Service of Big

March 3rd, 2011

Categories: Back to Basics, Big, Communications, Customer Service, Excuses, Failure, Quality Control, Responsiveness, Service


America is founded on big is better, though pundits analyzing a downturn at Wal*Mart are noting that bulk purchases are going out of style and people are ferreting out better bargains at smaller drugstore and other chains.

Some people favor doing business with small companies or entities and others feel more secure with big ones. And many times, we have no choice.

In anycase, I’m  finding that suddenly some of the giants are dropping balls big time and all over.


envelopeThe USPS rejected all the cards I sent and re-sent to a friend who lives in Brooklyn. [I got back her Christmas card in late January!] After she got no support from her post office–the clerk told her that the address was incorrect when it wasn’t–I wrote the USPS NY district manager. It’s a matter of pride: She’s a foreigner and my postal service was messing up.

I got a phone call from a charming person in Manhattan’s customer relations who empathized with my frustration and another one sent me an email. One noted that to help substitute postal delivery staff I had to affix an apartment number to a multiple family dwelling, which hers is.

I explained she doesn’t have an apartment number, that there are three tenants in the house, she lives on the second floor, and one of the tenants brings in the mail from where the postman leaves it outside and the others get it from a table.

I agreed to add “2nd Floor” next time. I haven’t had a reason-or the heart-to send something to see if my efforts have unclogged the system when it comes to personal mail. [She gets bank statements, phone bills and books ordered online.] Yesterday a Brooklyn USPS customer relations person left me a voice message and we’ve played phone tag. I must have hit a nerve.

Meanwhile my sister’s Valentine took over one week to get from Westchester to Manhattan and a second card, from the Midwest, came two weeks late and the stamp wasn’t cancelled.


Several times a week we see “data unavailable” where our cable company posts the title of a program. TV isn’t essential, but we pay plenty to get it. If I tune in when a commercial is running, which is most of the time, I’d like to know what’s on.


smartphone1I bought my smartphone from a wonderful man whose business is connected with a major wireless phone provider. He has taught me all sorts of tricks to fix what periodically ails the device. I pulled out all the stops last week to no effect. All emails had stopped but the phone and Internet browser worked.

My phone maven wasn’t in the store that day-a first. The young man who “helped” me told me I hadn’t received any emails. Good luck. Then he tried something ineffective, handed back the phone, said it was broken, that I should take it to the [dreaded] repair office, turned his back on me and walked away.

Back at my office I found a toll free number captured from a previous breakdown [given to me by an upstate branch of this company]. Two hours after the tech person worked me through various remedies, emails appeared. [It should have revived in 20 minutes, but I was grateful anyway.]

Playing Hard to Get

I use a pharmacy connected to a chain that is gobbling up the competition. The revised Rx renewal system is sick. When the automatic refill computer voice didn’t recognize my prescription number, I called back with one option: To leave a voice message. [I used to speak with someone in the pharmacy department.] I  asked that someone confirm that my order is back on track and waiting for me. Nobody did. I went in, learned that they have a new computer system, that in transferring information much was lost and had to return the next day to pick up the order. The branch is a block from my apartment and on my way home from the office which is fortunate time-waste-wise.

druglinesI felt sorry for the counter person the first night I came in: Everything seemed to go wrong due to the new computer system. On top of my case, she was searching for a young woman’s insurance information. The computer had kept seven year old stats. I must hand it to her: She handled this–and a line that had grown to eight people–cooly and calmly.

Judgement Call

For 20 years a friend has told the Manhattan jury system about her married name yet they consistently send jury duty notifications to both names which then takes hours to untangle. Even this expert communicator is flummoxed.

Are these glitches exclusive to New York City? What big company malfunctions have stymied you lately? Is big really better?


12 Responses to “Service of Big”

  1. Nancy Farrell Said:

    Our bank recently got acquired by another bank. I received a text message from my husband on a recent Monday morning saying he was having trouble getting money from an ATM. The machine insisted he’d forgotten his password (which was silly since he’d used it the day before).

    I called the bank to check our balance and to make sure no one had fraudulantly accessed our account. There was no suspicious activity but the automated voice mentioned that the change from the old bank to the new bank had happened that day.

    I told my husband who called the bank and told a live human our theory–that the changeover had affected our ability to access our money. The live human assured him that this was not the case and said we could not get a new password over the phone and that he had to go into the branch to fix the situation.

    The next morning my husband waited outside the bank, peering through the locked door as the bank employees had a meeting past 9 AM (their opening time) by their lobby clock. A line was forming outside on this cold morning and these “new” customers were understandably getting grumpy as they were cold and late for work. Finally the doors opened and the teller asked if we’d tried using the ATM card today. He said “no” because he was afraid the card would be eaten.

    The teller explained that the bank had been acquired recently and that there were a lot of glitches and people the day before had had trouble accessing their money because of computer error. Why hadn’t we thought of that? Oh wait, we had.

    About 10 days later we received an letter of apology with a phone number that we can call if we still can’t access our money (as if we could sit around and wait 10 days hoping someone would tell us how to get to our money).

  2. Frank Paine Said:

    Oh, this is a good one. The problem is definitely not limited to New York City or State. Let’s see:

    A) I remember once sending a letter from mid-town NYC to downtown NYC. It took a week. OK, but that’s NYC, isn’t it?

    B) Barnes & Noble recently unilaterally cancelled an order of mine, with no explanation. When I queried this, I was told I would have to re-order. No apology, no help, no anything. That’s not NYC;

    C) When I was in the Army (not NYC), nobody could believe that I had no middle name. Consequently, all my paperwork got processed with the name Francis P. Paine. When I pointed out that the middle initial wasn’t appropriate because I had no middle name, they started processing me as Francis no-middle-initial Paine. I could never make that one up; and

    D) I used to work for the Federal Reserve System. We all know that the FRS has never made a mistake, and it’s definitely not just NYC.

