05/16/2014 04:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

#FacebookFail and the 'We Know Best' Folly of Corporate America

CASE #1:

The first "grown-up" shoes I ever owned was a pair of faux-leather black pumps from Kinney Shoes that I got when I was 11. I loved them so much that when I outgrew that pair, I simply went to Kinney and bought the exact same pair again.

I did this every year for 6 years. Then, at the start of my senior year of high school, I went to Kinney to get that year's pair of black pumps, and when I asked for the shoes the sales clerk told me they no longer carried them.

I was heartbroken. I told her these were my favorite shoes and she replied, "Yeah, they were our best-selling model."

Shortly after that, the 104-year-old company went under. I haven't done a case study on why Kinney Shoes shuttered, but I would guess it has something to do with decisions like discontinuing their best-selling model.

CASE #2:

I color my own hair. What can I say? It's inexpensive, easy and I can do it in less time than it takes just to drive to my regular salon and find parking. My box color of choice is Clairol Natural Instincts (no, I have not been offered anything to say that here, and if you read on, you'll know why).

In the box are the two bottles of coloring solutions, instructions, gloves and a very small Color Treat Conditioner -- enough for 2-3 uses at most. This conditioner is great. I love it. It is so great, that I have often looked for it in stores and finally last week decided to go online to see where I can buy it. That took me on another trip down the rabbit hole of corporate folly.

You see, I found pages and pages of discussions about this conditioner, on message boards, in blog posts, on Facebook pages -- including on Clairol's own page, and guess what? The company will not sell the conditioner separately. The earliest message board thread I found went back to 2004, with multiple people calling customer service and getting the same answer. Not. For. Sale.

So, to sum it up, there are literally thousands of women who have taken the trouble to ask Clairol to sell a product that they are already making, and for more than ten years, the answer has been, "No." That doesn't even take into account the women who want to buy the conditioner who haven't reached out to the company, probably tens of thousands more.

Quick question, Clairol -- aren't you in business to make money? And wouldn't selling a product that your customers want and that you already have in your warehouses do that?

CASE #3:

Raise your hand if you've seen a post on Facebook in the last week about how terrible Facebook is. I see one almost daily, and I am pretty sure these are complaints that are universally agreed on: please show all the posts from my friends, in the order they were posted; please don't filter out people you think I disagree with politically; please don't move a post to the top of Most Recent every time someone comments on it (and does anybody like the Top Stories option, really?).

This isn't rocket science. The fewer posts I see from people I care about, the more it appears to me that no one else is on there, which makes it a less fun place to be. (And newsflash Facebook -- you are not doing a good job of figuring out who I care about)

I know it's ridiculous for users to complain about Facebook. After all, we're not the customer, we're the product that they're selling, but I wish they would stop systematically devaluing their own product -- namely our user experience.

Before anyone starts screaming that you get what you pay for, I will share that I have bought advertising on Facebook in the form of boosted posts, and I got a lot less than what I paid for, but that's a longer story for a different post. The bottom line is, Facebook, like Clairol, is refusing to give customers what they want, which is the blueprint for long-term failure.

I manage a page on Facebook all about happiness, on which I post twice a day -- that's it, not a raging torrent of spam. My posts are generally happiness boosters and so I assume that the page's followers would like to see them, otherwise why did they sign up to follow the page? And yet, Facebook only shows my content to about 10% of this audience, and sometimes as little as 2%. Why? How is this good customer service?
I would bet that of the 1,000+ people who Like this page, more than 25 and 20 of them would have enjoyed seeing the Happy Quotes on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. In fact, the Happy Quotes are probably what they signed up for in the first place, so what value is there in keeping that content out of their feeds?

The result of this type of filtering is that the followers who are never seeing the Happiness as a a Second Language posts are probably assuming that there is nothing new to see, thus they think there is less valuable content on Facebook than they want, thus they spend less time on Facebook, which makes Facebook show them fewer of the posts and it spirals downward from there, until you're Kinney Shoes, shuttering 467 stores that no longer carry your best-selling model.

Every company in America should have a big banner on the wall that asks, "What do our customers want?" If you can answer that question, and deliver that answer profitably, you are going to be in business for a long, long time. And if you know the answer, and choose to ignore it and just do what you want instead, you'll make a great Case Study for someone's MBA thesis.

In addition to being the author of Happiness as a Second Language, a #1 Seller on Amazon in both the Happiness and Self-Help categories, Valerie Alexander is a former investment banker and venture capital consultant with an M.S. in Economics from U.C., Berkeley.