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What your customers know Featured

10:02am EDT July 22, 2002

It's probably fair to say that Dick Feagler has never had an opinion that he kept to himself. But how many times have you heard Cleveland's legendary commentator talk about serious business issues, such as quality and service and profitability? There's a good reason for that.

"I don't know a damned thing about business," Feagler says with a certain amount of pride.

That's why we present the following interview. For any business that deals with the consumer segment, Feagler is just like every other customer. With one difference: If he's got a problem, he'll tell you about it.


What do you know about business?

I know I'm happy I never got into it. It sounds like work to me.

On a scale of, say, kids' play to neurosurgery, where do you rank the skill level of owning a business?

I don't necessarily think you need to have the same skill level to run the place in Tower City that sells the imitation brand-label aftershave as you need to run, say, General Motors. I think you need to have a notion of cause and effect to run a business: What's the result of what I'm going to do.

Now, cause and effect used to be a concept that was universal, and it's gotten to the point in America today where it's almost like Einstein's theory. Nobody seems to have that notion anymore but businessmen, so I'm glad they're keeping it alive.

On scale of Saddam Hussein to Mother Teresa, where do you think the average business owner fits in?

The average business owner is probably a lot closer to Mother Teresa than we give him credit for. But I don't mean close. Why, they allowed Princess Diana to come pretty close to Mother Teresa's level last year. I think a lot of business people are closer than Princess Di was, alright?

Can you think of a business that you admire?

I don't think of businesses per se as being admirable. Businesses exist primarily to make money. ... I mean, the medical profession has done things on the way to making money that have helped us. But I don't think of businesses as being admirable.

Since you bring up medicine, what about HMOs? Is it their job to help people, or to make money?

Both. [But] some of these people...could be in any business. They could be manufacturing Teletubbies for all they care about what they're supposed to be doing. I'm not smart enough to know how this medical business is all going to end up. I grew up in the era of Dr. Saltzman; when you had the measles, you stayed up in your room, and Dr. Saltzman came to see you. We've come light years from Dr. Saltzman, and I don't know where we're headed now.

In business, everybody is under tremendous pressure to change things around-every day. Do you feel that, and how does it affect you?

What bothers me about business today, I'll be quite honest, is we keep talking about how the economy's doing. We keep reading stories about mergers and takeovers and downsizing. And there is no particular concern anymore that I would say is for long-term. The only concern is for shareholders right now.

It used to be that a guy would go into business and think of it like starting a little dynasty. Perhaps his kid would take over the business, and his grandkids might come into it some day. The same guy starts a business today, but now he says, "I don't care; screw my kids and my grandkids. What's my quick hit on this? What's my immediate gratification?"

That isn't particularly good for the consumer. I haven't found that airline deregulation or the Ma Bell breakup-which was supposed to be eliminating something that was considered to be bad-has done anything for me but make my life more confusing and complicated.

AT&T probably wasn't too fond of it at first, either.

Now 30 different long distance carriers have to give me a choice, and every one of them has figured out its own ways to swindle me. So now I have to hire an accountant to go through my phone bill.

I can't even remember who my carrier is anymore. Anytime anybody calls me and asks me to change, I say yes. Then the form comes, and I never fill it out. It's my way of driving them crazy. Anyway, my bill comes, and it says I called some town in California 17 times. And these charges are very small....Turns out that my kid, when you call him at his phone number, it's routed through a city in California. I tried over a couple of days to get ahold of him, and when there was no answer, I just hung up. In the old days when that happened, they didn't charge me. Now there's a charge for that. So they've confused and complicated matters in an effort to make money.

Do you know what a profit margin is?

Yes.

What's a reasonable profit margin?

It appears there is no such thing as a reasonable profit margin. It's like there's no such thing as too much money. ... I think it's determined by what you do with your profits. If all you're doing with your profits is throwing them back at the shareholders...

I do know a little about the book business. You buy a book for 23 bucks, the bookstore has bought it from the publisher for maybe $11.50 to 12 bucks. As the author, I get a buck-eighty. I go out to a book signing and spend two hours signing books for 50 people. Everybody says, 'That was a real good outing.' They're all delighting because they think they're doing me this really great favor. They're buying my book and I'm getting about a hundred dollars. I think there's something drastically wrong with that profit margin.

