How Should a CEO Handle Company Criticism? Best Buy May Offer a Lesson

It was 9:30 pm, two weeks before Christmas, and I was standing in a humongous line at Best Buy.

This is not where I wanted to be. I hate shopping in stores during the holidays and even Best Buy late on a Thursday in the middle of December wasn’t immune to the crowds that I had hoped to avoid. Unfortunately, the only place I could pick up a functioning cable modem after mine unceremoniously bit the dust that night was this Best Buy store just north of Seattle. And the line to checkout couldn’t have gone slower.

I thought to myself, “This is why people go online to shop.” Apparently, someone else agreed with me.

Why Best Buy is going out of business

Forbes recently ran a piece that went viral about how Best Buy is going out of business gradually. After my experience in their stores, I thought a classic breakdown was right down my alley. Here’s the part that really resonated with me:

Best Buy and other traditional retailers complain that Amazon can undercut them in prices because the site doesn’t charge sales tax, and that Amazon customers use Best Buy as their showroom, taking advantage of the extensive, well-stocked locations and knowledgeable staff to research products they actually buy from someone else online.

Online competitors are certainly part of Best Buy’s problem, but not for the reasons it thinks.  What’s really going on is more basic.  Best Buy just doesn’t understand its customers’ point of view.”

And that started a wave of posts, blogs, retweets and Facebook comments about the state of Best Buy and the state of big box retail.

I’m not very interested in that at this point. I’ve done almost all of my Christmas shopping online for the past decade. I’ve been an Amazon prime member for years, making it easier to use Amazon for purchases of convenience. I think there are still many people who will always think to step foot in a store before going online but people who act exclusively that way are becoming more and more rare.

Best Buy responds

Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn

Of course, when something like this happens where a piece of analysis explodes into the public’s consciousness, companies have a couple different options. They can ignore it, they can respond with an ultra-conservative, safe statement, they can be dismissive or angrily deny it, or, they can develop some other sort of response.

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Best Buy decided to respond in several ways. One of them was to have their CEO, Brian Dunn, write a post on their blog talking about the media coverage, explain where they agreed and disagreed with it, and tell their side of the story. Next Thursday, they will also be featured on a program on CNBC which will open the doors of Best Buy to television audiences.

The TV program makes sense if Best Buy has any semblance of its act together. There will likely be critical elements to the show that may paint the company in not the best light, but it also seems like a good way to really look inside Best Buy. And while the CEO’s blog post was panned by some folks, I actually think it was a good move, especially internally.

Going public for the employees’ sake

If you look at the public post Dunn made on their blog, you’ll see a lot of reader comments attached to it. If there is any moderation going on, it looks to be pretty light because there are some very rough comments there. But here is where things get interesting: I don’t think the post was really for external customers. I’m sure that some of them will read the post (and a few responded as well), but I can pretty much guarantee that a much larger proportion of the message is intended for Best Buy employees. And there are a few reasons this makes sense:

  1. Silent majority/minority – No matter what the company, there are always disgruntled current and former employees and customers. The problem is that the disgruntled ones are the folks with the energy to comment and speak out negatively about the company. In a public statement like this, the CEO speaks to all of the true believers still left in the organization. Now, I have no idea if that is a majority or minority of the employees still there, but it is important to address them and give them something to keep them believing.
  2. Open the doors – One of the things that your CEO can do is illuminate the world on how you’re thinking. And not only that, but allowing comments on the blog is actually a positive. If you can rifle through some of the purely negative things said, there are actually some pretty good nuggets of information in there. What matters though is what you do with that information afterward, and continued openness about how Best Buy executives are facing these pressures would be encouraging.
  3. Admit issues, defend the defensible – One of the tougher things to do is to admit that you made a mistake. And when your company seems to be heading in the wrong direction, it is important to do that. While this blog post was a reaction to a media article, Dunn did a good job of admitting what he thought was legitimate criticism and defending what made sense. Great CEO’s know when to be the cheerleader — as well as when to pull back the enthusiasm. Despite the criticism in the comments, I think he found the right mix.
  4. Next steps: more of the same – Best Buy is going to open its doors in a week and a half to a national audience, and if they expect the spotlight to fade away after that, they should think again. Shedding light on a situation begs for continuous illumination so people can track the company’s progress. Customers and employees alike will want to know that Best Buy has its ear to the ground and is continuing to change.

We know there are smart, capable people in every organization, and Best Buy is no exception. With a combination of leadership from the top, transparency, pushing for change, and letting capable people do their job, we may see that Best Buy won’t gradually go out of business.

They may change, evolve and adapt to what consumers want, but we know they can survive and thrive — if they make the right choices.

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