Too Big to Fail? Or Just Too Big to Serve the Customer?

I have long been a proponent of the benefits of globalization. Although it does have its negative aspects, the ability of corporations to grow to serve new markets, to provide new competition, to reduce variable costs, and to spread fixed costs over a larger sales volume — all of which helps to lower prices for the customer. There is no question that consumers have seen substantial reductions in the prices of computers, televisions and almost everything else they purchase, and recent inflation numbers attest to this fact.

But now I’m thinking more about the negative impacts that this may be having on a company’s ability to render good customer service. When organizations get bigger, they get slower and the increasingly complex internal systems begin to take the place of direct customer focus.

Although I am not a subscriber, the Comcast customer service fiascos appear almost too numerous to mention, and they seem to have richly deserved their low marks for customer service in the cable industry. Their proposed merger with an equally low rated Time Warner Cable does not offer much hope for improvement, despite their continued promises that they will do better.

Even Starbucks, with all of its hip customer focus, is not immune from the “too big to serve the customer” syndrome. Recently, I sent an email to Starbucks, inquiring as to the opening date of a new store in my town. What I received in response from their customer service was the following, written exactly as it appears here:

“Thank you for contacting Starbucks.

I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughtful feedback regarding XXX. I want to assure you that I’ve shared your comments with the appropriate team for their review.

We’re always excited to receive feedback from our loyal customers about your Starbucks experience. You know better than anyone else what you want from Starbucks. We are constantly looking for ways to improve the quality of our products and service to create enthusiastically satisfied customers”.

That’s correct; the rep did not even bother to fill in the reason for my inquiry, in the space where their formulaic response has “XXX” as a placeholder. I sent this response on to higher management, because they need to know what’s happening in their system. They of course were anxious to assure me that this is not the way Starbucks handles customer inquiries. Except when they do, I guess.

Anyway, I like Starbucks, and I guess Comcast has many satisfied customers, but I’m thinking about how bigness tends to force increasing amounts of attention on how to manage the bigness, and that attention has to be shifted from somewhere — and in many cases it may be from the customer.