The Customer Is Always Right – Even When The Data Says They're Wrong

Guest author David Ewart heads up Marketing and Revenue for IT upstart Loggly.

The epic media battle between New York Times reporter John Broder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk began with a negative consumer review, escalated with a strong-armed public rebuttal by a powerful executive and ended with a bunch of shared log files disputing the veracity of Broder’s driving experience. So what’s the big deal? Was this just another he-said-he-said that ended with data coming to the rescue?

Oh no. It’s bigger than that, much bigger.

(See also Would You Buy A Tesla Model S?)

On first blush, the story spoke of the growing importance of data in corporate America. Log files, typically the chatter of IT managers behind the firewall, had suddenly entered the corner office and the public spotlight. It was a powerful tipping point for those of us who deal with data every day, and spoke volumes to the growing potential of log files to help companies solve problems and identify trends. But what’s the real issue… and why is it such a big deal?

Elon Musk, with all his innovative thinking has become a poster-child for the face of market disruption. Yet he forgot the age-old mantra: “The customer is always right.” By publishing “the truth” of the logs for the world to see, he may have succeeding in counteracting the claims of the reviewer, but he disrupted his own sales pipeline.

Being Right - At A High Cost

(See also Tesla And The Fallacy Of Data-Driven Decisions.)

On Bloomberg TV, Musk admitted: "We did actually get a lot of cancellations as a result of The New York Times article. It probably affected us to the tune of tens of millions, to the order of $100 million, so it's not trivial.” The stock, trading at $39 before the review was published is trading at $34 today. Elon lost customer confidence, trust and their cash.

While data is valuable, releasing it with the sole purpose of roasting the consumer - in this case, a test driver who should have succeeded regardless of any possible hidden agenda - isn’t wise. Musk missed the point: The value of vehicle log files is not to fight battles in the press, but a tool to vastly improve the product and deliver a better experience for the next customer.

Imagine the backlash if Weight Watchers CEO David Kirchhoff read a customer’s Facebook post saying that she followed the plan and still gained weight, by publicly posting the user's caloric intake and exercise log, indicating that she did not stick to the plan? The CEO might win that battle, but he would certainly lose the war.

Big Data And The Customer Experience

So, how can Tesla recover from this PR and fiscal train-wreck? Put those log files to work to improve the customer experience. The right way to create a win-win result for Tesla would be for Musk to acknowledge that as the car breaks new ground, Tesla will incorporate customer feedback and data to make a smart product even smarter and easier to use.

He could acknowledge that the car could still improve: That it should have understood that the trip and route chosen (programmed by the user), combined with the dropping temperatures (weather app) and known charging locations (geo-location data) would not end in a successful commute.

He could speak of the product roadmap and enhancements that will collect and interpret this data to alert the driver by dashboard, text, email or other method of impending failure. He could talk about how the Model S can actually get smarter with a software update. Perhaps the car could automatically initiate a battery warmer in cold weather, alert Tesla service crews of the situation – anything but allow the failure.

It’s not about proving that you’re right and the customer screwed up, but by planning for success of everyone, including the outliers.

Musk missed a remarkable opportunity. He forgot that the customer is always right, and that a bad experience is the perfect time to help existing and future customers have a better experience. Somehow, that critical human message got lost in the data.

Image courtesy of Frontpage / Shutterstock.