Winning Words

The verbal equivalent of a nice fresh breeze blew through the world of corporate communications earlier this year when still-new Home Depot CEO Frank Blake responded to criticism of his company by apologizing to customers for letting them down, promising to do better, and asking for another chance.

What a concept. No whining, no finger pointing, no spin. No complaining that it wasn’t his fault, that he inherited the problem – which he pretty much did. Just an acknowledgement, an apology and a plan for improvement.

“There’s no way I can express how sorry I am,” Blake said. “I recognize that many of you were loyal and dedicated shoppers of The Home Depot ... and we let you down.”

That’s about as straightforward as you can get. And, unfortunately, pretty close to being an isolated example of corporate plain speaking, a much underrated and underutilized tactic.

Blake, who became CEO of the Atlanta-based chain in January after Bob Nardelli left, was responding to an outpouring of consumer message board postings and emails – more than 10,000 of them – that came as a result of an online MSN Money column.

Writer Scott Burns lamented the changes he saw in the consumer experience at what had once been a favorite shopping place that he and his wife frequented through numerous home remodeling ventures. He called Home Depot “a consistent abuser of its customers’ time” and complained that service is slow or nonexistent.

Apparently a lot of readers agreed and shared their own thoughts and stories; it was those stories that prompted Blake’s reply – which he made via his own posting on the MSN Money message board. “The only way we are going to continue to be successful is by regaining your trust and confidence,” he said, “and we will do that.”

He played no word games, simply accepted responsibility and said what needed to be said.

In super-sharp contrast, a few days later, came a televised “60 Minutes” interview with a high-profile former CEO by the name of Dennis Kozlowski. Different medium, different message, different motivation. Kozlowski is the deposed head of Tyco who was convicted of grand larceny and securities fraud involving more than $100 million. He was the guy who spent $2 million on his wife’s birthday party (half of it charged to his company) and who also had his company foot the bill for a $19-million Manhattan apartment with an infamous $6,000 shower curtain.

His take on the case against him? “A major pay dispute.” He believes he was done in by “bad timing,” because his difficulties came to light around the time of the Enron scandals.

It’s worth noting that Kozlowski, who is appealing his guilty verdict, was interviewed at the Mid-State Correctional Institute in upstate New York, where he is serving a prison sentence.

Obviously, The Home Depot CEO’s words alone won’t solve all of his company’s ills. In addition to disgruntled customers, Blake has to deal with directors and shareholders who are after something more than help with floor tile. There are serious questions relating to stock prices and corporate direction.

The company reported a decline in first quarter earnings – $1 billion or 53 cents a share, compared with $1.5 billion or 70 cents a share from the comparable period in 2006. Blake expects the home improvement market to remain soft through the end of the year.

Still, in a business that needs retail customers who leave its stores happy and look forward to a return visit, words are very powerful tools capable of creating goodwill – especially when they are used to make a genuine statement rather than to spin or obfuscate or blow smoke.

The Home Depot CEO’s response to the complaints leveled against his company was to recognize an opportunity and communicate directly through a medium not typically used by top level executives – the online message board, a much more egalitarian forum than a more traditional press conference in a board room. Blake’s message included a company web address to which he invited customers’ comments. He even thanked the writer and the customers who shared their comments initially.

All the good words still have to be backed up by action. Whether that action is forthcoming is something customers will find out for themselves when they show up at a Home Depot to ask for a hammer or a cup hook or a few hundred dollars worth of kitchen flooring.

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