How executives hide from you and why you shouldn’t let them

Company executives believe they have a right to keep their phone number and email address private.

So strong is their belief that they’ve even sued our colleagues in Canada for publishing the names, numbers and email addresses of their managers.

But they are wrong.

I was recently reminded of the wrongness of the argument when we tried to find the company contacts for Food Lion, a grocery store chain. Our researcher, Joni Alpert, searched hard for the names and email addresses of the executives. Turns out they’d gone to great lengths to keep their addresses a secret, in part by using a non-traditional email convention: [email protected]

Whenever Alpert reached an assistant and asked for an email address, she got the same answer: the information is “private.”

It is not.

Our database of customer service managers is founded on the belief that no one company representative should tell you that there’s “no manager” to whom you can appeal your case. We’ve argued among ourselves about the limits of that disclosure.

In fact, some of our own advocates have suggested that we should simply link to a “contact us” page. The reason: In their day jobs, they’ve seen customers take a complaint straight to the top, with devastating consequences to people’s careers.

That’s a fair point. And that’s why our database offers explicit instructions and urges customers to climb the ladder, rather than jumping straight to the top. But ultimately, our advocates should be less concerned with the careers of mid-level managers at a company that doesn’t care, and more concerned about the fact that bad service is being delivered without apology or remorse.

It’s so easy to lose perspective.

So how do executives hide?

They publish the “main” number instead of their extension.

That way, you have to go through the receptionist, the secretary and the personal assistant before getting to the right person. That’s wrong. If you’re a VP with the words “customer service” in your title, you need to publish a direct number online. No worries, we have ways of finding your phone number — and we will.

They use a nonstandard email naming convention.

My favorite example is Expedia, which thinks it’s being so clever by giving its executives email addresses with the first three letters of their first name and the last four letters of their last name. But they didn’t count on company insiders, so upset with their own lack of customer service, leaking the right emails to us. We are happy to oblige by publishing them, of course.

They don’t use email.

Don’t laugh. With some companies that are “private” (i.e., not publicly traded), I’ve concluded that some of their higher-level managers don’t use email at all. That way, a personal assistant delivers all the important phone messages to them, allowing them to make decisions in their ivory tower. But there, too, we’ve learned ways of getting around the roadblock.

There are many other ways executives hide, but I’m not going to reveal them in this story. Why give them ideas?

Here’s the thing that never ceases to amaze me: How is it possible for well-educated, smart leaders to feel this way about their own customers? I mean, I’ve spoken with company insiders before who told me that the CEO’s email address was none of my business because “the CEO is not in a customer-facing position.”

So who does the CEO face, then? And what side is turned to the customers?

Please don’t ask me to connect the dots.

Whether the executives are refusing to reveal their number, creating clever email addresses or staying offline, it doesn’t change the fact that you are the customer and you have certain rights. If a company doesn’t give you the product or service it promises, you have the right take the matter up with someone who can help you. You have the right to go all the way to the top, if necessary.

The executives can run from you — and us. But they can’t hide.

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