Peter Knight laments the passing of the caring corporate responsibility professional

Here are three steps to recycle unsold children’s clothes, New York City style:

1. Take a strong knife with a sharp stubby blade.
2. Systematically slash the little shirts and skirts before bundling them into a black trash bag.
3. Throw them out on 34th St to be carted off for landfill.

This axe-murder style of recycling used to happen just a few doors away from our New York office in a tawdry part of the city euphemistically called the “Fashion District”. That is until a concerned citizen reported the waste to the New York Times, which identified the alleged perpetrators as H&M and Wal-Mart, two global brands with strong sustainability reputations.

As the story of local managers breaking company policy unfolded, my heart went out to the corporate responsibility managers who had to explain why the big brand names said one thing globally but did entirely the opposite locally.

Caring isn’t easy

What started out as a tale of slash ’n’ throw, turns out to be more a story about the trouble companies have in caring. They say they care about the environment, the community, their people and their customers. But when it comes down to it, they find caring really, really hard to do.

Take customer care. Vast fortunes are spent here, trying to manage the most important part of any business transaction. The latest star on the lucrative customer care speaking circuit is an eccentric and massively successful online entrepreneur called Tony Hsieh. He started the internet shoe store in the US called Zappos, selling his creation to Amazon for $887m in 2009.

Zappos grew from nowhere to become the biggest online shoe retailer mainly by being very accommodating to all its customers. An eternally jolly sales team inspired by Hsieh would gleefully exchange your purchases almost ad infinitum – and ship them both ways for free – until the shoe fit. Terrible carbon shoeprint, but it made Zappos lots of money.

Hsieh is a second-generation Taiwanese and his hot ticket status on the corporate lecture circuit is fuelled by other companies inviting him to help them create his unique spirit of customer care.

But the evidence seems to indicate that corporate America only pays lip service to the idea. A highly popular website specialises in publishing the direct telephone numbers of senior executives in big organisations. This is because it is virtually impossible to talk to anyone in a company when you have a complaint.

And the situation is only getting worse as services are increasingly sold and managed online. Try dealing with the management of, say eBay or its subsidiary Pay Pal: it is all automated and largely illogical. No matter how good the algorithm, you inevitably get an email response that bears little relevance to the question.

Talk to me!

No wonder the spurned, desperate customers go hunting around on the corporate website for someone to listen. And lo, they click on the sustainability button and are soon reading about how the company supports a mysterious-sounding practice called “stakeholder engagement”. They read how the company likes to listen so that it can improve its performance.

What wonderful people these caring CR managers are. Maybe they could sort out the death rattle from the new heating system, or get the telephone company to stop charging for unordered services. This is why so many people send their complaints to

CR managers turn out to be the only fools in the organisation who publish their email address on the website. That’s how the New York Times finally got a comment from Ingrid Schullstrom at H&M when local executives refused to talk.

Transparency drawback

The barrage from disgruntled and stymied customers is probably why the CR professionals are themselves becoming wary of publishing their addresses. A while back they were happy to have their names and even their pictures on the site.

Such transparency is now a rare thing. Corporate responsibility managers have had to take cover behind the company barricades where they join their “customer care” colleagues hiding from Taliban customers who have been radicalised by the uncaring corporate shrug.

This is bad for business because it serves to amplify the perception that managers are only interested in taking care of themselves. Maybe this is an opportunity for corporate responsibility professionals to come out of the shadows and play a more prominent role on the business frontline. Somebody has got to care.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.

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