updated 10:30 am EDT, Sun June 6, 2010
Editorial: tech execs can't live in a vacuum
(Editorial) Over the past few months, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has done the unthinkable: he has broken his company's notorious silence and started responding to customer issues and complaints from his personal e-mail address. Admittedly, Jobs is deciding what he wants to respond to and what he doesn't, always conscious of the impact his answers will have on his business, but he's making Apple accessible. For once, the doors in Cupertino have flung open and Steve Jobs is standing there with a wide grin, ready to answer questions.
Theatrics aside, Jobs' decision to start opening Apple sends a loud and clear message to the rest of the industry: things are changing. And it's about time the tech business starts changing with it.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson seemingly disagrees. After taking issue with AT&T's new data plans, Giorgio Galante decided to e-mail the CEO complaining to him that he was upset about the new changes, and would switch to the "Sprint HTC Evo" without thinking twice. But rather than receive an e-mail back from the CEO, he instead received a voicemail from AT&T staff, saying that if he continued to e-mail Stephenson, he would be met with a cease-and-desist letter.
What a mistake. Like so many other CEOs, Stephenson ostensibly wants to sit in his corner office, make decisions, and be left alone. If it was 1995, that wouldn't be a problem. After all, the corporate culture in the United States at the time ensured that CEOs would be left alone to run the company without any interference from customers. The only time they would hear from customers was when they met with research teams who asked folks on the street about their feelings on the company.
But things have changed. With blogs, social networks, and a markedly different mentality on how companies should operate, the CEO's office doors have been thrown open. They are now expected to communicate with customers either on the company's blog, on Twitter, or by responding to e-mails. The days of being detached from customers is over. We have reached an age where everyone, including the very top executives at a company, must be at least somewhat accessible.
In an expected if slightly ironic twist, Steve Jobs -- perhaps the most secretive executive in the tech industry -- has seen the writing on the wall.
It's about time Stephenson and his fellow cohorts at tech companies across the industry start realizing for themselves that openness is the now the best policy. It might not be ideal, and there is a chance that CEOs will be inundated with requests for information. But you know what? That's the way the industry is nowadays. And until they start accepting that, they will make their companies look like bad, bullying firms, rather than understanding partners that want to work with customers to push the industry forward.