Can a Company Be Too Big to Serve?

A recent experiment with my internet/phone service providers left me pondering this question.

Over the last few month’s I hit the end of my rope with persistent yet intermittent internet and phone issues with both AT&T and Comcast.  I have been having issues for over 2 years.  It has been costly in many ways as well as frustrating and at times embarrassing.

Until recently I was using Vonage for phone service, with AT&T internet in my office and Comcast in my home.  But after literally years of getting caught between the two providers passing the buck back and forth I decided to make a change.  Since my issues were intermittent and it wasn’t just phone issues, I did not believe it was Vonage despite both AT&T and Comcast insisting it was.  Yet that was always their easy “out” which left me with no where to turn.

So in desperation the only thing I could think of was to create a “faceoff” between AT&T and Comcast. 

I changed my phone service at both locations to AT&T and Comcast, respectively.  Now there was no one else to blame.  Not surprisingly the service issues continued on both the internet and the phones in both locations.  (Vonage, you have finally been exonerated and I miss having your awesome phone service!)

My plan was to see which service fixed the issues and I would choose one of them for both locations based on which one came through and finally fixed the problem.  It’s been a 4 month process and  it now appears both services are FINALLY working as promised.  Although based on the past I am only cautiously optimistic.  Time will tell.

Getting here, however, was an unimaginably painful and time consuming experience in navigating the labyrinth of the companies’ customer service operations.

The incredibly frustrating chain of events – the calls, the dropped balls, the failure to document calls, the numerous tech visits being told nothing was wrong, the “passing the buck”, the laziness and/or incompetence in some cases, the failure to follow through on promises, and the occasional nasty customer service agent – are case studies in the worst ever customer service.

So while both services are now working, I wish I could now choose a third provider because my customer service with both companies has been abysmal. 

Since that is not an option I will leave well enough alone.  As small business owners this has affected my husband and I significantly, especially in terms of time taken away from work.  Comcast and AT&T you now have a hostage for a customer who will leave when we are certain there is a viable alternative.

With the economic meltdown the question of how big is “too big to fail” was debated.  The question I am left with from this experience is how big is “too big to be able to serve”?

With both companies I dealt with people who were very professional, helpful and competent, as well as people who were irresponsible, lazy, nasty, and/or incompetent.  That is perhaps true wherever you go.

I also understand the systems themselves are complex, problems are not always easy to solve, and when you add third party options it can make things more complex and even less clear.  I don’t expect magic wands, or resolution to be simple or easy all the time.  I even expect to work right along with my service providers to troubleshoot the problems knowing I may find out it is indeed a problem on my end.

Yet I do expect a service provider to own the problem and work with me to solve it.

The biggest issue of all in both companies seems to be a system that thwarts personal responsibility and accountability to the customer at every turn.  Every time I called I was forced to talk to a new person.  Notes on my account were rarely sufficient to help the next person if there were notes at all.  I had to start over so many times I started thinking I should just start making recordings.

There was never one individual who tracked my problem from beginning to end. I was caught in loops of seemingly never ending hand offs, sometimes going in circles.  Because I didn’t know these companies’ language, processes or organizational structures, miscommunication and misunderstanding was rampant.

When I tried to escalate on a number of occasions the phone magically dropped the call more than once.  Other times I was told a supervisor was unavailable.  When I did get to the “next level up” I often felt like I was being handled rather than heard.  Ranting got better responsiveness than rational conversations to my dismay.

As I reflect on my experience here are my initial thoughts on whether a company can become too big to serve.

I don’t think it is an issue of size, but rather an issue of mechanizing human interaction to the point where…

…scripts replace effective 2 way communication;

…intelligence is stamped out by procedures; and

…personal responsibility becomes irrelevant because there’s always someone you not only can, but are expected to pass the problem along to with no expectation of following up.

Your system is broken when…

…the only person who owns the customer’s problem is the customer

…the customer is forced to learn your language and processes just to survive their interactions and finds they often knows them better than your employees.

If you , Comcast and AT&T, or any big company is going to step up your customer service, it’s time to stop trying to fix a human system with a machine based model in the never ending quest for maximizing efficiency.  It is not working.  The alternative is start reinventing your organizations to help employees and customers alike deal effectively with the inherent complexity and inevitable breakdowns.

You have some great people working for you Comcast and AT&T and they appear to be drowning in a sea of mediocrity perpetuated by flaws in your support systems. Please help those people so they can help us.

We really are in this together, or at least we should be...

What do you think – can a company become too big to serve?

