In Clooney v. Musk, Clooney Wins

We took our 12-year-old son to see The Monuments Men the other day.  My son enjoyed it despite it being a fundamentally terrible movie.  The movie was so boring.  Nothing happened.  No one transformed.  There was no action to speak of and Cate Blanchett tried, I mean really tried.  It was a war movie with implied conflict, but no real conflict.  It put me to sleep, honestly.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t say I hated the film.  And that got me thinking about why I couldn’t hate the film.   And it hit me.  I like George Clooney.  

So why, in goddess’s name would Elon Musk pick a public fight with George Clooney?

He wrote, directed, and acted in the film and he is ultimately a very, very likable man.  He is way more than a “marriage pass”, if you know what I mean.  He is not only ridiculously good looking, and people, I am way into blonds…like Viking blonds so, if I think a brunette is good looking, he must be smoking-hot.  He appears considerate, intelligent, caring, and good-natured.  All the news you hear about him is great.  He’s politically progressive and a prankster.  I cannot think of anyone in his or her right mind that does not like George Clooney.  It may be the one universal truth out there.

So why, in goddess’s name would Elon Musk pick a public fight with George Clooney?

In case you missed it, it was a while ago, but it’s been eating at me, George Clooney gave an interview in Esquire which he said he was a huge fan of Tesla and one of the first owners.  But he spent more time on the side of the road than driving the vehicle.

A legitimate complaint.  George Clooney wants his Tesla to work.  Well, no shit.

Following the publication of the article, Elon Musk went on Twitter to mock George Clooney saying something to the effect that “and in other news, George Clooney’s first generation iPhone has a bug.”  Really?!  I mean, he is the CEO of Tesla.  And he is publicly mocking a customer?!  And not even in an interesting way.  But in a techie, inside the Valley kinda way.  And the customer is George Clooney?!  That is beyond uncouth and stupid; it was mean-spirited. 

In all seriousness, it points to a problem for Tesla.  If Tesla is going to expand beyond it’s decidedly cool niche, it is going to have to actually take care of customers and create a solid corporate culture around taking care of the customer, not cruelly mocking them for real concerns.  

Tesla sold 22,477 vehicles last year, made $2 billion in revenues and lost $74 million.  To keep this in perspective, globally, there were over 80 million vehicles sold worth over $2 trillion.  My former company, Toyota, plans to sell 10 million vehicles this year.  That is one company.  Tesla is a niche.

Disproportionate to its size, Tesla gets a lot of press.  Automotive News’ star reporter Mark Rechtin wrote an amazing, comprehensive piece about Tesla, published January 13, 2014.  Mark wrote that for Tesla to transform it’s self from a boutique to a volume automaker, it would have to do several things.  The very first thing Mark highlighted was “Convince skeptical mainstream shoppers that electric-car technology won’t leave them stranded on the roadside.”  (I think George Clooney is a mainstream brand.)

As Tesla enters deeper and deeper into mainstream territory, Efraim Levy from Standards & Poor noted in Mr. Rechtin’s article that they (Tesla) are not going to have the market to themselves.  And Mr. Levy is right.  Tesla is going to have to fight for customers; each and every customer.  Tesla is going to have to learn very quickly to treat customers right.

That means not alienating any of them, especially good looking popular customers who also garner a disproportionate amount of press.  Tesla’s current owner base is downright enviable – rich, passionate, dedicated, adventurous, and communicative.  Tesla is starting out on the right foot with the right audience.  As Tesla expands globally and diversifies its models into the more mid-range platforms, Tesla’s customer base will change.  Different market segments have different needs and Tesla will need to figure out how to do right by all of them.

Tesla will fail if they do not create a solid, dedicated internal culture manically focused on customer service.  And that culture starts at the top.

They could look to Lexus, who have done an amazing job taking care of their customers.  I’m sure you all know the story about when Lexus first launched, there were core vehicular problems so Lexus voluntarily recalled all 8,000 vehicles and flew engineers to people’s house to fix their cars, etc. – basically went to literally the last mile to make their customers happy.  A quick Wikipedia search will tell you all you need to know about that bit of history.  Thinking about it, Elon Musk would be very clever to hire Dave Illingworth, a founder and first general manager of Lexus, to get a lesson (or 12) in customer care.  Mr. Illingworth was not only a legend at Toyota and Lexus, but many articles and books have been written about him, including one by Mark Rechtin where Dave discusses the theory and reality of customer service.  

My very long-winded in point is that Tesla needs to get real about treating customers right and really caring about service.  Like it or not, Elon’s flip little quips may be funny, but they point to a very real problem of not thinking and acting like you care about customers.  While Mr. Musk can obviously get away with this behavior for the time being, in the long run, such a lack of empathy and consideration will not serve Tesla well at all.  And at the end of the day, it is customers that matter in this and every business.  Plus, let’s face it, in a war between George and Elon, Elon loses every time.   And for the record, Elon is not a marriage pass. Word.