The Problem With Scaling

Most companies start out with good intentions. They seek to solve a problem; to address a need in the marketplace. And when it works, they begin to scale.  The problem is that as they scale, the tendency is to forget why it is that “it” worked in the first place. Because what is “it?”

Most companies are not reinventing the wheel. As far as you and I are concerned, from an inventory and price perspective, most grocery stores/restaurants/airlines are more or less the same. What really sets the various businesses in these categories apart is the way that they treat us as their customers. We remember going to the restaurant that set up shop up down the street from us two months after they opened, and the manager coming over to introduce himself. And we also remember the day that same restaurant opened up a second location, and that when we ate there, the staff seemed less well-trained and professional, and the wait to get our food was longer, because they hired less staff to cut costs.

I personally remember the teller at SuperSol in Israel who, whenever I came back from base on Friday afternoons, would sneak some of the food I was buying into my bag without ringing it up, because she knew that the money I had accumulated that week defending the country would not cover everything in front of her.  Do you think I ever shopped anywhere else? Do you think the costs of goods I purchased from that SuperSol over the years far eclipsed the cost to that branch of the gifts I received? You better believe it.

As we (as a society) move towards greater and greater automation, and companies seek to cut costs at every turn, it is worth remembering that as Seth Godin pointed out in a panel recently, there is more to most jobs than their description on paper. The librarian does not just check people out. She smiles at the old man in khakis wearing a sweater from the eighties, and lets him know that he has been seen, as he so rarely is in a world where people sizing him up determine that he has nothing to offer them. She compliments the teenager on how advanced the books she is reading are, and offers a few suggestions for next time. A robot may very well be able to check people out of the library, but it is not the same experience as a human being looking you in the eye and asking you with genuine curiosity, “How was your day?”

If we forget the people that got us to where we are, through whose graces we earned the right to scale, than we deserve the failure that will inevitably result when we try to cut pennies at the expense of customer and employee satisfaction.

Today I stopped into the United lounge at the airport to ask if a certain level of loyalty status would allow me to enter without paying. When the United representative looked me up in her system, and saw that I was only $90 away from reaching that point, she asked me why I didn’t tell her that I was traveling first class today (I wasn’t). I opened my mouth to correct her but before I could get a word out, she grabbed my boarding pass out of my hands, waved it quickly in front of the scanner, and thanked me for my business before ushering me into the lounge.

Typically, entry costs $50, but my presence in the lounge costs United significantly less than that. With that simple gesture, that woman reminded me why it was that I choose to fly United and not American, with whom I have had numerous customer service nightmares. Because when the service is more or less the same, and the price is more or less the same, which generalizes most businesses in a competitive economy, it is the people that make the difference.

No matter what you do, take a second to ask yourself what it is about your job that a robot couldn’t do. And whatever that thing is, do more of it.

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