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Is the Organization or the Customer Taste Mediocre?

Seth Godin’s post today is Three Kinds of Corporate Mediocrity. They are Uncaring, Focused, and Accidental.

Uncaring mediocrity is the heart of the article. He describes it being found in:

The mechanization and industrialization of cottage industries (like hotels, restaurants and healthcare) has led to a convenient homogenization for many. It means you can travel around the world and find better than decent accommodations and safe food, all at a fair price…

If you have a lousy meal at a real restaurant, the owner could hear from you and, it’s likely, not only fix it, but get back to you. Have a lousy experience with a Host, a Taco Bell, or a JW Marriott, though, and the odds are that the individual who reads your review has never even visited the place you’re talking about, and certainly doesn’t care enough to do anything about it…

[though standardization has upsides…] The downside is that the chances that an internal insurgent can make things better go down.

While I agree with his assessment in Linchpin (and elsewhere) that someone may not want to work in the listed organizations or their peers, the mediocrity is in the taste of the customer not the organization.

What is the likelihood high amounts of process — a synonym for mediocrity for Godin? — are suppressing a lot of insurgent, positive change at Taco Bell? The vast majority of front line workers there don’t have the professional experience or muscle of knowing how to serve customers.

It is almost certainly the case a bad experience at Taco Bell is more likely to be rectified than the vast majority of more expensive mom & pop Mexican restaurants. If you return a taco there it is 99% likely to be immediately replaced with no questions. You’re also (as he notes) less likely to have had a bad experience in the first place.

I don’t need the customer service rep to have visited the particular restaurant. I don’t want them to be freelancing with my taco or a thoughtful custom interaction. I am there for predictability and speed not an artisan taco, like I might get from a truck. That is excellence, not mediocrity. Is my taste in tacos mediocre in choosing to go there? Probably. Maybe I’m just changing flights in Denver and need a bite to eat.

What is an example of a more excellent Taco chain than Taco Bell? They are better than Del Taco. They even – gasp – do innovate in their menu. The teams doing the innovation see a wider set of data from which to innovate than the lone front-line operator.

Calling out J.W. Marriott as another example is also particularly harsh. It is exceptionally rare to have a bad experience, and the customer service is nearly always responsive and even caring. Far far more than most AirBNBs – not all, but most. What should they be empowering their employees to do that they do not right now to be excellent? (Or, what range of activities – Godin is correct writing elsewhere that you can’t write out a map for a linchpin.) They put enormous resources into employee training, and it’s not easy to be on the Forbes best 100 companies to work for (a manipulable list perhaps but there’s some there there.)

In & Out Burger and Chick-fil-A are scaled, process-driven organizations that also seem in general to have more satisfied and satisfying employees. It’s just a better process, including a hiring process. Caring acts sometimes impede an optimal experience. Sometimes it’s better to be at Taco Bell with fountain drink refills than having the caring Chick-fil-A manager come by to offer to do it.

Thinking of them (and perhaps Southwest Airlines) a better proposition would be that the more you are scaling (the larger menu of McDonalds than In-N-Out) the less freedom of operation an employee will have which will have consequences for the type of organizational excellence you’re pursuing.


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