I’m not talking about size or success. I’m talking about having to appear in front of the US congress for abusing power. This pattern of abuse seems to happen with every company once they get to a high level of market dominance. I’ve studied Standard Oil, RCA, IBM (and worked there), and Microsoft—and I currently follow all of the firms that just got reamed by the US House of Representatives. There is one common theme, and that is that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a valid rule.
The challenge for firms like Dell Technologies is mitigating the problem without crippling the company and before you are called in front of the Department of Justice or Congress to beat the problem out of you. What Dell has that these other firms don’t is an empowered, talented woman with a passion for taking care of customers named Karen Quintos.
I just found out that Karen will be retiring shortly, and I think it’s timely to talk about the fantastic work she has done. Her work was critical to helping Dell Technologies maintain the balance between being competitive while not stepping over the anti-competition or anti-customer/partner line.
The Microsoft Example
Of all of the companies that have been taken to task for anti-competitive behavior, the only firm that ended up stronger at the end was Microsoft. Now I mentioned I also worked at IBM, but I didn’t mention I was part, for a time, of Internal Audit, which was missioned with assuring IBM’s compliance with their consent decree. While I think our teams did a decent job keeping IBM out of trouble. I observed some of my peers going too far and effectively killing efforts critical to IBM’s future, leaving the firm in a weak position to compete while not addressing critical customer care issues that almost killed the company in the 1990s.
Microsoft’s advantage was twofold. The individual acting to keep Microsoft in-line was external, so they were far harder to influence than we were, and they were focused on things more closely related to customer concerns than we were at IBM. Our focus was more competitive, so we mostly had only an adverse impact on competitiveness while, at Microsoft, giving customers more choice resulted in more sales opportunities and a cultural change at Microsoft benefiting the firm long term.
The lesson in both cases is that you need an independent group assuring executive behavior, or some executives will take shortcuts that can land a dominant firm in antitrust hell. Something Google in particular is regretting at the moment. (By the way, it is fascinating that Google was one of the companies that attacked Microsoft. It now finds that much of what was developed during that case has come back to bite them in the ass both in the US and particularly in Europe). I expect that this last put a never-ending smile on Steve Ballmer’s face, given he was CEO for much of the time Microsoft was recovering from its antitrust problems.
Dell’s Customer Experience Officer Fix
Karen Quintos is Dells’ Customer Experience Officer but, unlike most in her position that seem somewhat limited in their authority, Karen had Michael Dell’s ear. Not only is Karen highly regarded in Dell, but she is also one of the most potent and visible Dell executives.
Her passion for customer care and focus on metrics is something I’ve found fascinating over the years, and when I watched the testimony, in particular, that of Jeff Bezos. He was accused of abusing partners at scale with substantial evidence. At the same time, Dell, even though the company does compete with some of its partners, has always treated its partners particularly well. I’ve participated in surveys on Dell’s partners, and while they often express concerns about the competition, they generally praise how the company treats them. This result is night and day different than the experiences showcased in the Amazon, and Apple, portions of the congressional hearing.
In the end, Karen Quintos is without peer. Still, I think she showcases the kind of talent, authority, and capability needed if a company moving to dominance wants to avoid the kind of customer and partner problems showcased by Apple and Amazon.
By the way, as a side note, Dell is one of the few companies from the US that could create a viable alternative to Amazon. For much of the first decade of Amazon’s existence, Dell’s online stats were competitive with Amazon’s. Since they are still an online retailer that also sells third party products, we are only talking scale, and Dell has a credible cloud service that could be pivoted to provide a healthy alternative to Amazon (just saying).
While this is focused on Dell’s implementation of the job “Chief Customer Officer” and Karen Quintos’ stellar performance in the role of a best practice, she is retiring. But I doubt she is putting herself out to pasture. She’d make a great board member for companies like Amazon trying to fix this problem or for firms growing to dominance that don’t want to experience it in the first place. In any case, this is just my chance to say she has done a fantastic job in providing an impressive solution to the “power corrupts” problem and that she will be missed once she steps down later this year. Hell, I miss her already.