Feb 18, 2013

Road Rage

If you haven’t followed the tussle between The New York Times and Tesla Motors, what happened was this: Reporter John M. Broder took the Model S electric vehicle for an extended drive up the East Coast and found that it couldn’t hold a charge for the full journey. Tesla Chairman Elon Musk responded that Broder had misrepresented the facts and “worked very hard to force our car to stop running.” And the fight was on.

What really happened? Over at the HBR Blog, editor Tim Sullivan suggests that the details of Broder’s road trip aren’t all that important. “Tesla is run by visionary engineers,” Sullivan says. “Perhaps this is the root of the problem. The Tesla team have built a car to satisfy themselves, which means that they’ve focused on the customer as driver not on the customer as a whole individual.

Tesla wants the S to be considered a normal car, but in Sullivan’s view that’s unrealistic. “Will anyone put up with the hassle?” he asks. “Was this normal use part of their early goal or did they just geek out on an awesome car?”

We here at the Dx have no intention of risking our limbs by getting in the middle of the NYT-Tesla dispute. But if Sullivan’s diagnosis is correct, then it’d be one more example of a phenomenon that Peter Drucker saw time and again: companies falling in love with a product because of the product’s difficult birth rather than because of its appeal to the consumer.

Photo credit: Robert Scoble

Photo credit: Robert Scoble

In Managing for Results, Drucker described how advertisements often betray this tendency among companies. “One [advertisement] after the other stresses how complicated, how laborious, it is to make this or that product. ‘Our engineers had to suspend the Laws of Nature to make this possible’ is a constant theme,” Drucker wrote. “If this makes any impression on the customer, it is likely to be the opposite of the intended one: ‘If this is so hard to make right,’ he will say, ‘it probably doesn’t work.’”

Drucker stressed the same point in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “The typical engineering definition of quality is something that is hard to do, is complicated and costs a lot of money!” Drucker asserted. “But that isn’t quality; it’s incompetence. What the customer thinks he or she is buying, what he or she considers value, is decisive.”

What do you think?  Did Tesla forget the customer?

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