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T-Mobile CEO Kicked Out Of AT&T's Party (Yes, It Matters to You)

There's little in this spectacle to admire, but there are two lessons to learn.
PAUL HUDSON/FLICKR

At some point over the past few years, the phrase "first-world problems" entered the lexicon. It's an easy way to tell someone that they need to get over it, if they're complaining about the long line at Starbucks or their high property taxes. 

After last night's business news in Las Vegas, in which T-Mobile's CEO got kicked out of AT&T's party, I'm eager to introduce a new phrase into the lexicon: "Large-company problems."

"I just wanted to hear Macklemore."

Here's what happened: At the annual CES conference, AT&T held a party where the singer Macklemore performed. T-Mobile CEO John Legere attended, having received his pass from Macklemore's agent, according to CNET's Roger Cheng. Shortly after Cheng tweeted a photo of Legere at the party, AT&T asked hotel security to make Legere leave. 

Legere told Re/code that he didn't intend to make a scene. "I just wanted to hear Macklemore," he said. Whether you believe him is another story. "It's more likely he was looking for the kind of outcome where he was going to be kicked out," writes Cheng. "It's the latest stunt by Legere, who has been prone to bold words and action when it comes to needling his competitors--particularly AT&T."

What Matters to Employees and Customers

What's wrong with this picture? Perhaps I'm biased. As an Inc writer, I'm inclined to dismiss whatever happens to AT&T and T-Mobile as "large-company problems." When you lead a small company, you are typically unable or unlikely to spend lavishly on an A-list entertainers, let alone worry about what you'd do if a rival CEO crashes your party.

Nevertheless, I believe there are two marketing lessons here that small-business owners and managers can learn from: 

1. What message are you sending to employees and shareholders? I have no idea how much it costs to get Macklemore to perform at a party. And I'm aware, too, that AT&T is hardly the first or only company to spend on big-name entertainment for a party at a significant industry event. But my take is the same: It is shameful for a company of any size to spend lavishly on entertainment. Of course, this is usually a large-company problem. Most small companies, worried to death over making payroll or rising healthcare costs or even making rent, can't dare to dream about such largesse. 

Lesson: Even if you can afford Macklemore, you're sending the wrong message by hiring him. If he performed for free, do your employees and shareholders a favor: Let them know. Otherwise, they'll think about the pricey entertainment the next time their healthcare costs go up--or the next time you refuse to greenlight funds for a potentially innovative idea.  

2. What message are you sending to customers? Has anyone ever chosen her cell phone plan based on whether the cell phone company held a kickass party in Las Vegas, or whether a rival CEO crashed the party? I recognize that competition is fierce between AT&T and T-Mobile. I recognize that all employees--from execs to entry-level, in companies large and small--deserve to let off steam. But when you are the leader of a company, everything you do is public. Everything you do is a reflection of the organization's priorities and temperament. From that standpoint, I'm not sure holding or crashing lavish parties is the way to go. Your customers might think angrily about Macklemore the next time they're on the receiving end of a dropped call or a billing error.

Lesson: Consider the public-relations ramifications of your behavior--even during downtime. Do you want to look like an organization that knows how to party, or an organization that will not rest while a single customer is dissatisfied? Another way of putting this: Do your partying in private. Even if it's your first vacation in three years. The last thing you need is for angry customers to be even angrier, knowing that you're having fun while they're suffering. The angriest customers might even tweet about it.

If you agree with any or all of the above, help me promote this article with the hashtag #largecompanyproblems. 

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