When you walk into a business, what's your assumption? You're paying too much, or they're not getting enough?

My assumption is it's about right because over time, if it isn't right, I'm not walking into that business because it isn't going to be there. I have faith in that system. The problem comes in, according to me, with the amount of time it takes this process to work. So if a business comes out on the market looking for the quick-hit success, they don't care what happens in five years, because they're only worried about the next five months.

It seems that it must also be very difficult for people to figure out how much something should cost. About four years ago, I bought a 32-inch Zenith television set. It cost me $1,000, and that was a good price. The same set today is going to cost me $695. Did I pay too much then? Is it a bargain now?

I've never understood why the price of everything in the electronics world has dropped while the price of autos has risen. I don't know how that works. OK, so they've figured out how to make the TV better and faster. What about a Chevy? Aren't they getting any better at making Chevys too? I would think.

If you're going to be doing business with a company again and again, what's important to you?

I like to buy a product from a guy who knows more about the product than I do. It's amazing how rarely that happens anymore. The computer business is now beginning to have some order and sanity because they have the big outlet stores. But when I first had to buy a computer, I didn't know anything about computers. Neither did the people selling them. I'd go to a store and say "Here's what I need to know" and the guy couldn't help me.

I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone say that the strength of the big-box outlets is their knowledgeable salespeople.

When you put it like that... I also like businesses that have been around awhile. That's what I deplore about what's happening today. They come and they go. I used to buy a lot of stuff from, what is it, Northeast Appliance? They're gone. Sun just announced that they're gone. It's nice to go back to a place that's been there awhile because you just tend to have more faith in the fact that they do a good job for you or else they wouldn't be there.

Let's talk about bosses. What's a boss' responsibility to employees?

To be a good manager of employees and not a good manager of boardroom concepts. There used to be a phrase "managing up," which meant that I work for you, you work for a big corporation and you s pend all your time trying to please people who I don't even know.

I think you have to worry about the people who are under you, and worry about their welfare, their understanding of what we're all trying to make here. You have to worry about civility, fairness and as much openness as it's possible to give them so they know what's up. I'd say those are the same things in my life that I've cherished most from the people I've worked for.

Do more bosses get it right? Or wrong?

Based on hearsay as well as my own experience, I'd say more get it wrong.

There's a new concept called "industrialized personalization." An example is a hotel chain that takes note when you sign up for a tennis court. The next time you stay at any of the hotel's locations, they'll call that up on the computer and ask if you want to make a court time. What do you think of this "one-on-one" marketing?

Now there's a topic I want to talk about. They call it personalization, but it's just a sales pitch. Hell, if I want to play tennis, am I going to forget to mention it to them? That's not personal service. That's a sales pitch.

Now if they know the last time I stayed at one of their hotels that I used two extra bath towels, and they had my room all ready with two extra bath towels and didn't make me call down to the desk to have them brought up to me, that would be personalized service.

It's the same with voice mail. It was supposed to make us all more responsive. But when the guy I work with at one of the TV stations got voice mail, he stopped answering the phone. He just stopped. So now, when I want to talk to him, I have to call the newsroom and ask if he's in. Then I have to say in a hurry, "Wait wait wait! Don't switch me over. Yell over to him that Feagler is on the line and wants him to pick up the darned phone."

None of this is what I would call personalization or customer service. It's a pain in the ass.

It sounds like you really do have some thoughts about business.

I'm quite concerned about this short-term gain deal. It's getting to the point now that it's really everywhere and I don't think it's good. I don't think it's healthy for business in general or for the country.

If I make gloves for a living, I ought to have some interest in making gloves. I know it's quite common today to take the attitude that, "Hell, I don't care what I make. I'm making money, and I don't care if it's gloves or pretzels or magazines."

It seems obvious to me that that attitude is going to lead to inferior gloves, pretzels and magazines. You have to have some interest in the quality-and some appreciation for what is quality-of whatever you're producing in order for you to produce it well.

What we've tried to do more and more to make up for lack of quality is put money into hype. If I can con you into thinking I'm giving you something that's really good, and you buy it, that's no different than actually making something good. Or is it?