Back in 2009, a blue ribbon panel of CEOs and academics traced the roots of short-termism all the way back to the leveraged buyouts of the 1980s. They issued a clarion call for a "more responsible approach to investment and business management." Yet, just last summer, the venerable Economist magazine suggested it was now a structural problem inhibiting economic recovery. I have no doubt that's the case.
But it would be a mistake to think short-termism shows up only in a company's financial results. It reverberates through customer service too. Consider these two examples a friend brought to my attention just this morning:
According to the Washington Post, American Airlines threw a passenger off a plane, apparently because she wasn't moving fast enough through the crowded aisle (and the plane was over-booked). The whole episode was so patently unfair, the rest of the cabin broke out in boos and shouts of "I'll never fly American again." So if the crew's motive was to accomodate a frequent flier, as some suspect, it may have had short-term benefits, but long-term costs.
According to the LA Times, an AT&T customer sent the company's CEO some service suggestions and all he got for his trouble was an officious letter from a company lawyer. "AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyze, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property ... from members of the general public," the lawyer said.
I remember the policy well from my days at AT&T. Its intent is to avoid getting sued by people who think you've implemented one of their suggestions. In fact, in my day, most letters like that ended up in my inbox for reply. I like to think I made the point without an undertone of "get lost." I also think I could tell the difference between unpatentable, uncopyrightable suggestions and the kind that can stimulate suits (i.e. genuine intellectual property). But then I'm not a lawyer.
Is it just coincidence that both these examples come from companies with "American" in their name?