P.S.  I tweeted in frustration about Comcast and got a near immediate response.  Despite the lack of “evidence” documented in their system that I deserved some compensation for my trouble,  I was issued a refund for 2 months of service with an e-mail to a specific person I can contact if I have any more problems. Hmmmm


Enter A Comment

Georgia   |   25 April 2012   |   Reply

Susan: Great article, as usual, Susan. And so very true. I commiserate with your statement “Ranting got better responsiveness than rational conversations to my dismay.” Unfortunately, that has been my experience as well. Having worked in an organization with a massive call center, and watching as more and more scripts were developed, it is dismaying to see that compassion and accountability often go by the wayside.

Susan Mazza   |   26 April 2012   |   Reply

Thank you Georgia. It is unfortunately the rule rather than the exception in large call centers. I think that should be a clue that it’s time to stop “moving the deck chairs around” and fundamentally rethinking the context of delivering customer service.

Dan Waldron   |   25 April 2012   |   Reply

A friend of mine just emailed me one of your articles from a while back. I read that one a few more. Really enjoy your blog. Thanks

Susan Mazza   |   01 May 2012   |   Reply

Thank you for taking the time to stop by and for your kind words Dan.

Amber-Lee (@AlaskaChickBlog)   |   26 April 2012   |   Reply

I know, I know, you probably thought I had dropped off the planet. But no!! I have been (in addition to bunches of other stuff) dealing with EXACTLY the same issues, different companies. However, communication is the biggest, most important aspect of our keeping the flow going… and it has failed.

Sadly, it makes me feel better to know we are not the only ones dealing with something so potentially damaging to our lives and livelihood. (does that make me “lame”?)

Ya know, I have to wonder (yes, have to) if it is purposefully being done and to how many. Seriously. When was the last time you received a business “letter”? (written with pen and ink with a stamp, delivered by the USPS)

Right. Me too. (actually I think we received 2 last year)

So, what does that mean? Simply poor business? Or is it something bigger? And how many others are dealing with this EXACT same problem? Hmmm…

Love this blog. Always. (you know that, right?☺)

Susan Mazza   |   26 April 2012   |   Reply

I was beginning to wonder where you have been – started to see you posting in just the last week or so. Happy you are back online! Communication is indeed the most important aspect of keeping our flow going.

While I have entertained conspiracy theories in my darkest hours of frustration I do think the fundamental issue is we keep trying to apply mechanistic rules to deal with complex things. I wonder when (if) the companies we rely so heavily and are held captive by will reach the “break point” that causes fundamental change.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™   |   26 April 2012   |   Reply

Hi Susan,
Your post is close to my heart because of the work I do. Love your question — can a company be to large to serve?

Answer: No. The issue isn’t size. Ritz-Carlton, Nordstroms etc… are living proof. How do they deliver great service?

Top leadership believe it is THE way to profit. It is their culture.

As for the examples you gave (e.g. scripted agents etc…) — you have run smack dab into the great divide. Large corporations who outsource their service to a BPO (Biz Process Outsourcer) create a diversion of customer service. The BPO delivering the service has 2 customers – the company that’s paying them and their customers.

Guess which one they focus on the most? Scripts and the focus on Avg. Handling Time are all designed to make sure that the BPO gets paid by the company — who in most cases cares more about cost per call than it does about your satisfaction.

There is nothing inherently wrong with outsourcing — it’s the relationship and priorities that are skewed up.

You have my empathy and also my admiration for writing such a great customer experience post.

My latest post supports your underlying theme that rapport counts:
Rapport is the artery to the heart of trust in customer service experience

Warmest regards,

Susan Mazza   |   01 May 2012   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing your insights (and your post here) Kate. Great point that is is about culture. The organizations you mention have certainly built extraordinary customer service into the fabric. The outsourcing example you give here reminds me that the best and the worst examples of customer service are a demonstration of the principle “what you focus on grows”.

Dorothy Dalton   |   27 April 2012   |   Reply

Susan great post. This piece resonated with me because of a recent encounter with the UK Passport Service! There are struggles with commercial companies, but with the public sector it is even more apparent where there is no profit motive.

Leadership might be the way to profit but what about service? I even had to pay to speak to their customer service department to encounter someone who was less familiar with the passport web site site than I was.

If there is leadership and a service ethic shouldn’t profit follow because consumer needs will be met? Or are some organisations simply too big to be effective and destined to become mindless bureaucracies .

Susan Mazza   |   01 May 2012   |   Reply

Sorry to hear about your struggles with your passport. Sadly it seems to be the norm in government agencies no matter where in the world you go. Someone tweeted that I described here the way the government is designed to work!

I think the issue in government agencies is that employees are focused on executing their part of the process and ensuring the rules are upheld. Exceptions “shouldn’t be” therefore anything out of the ordinary is met with disdain. The flaws of the machine based model of organization from the industrial age are perhaps most evident in legacy bureaucracies like those of our government agencies.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts Dorothy!