Every large company starts out as a small company. In the beginning, every individual customer matters to a company, and each of these individual customers can see that he is important to the company. When the company interacts with a customer, it has one-on-one, personal conversations in which the company is focused only on that customer.

As the company gets bigger, it becomes harder and harder to have these personal conversations with each customer. In order to be efficient, the company starts communicating with more than one customer at a time. It prints its first brochure, launches its first website and places its first ad. To handle its increasing telephone volume, the company installs an automated call answering system in which customers listen to a menu and are asked to press various numbers to get to the people they want.

These mass communication media are very helpful and efficient for the company. But they aren’t helpful and efficient for customers. When the company was small, it was able to listen to every customer, and if there was a problem, the company could address it immediately. But now, as the company gets bigger, the company is frequently not paying attention to customers at times the customers need to be heard. It becomes impossible to make every customer happy.

The company has become too big not to fail its customers. Its efficient, mass communications guarantee that it will let customers down.

Has your company become too big not to fail?

There are many ways to measure whether your company is too big not to fail. Essentially they all revolve around one issue: Do you make it easy for your customers to dialogue with your company?

Here are a few example measures by which you can tell if you are too big to fail.

Are you paying attention?

Many companies are not paying attention to the words and actions of individual customers.

I advise companies of all sizes, from small to large. My observation from experience: The larger the company, the more likely it will not be listening when its customers have something to say. Even most mid-size companies are unaware of what their customers think and want, substituting anecdote-driven generalizations and vague assumptions for real customer knowledge.

Is your company set up to listen to and observe customers?

What is your company’s dialogue/monologue ratio?

A brochure is a monologue. Most websites are essentially monologues. Each of these is much more focused on telling a company’s story than it is focused on creating conversations with customers. I calculated that one $2 billion company, in a consumer service business, spends 50 times more money on one-way customer communications than on listening to or dialoguing with customers.

Are your communications set up to include a healthy amount of dialogue with customers, or are you essentially a company focused on “getting the word out” to customers?

Some one-way communication is reasonable, but ask yourself if you are including enough opportunities for dialogue, so that you won’t miss important information customers want to share with you.

What is your Phone Friction Factor?

I rented a truck from Budget this week to drive with my son Noah from Chicago to Boston, carrying the contents of Noah’s new apartment. During the trip I needed to call Budget to ask a question about the rental contract, so I visited to the Budget website to find their phone number. I started to hunt through menus to find their phone number. It was not listed on any of the menus at the top of the page, and I finally found it buried behind a Contact Us link at the bottom of the page.

When I tried to call the hard-to-find phone number, I was forced to listen to a recording and then press a few numbers, followed by a long wait on hold. The person who answered was not able to help me and gave me the phone number of the department that would address my problem. I called this new phone number and ended back at the same place I had just been on the first call. This is a customer experience filled with Phone Friction.

Budget Truck Rental is not different from thousands of other companies. In order to keep their costs in check and keep their operations efficient, they have put in place systems that place friction in the telephone dialogue process, leading customers into impersonal, automated communications. It may be efficient, but it’s guaranteed to fail customers.

I understand that, as your company has gotten bigger, the practicalities of business prevent many of you from speaking directly with each customer you have.

Too bad. This is one of the many reasons being bigger isn’t always better. The more customers you have, relative to your company’s size, the harder it is to have personal dialogues with customers. You will fail your customers.

My recommendation: Invest in as much customer dialogue as possible. As you grow and need to put in place mass communication in order to be efficient, recognize that all mass communication has a cost. For every piece of mass communication you add, assess what else you can do to support personal communication with customers. Otherwise, you will have become too big not to fail your customers.


  • Oscar
    Sep 04, 2012 - 10:49 am


    Great article, it totally makes sense. I had never thought about it this way. Being big and setting up “efficient” mass communication systems/tools definitelly puts us on track to be too big NOT to fail our customers.

    This articule should be a wake up call to many.

    Thank you!


  • Steve Yastrow
    Sep 04, 2012 - 16:04 pm

    Thanks Oscar … “wake up call” is a perfect metaphor. Companies hide from customers behind their mass communications and need to be jolted back to reality.


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