Last week, investment analysts were dumbfounded over Tesla’s surge past Ford and GM, to become America’s most valuable automaker. They say it makes no sense. It’s inexplicable. They point out that there is nothing warranting the present valuation. They warn of no future scenario under which the present value is legitimated.
Meanwhile, United Airlines continues to reel over its recent customer service scandal. A doctor was bumped from his flight because of the airline industry’s practice of “overbooking”—something anyone who’s flown in the last decade knows something about. This particular passenger refused to heed the flight crew’s instructions and was forcibly removed by O’Hare Airport Police.
These may be two separate incidents and in different industries, but make no mistake—they are parallel stories with inversely proportioned gains and losses. After all, in a matter of days, United quickly lost $1.4 billion in value and Tesla at least briefly shot up to $1.7 billion more than GM. Both exchanged gains for value propositions, expressed or implied, and in both cases, public perception is a significant factor.
Investors believe something about Tesla that they don’t believe about United. Savvy buyers know the world is clamoring to support businesses that promise positive experiences that genuinely put the customer first. Even the perception that businesses are customer-unaware affects market share.
Before getting to the heart of the story, it’s important to make an important distinction—between a highly debated airline practice (overbooking) and a legitimate one (removing obstinate passengers).
Refusing to follow orders of flight crews is foolish in the extreme, and at times punishable with prison time. In a post-9/11 world where terrorist threats are real and all too frequent, it’s best to consider flying as categorically different from other consumer services. It’s also true that bumping passengers is legal.
Still, customers have every right to vote with their dollars, shopping (or flying) with someone else if unimpressed with service levels.
While social media is making much of how loathsome United is as an airline, dragging up old and new stories of passenger woes, the initial sympathy for the bucked passenger—even prior to knowing all the facts—is instructive for the industry as a whole. This could have happened to any airliner.
Airlines can refuse service, but customers who perceive that someone has been removed for a reason that’s worse than the passenger’s infraction (like overbooking for maximum profit) will at times side with even unsavory recipients of poor treatment.
The airline industry as a whole will have to re-evaluate procedures like overbooking as an accepted business practice. Other industries should take notice and understand the dynamics of customer perception and poor practice converging.
So, what is Tesla’s proposition that seems to be driving its own market value sky-high? To read its website one finds only very marketed propositions. For example, at tesla.com the subtitle is “Premium Electric Sedans and SUVs”—its primary offerings. Tesla’s energy division promises, “Sustainably Power your Home or Business.” Both sound relatively mundane.
But anyone who’s followed Tesla even a little over the past few years knows that Tesla’s value proposition includes completely reinventing the relationship between the customer and the product. Forbes reported in 2015 that the company “busted the test curve”, receiving a perfect 100 from Consumer Reports for the P85D.
Even when receiving criticism from Consumer Reports in 2016 for technical issues with the Model X, there was recognition that the reason for the glitches was that Tesla was reaching for the moon, going for more and greater innovations for its customers.
With Elon Musk, adroit in FinTech, aerospace, ground transportation, power generation and energy distribution, there is a believability factor with Tesla’s audacious goals that isn’t present with the airline industry’s more modest outlook (and less than stunning customer satisfaction norms).
In 2010 Tesla was “the first American automaker to go public since Ford in 1956” and it did so on NASDAQ (home to Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, and Cisco—leading tech companies rather than automakers). Tesla is not without issues, and its present value can be debated on good grounds. But the company has amply demonstrated the difference between what customers used to put up with and what they want to see today.
Customers are looking for changes to the way companies operate and are willing to put up with occasional failures when firms miss the mark as a result of trying to achieve better results for those they serve.
See Also: Tesla Semi: A Geo-Economic Innovation