors, that “training” will do the trick, that people are not just lazy or that somehow they simply will do what they are supposed to do. But as many companies have learned to their chagrin, you have a much greater chance of success when you organize technology around people, and not the other way around.

It’s a nice idea: make the machines serve people, not people the machines. If you design a business process (like a new customer to dealer process), design it around people; don’t ask people to put themselves at the mercy of your processes. And don’t put your entire business at the mercy of people who find themselves at the mercy of a business process designed by consultants pushing technology solutions to human problems.

And this, in a nutshell, seems to be one of the big lessons business brahmins learned after the dotcom bust: people still matter. Some will say they’re the only thing that really matters. That’s why so many organizations today have a people strategy, or talk about people with the passion they used to reserve for technology, or when asked to define their greatest strategic resource answer with — you guessed it — people.

Roll your eyes all you like. There may be something to this people stuff, though. After all, business — getting the right people to work for you, getting people in the door, putting your stuff in people’s hands in exchange for their money, which they earn working for and with other people — business, commerce, the economy, is really all about people. What else could it be about?

Business consultants, especially the kind whose main job is to sell you a software package, will try to tell you that they have “solutions”; but people can and will resist solutions, find ways to survive them, outwit them, or just plain ignore them. Which brings me back to the slacker at my local VW dealer — with whom I now feel a kind of solidarity.

Humanity doesn’t have a place in solutions. It is the very thing solutions can’t account for.