Twenty years ago, filmmaker Michael Moore launched a show called TV Nation. I vividly remember the CEO Challenge episode. He stood outside of corporate headquarters and called for CEOs to perform tasks appropriate to the products they sold. 

He wanted the CEO of IBM to format a floppy disk and the CEO of Phillip Morris to roll a cigarette. The idea was to call out CEOs out of touch with their operations and customers. Only Alex Trotman, then chair of Ford, trotted outside and changed the oil on an Explorer.

Twenty years later, I wonder if Michael Moore, Founder and President of the Traverse City Film Festival, is in touch with the his customers. 

A First World Problem for sure, but Film Festival tickets went on sale today and I wish he’d trotted up the Old Mission Peninsula to spend the day with me.

In its tenth year, the TCFF is a huge success, with world-class films, filmmakers and events. It’s a terrific addition to a terrific city. But there are kinks in the operation. It seems that the backbone is a website and army of volunteers. They are unfailingly friendly and kind. But, for the first nine years anyhow, I’ve watched them struggle to process orders, sell merchandise and accurately answer basic questions.

The ticket office opened to Festival ‘Friends’ this morning but I couldn’t go into town then. Online sales we set to begin at 6:00pm. The volunteer who told me you could enter your order ahead of time was wrong. So I took my chance with the phone. While our cottage is remote, the reception is great.

The phones opened at 11:00am. I immediately reached a recording that said I was in the cue! But “Please be patient as we only have five lines” was followed by 15 minutes of silence.

Subsequent redials led to one of three results: A recording that said, “The wireless customer you are calling is not available, please try again later,” an occasional “Welcome to such and such conferencing center, please enter your password,” and finally, busy signals.

At 11:30am I went for my walk along a dirt road through woods of birch, pine, cottonwood, cedar and maple. The sunlight filtered through the trees. I identified two new birds and settled into a ‘whatever happens, happens’ calm.

By 11:45am, still walking, I was in the phone cue again! “All is well,” I thought, “Michael Moore is in-touch.” But one minute into the hold, the recording turned into a flatline tone.

Hours and dozens of busy signals later, I was in back in the holding cue. I waited for 1 hour and 58 minutes before securing tickets for 4 out of our 5 hoped-for films.

That’s a long time to listen to a ring tone with no assurance that I was in the cue. Maybe the system works well enough for enough of the thousands of filmgoers the Festival draws each year. Last year we met two people from Chicago who sailed across Lake Michigan and lived on their boat for the week. They were minutes by foot from film venues, bus lines, restaurants and shops. I bet the system works for them.

Maybe Michael Moore has studied the demographics and customer satisfaction surveys. Maybe he’s identified the people who drive his business, and we don’t fit the profile. Maybe his budget for training or technology is more than enough. Maybe the luck of renting a cottage on the beach trumps a bad customer experience. But I wonder if the CEO knows or cares.