Our Mar. 6 Cover Story, "Renovating Home Depot," took a close look at the corporate culture that Chief Executive Robert L. Nardelli is trying to build -- one that's based in part on military concepts and personnel. We argued that the command-and-control discipline Nardelli has imposed is getting financial results. But a deluge of letters, online posts, and message board responses -- nearly 300 in all -- indicates the overhaul has come at a cost. Many readers connected the military-style ethic promoted by Nardelli to a decline in customer service at Home Depot stores. In a startlingly similar refrain, they complained of indifferent workers, long lines, and unpleasant stores. Only two correspondents praised America's largest home supply store. What follows is a sampling of reader reaction, with a reply from Home Depot.
THE CUSTOMERS VENT
As a submarine Navy veteran, as well as a General Electric (GE) veteran (Heavy Military Electronics), I can only applaud Home Depot's military-style management and Robert Nardelli. What's missing is focus on the customers. I'm also a veteran home improver. I've watched Home Depot under Nardelli follow in the footsteps of Northern Virginia's now-defunct Hechinger stores, while Lowe's (LOW) eats Home Depot's lunch.
The first problem at Home Depot after Nardelli's arrival was extensive violation of Carl Liebert's "Customers cannot buy what we do not have" slogan. When Home Depot first appeared on the scene, before Nardelli, it corrected two flagrant problems that were Hechinger's undoing: out-of-stock items, poor display of existing stock, and floor employees' lack of responsiveness to customers. Home Depot, before Nardelli, was fully stocked and hired people in the trade who were available in force on the floor. They understood the stock and could help customers use it.
Many of us now find broader and more complete stock, along with better staff availability and knowledge, at Lowe's. I go more than an extra mile to shop accordingly. Home Depot would do well to change its focus from command-and-control to customers.
George F. Steeg
Potomac Falls, Va.
Gross sales at Home Depot may be soaring, but the customer service is, well, just gross. For example, Home Depot stores have lots of checkout lanes, but often most of them are closed, and they attempt to push customers to the awful self-checkout area. I wrote a letter to Home Depot corporate and told them I did not wish to become their unpaid employee, even for five minutes.
Jeffrey E. Schmidt
I applaud CEO Bob Nardelli's efforts to make the shopping experience consistent throughout each store. He has brought order to what was at times an experience in futility trying to find a particular item. Unfortunately, it provides me the speed and efficiency I crave for all the wrong reasons -- to get in and out of the place as quickly as I can so that I don't have to hear the workers gripe about yet another change being implemented by senior management.
Foster City, Calif.
I searched "Renovating Home Depot (HD)" in vain for some reference to military veterans' value as employees -- besides their maturity, discipline, and a willingness to relocate to unsavory locales.
The veteran employee's ability to "think on his feet" was praised, but the critical plans are now being made by Home Depot central management. I read no reference to how the plans are developed -- for example, how those target sales numbers (nervously tracked by store managers on their BlackBerrys) are defined. What thinking is the veteran employee empowered to do?
Similarly, Home Depot has responded to its "strategic" needs by replacing its seasoned, well-compensated professional staff with a vast crew of business personnel who will be willing to accept more demands and question authority less. It seems that decisions are being made strictly on the basis of numbers, often without a sense of their root cause or interconnected nature.
(Formerly HT1 Hull Maintenance
Technician First Class, U.S. Navy)
I recently visited Home Depot to buy a simple polyvinyl chloride (PVC) elbow for my sprinkler system, something that probably would cost less than a dollar. After spending an inordinate amount of time just looking for the item, I went to the front of the store only to be greeted by one clerk and two checkout lines, 10 to 12 people deep. It wasn't worth the wait. Shop again at Home Depot? Never.
After reading the Cover Story, I have to say I am a Nardelli supporter. Having experience in the Marine Corps during Vietnam and also as a manager of 1,000 people in business, I see great parallels for success. Most successful businesses require balanced performance -- financial, operational (or process improvement), customer focus, and developing people. To deem this militaristic when it is just good business is a bit naive. In today's all-volunteer military, there is much more focus on balanced performance and people skills, as opposed to the blood-and-guts perception created by Hollywood. To keep the volunteers, the military has actually improved more quickly than some U.S. businesses. To hire people who are well-trained is an excellent strategic advantage for which I commend Mr. Nardelli.
Round Rock, Tex.
HOME DEPOT RESPONDS
With 1.3 billion transactions a year, we're bound to make mistakes, but nothing disappoints us more than letting down a customer. We're making continuous improvements in our customer service levels and are working harder than ever to make sure that our service delivery meets the high expectations our customers have of Home Depot.
Chief Customer Officer
"Legal tangle at the fountain of youth" (Cover Story sidebar, Mar. 20) suggests that during his time leading the former Pharmacia Corp., our Chairman and CEO, Fred Hassan, may have been aware of improper promotion of a growth hormone product through a longevity center. This insinuation is apparently based on a few words scribbled at the top of an unsolicited letter from such a center, in which Fred requests staffers to follow up and acknowledge the correspondence.
I can tell you from my experience that Fred is an executive who directs this kind of action on dozens of documents a day. He is particularly diligent in striving to assure that every piece of external communication to him gets an appropriate response. I think this is admirable; the notion that these routine notations were some signal to others to do something inappropriate I find incredible.
Fred is a CEO who through his personal behavior has become a leader in the business world when it comes to business integrity. Indeed, that is why I left another satisfying job to join Fred's management team at Schering-Plough (SGP), where we have installed a business integrity program that is widely studied as a model of its kind. With Fred, integrity is not just words, it is actions. So it is especially unfortunate that BusinessWeek has now given space to these flimsy allegations.
Senior Vice-President for
Global Compliance & Business Practices