    Sheesh, that’s enough. Got lots more where those came from.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Too little too late is the title of your bank experience which resembled my drugstore challenge, except yours was scarier. On the other hand, you had the option of speaking with a person and I didn’t. In fact, my dentist told me that doctors can’t get a human to answer a phone in pharmacy at the chains.

    In addition, I can’t understand why your bank and my pharmacy didn’t have a contingency plan in place. Everyone knows that there is a chance for a glitch with computer or other major changeovers. Why not note in the recorded voice message that drug store or bank would be grateful for customer patience while they work out any kinks in the new system and that for a brief period, here’s a number to call should customers need to speak with someone. It would be worth the little additional expense which, in my opinion, would save everyone a lot of time and give customers a far better feeling of confidence than letting them flounder around wondering what could be wrong.

    I can guess the reason this wouldn’t be done: Nobody admits to possible failure! I’ve written about this in appropriate tendency before.

  4. Lucrezia Said:

    I don’t like generalizations, and the “big” vs “small” issue is no exception. Experience has produced IRS entities who have bent over backwards on one occasion to save an employer from ruinous fines, and on another, to bring relief to an identity theft victim. In contrast, two close relatives, a first cousin and an aunt, won’t spell my last name correctly, despite the appearance of large block letters on packages and envelopes over the years. So much for “small.”

    While most of us have horror stories to tell, much of the harm could have been allayed by determined communication. Several years back, the NFL quietly cancelled a Christmas order (made over a month in advance) thus causing grief and embarrassment under the Tree. It took one phone call, and there has been top notch service ever since. A recent Readers Digest issue story told of tough corporate nuts and the creative ways people turned their victim status to that of boss.

    Like it or not, when cooperation is not forthcoming after a polite request, it pays to be confrontational. The size of the entity is unimportant. The ability to get ones point across is what carries the day. If less people were to slink off whimpering about the lack of consideration given the public “these days,” and more were to start swinging when met with poor quality products and/or service, good manners followed by good business would make a swift comeback. It would not only be healthy for a company’s financial success, it would profit the economy as well.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your Army story is priceless. I have no response! But I can imagine potential complications when you go to show proof of service and your name matches neither of your Army names!

    I used to pay B & N to be a member for the 10 percent discount. And I loved the extra discounts I’d get by email. I paid and shopped for years and suddenly, the emails stopped. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and got nowhere. When it was time to renew, they found me—and I asked about the months of lost discounts and how would I know, if I gave them more money, if the department that sent out the discount emails would know where I was. Response: They couldn’t fix the situation unless I was a member. I won’t pay them for membership anymore, though they’ve found me again and send me notices.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    My great aunt, who was more of a grandmother to me and very dear, never spelled my name correctly. She was the first person to give me a wonderful collection of personal stationery in a stunning green. And there was my name: Jon Marie on all shapes and sizes as well as on envelopes. I still loved the stationery and always adored her. However, I wouldn’t have hired her to copy edit.

    As for calling and writing, which I do when service is exemplary or horrific, it has become increasingly difficult to find an address or phone number. A friend who works for a Fortune 100 company learned that there is no phone number on the corporate website. Another friend had left her phone number at home and wished to leave her an important message and tried to get a number, any number, so as to be connected to her. No soap.

    Regardless of size of business, this is increasingly true. Sometimes, you can write what you want on a “comment” page on a web site. I think that most companies give that job to the corporate mascot, be it a dog, cat or gerbil. You never hear back. Many have no headquarters mailing addresses. I wish I knew how they were so effective in hiding in this day and age!

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    I am at a loss to respond, since no one has disappeared when I have had a complaint.

    It’s unimaginable anyone would want to pay for a Barnes & Noble membership when Borders offers that, along with a number of perks, for free. However, when a business acts in the way you describe, it is usually a sign that it is in serious trouble, and that it’s not worth the effort to run after it. In your place, I might have spoken to the store manager and gotten my membership fee back, or perhaps not even bothered.

    You missed the point I made about the misspelling relatives, a topic totally unrelated to displays of affection and/or gifts bestowed. I didn’t see it as necessary to explain this was meant to show that “big” can come through when “small” can err.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Borders is closing all around the city. A friend who works in the Wall Street area is upset about the closing of that branch and another friend–they don’t know one another–volunteered that one near her apartment [I think she said in the East 30s in Manhattan] is closing. They both love the store.

    I liked Barnes & N because the stores were always near my office and the member discounts were substantial. I don’t think I’ve been inside a Borders!

    On Amazon, and no doubt on other sites, you can check chapters and indexes but there’s nothing like flipping through the actual pages. You can tell that I own neither a Kindle, iPad nor a Nook.

    As for Small “erring,” I know only too well! As much as I review copy, surprise words creep in–and others that surely were there in the first draft, disappear! I don’t take advantage of my associates to review blog copy but I do for important material that goes to clients.

    Big’s advantages: Extensive backup, cutting edge technology and support. Big should best be able to anticipate obvious problems [Nancy’s bank, my drugstore’s new computer system that I address in an earlier comment]. These companies should have staff on the spot to fix breakdowns when they occur. But this doesn’t always happen. Maybe some big companies need a bit of the energy and turn-on-a-dime flexibility of small ones and some staff at some big companies could use a dose of ownership about what they do.

  9. Simon Carr Said:

    I believe you mistitled your topic. It should be “Big is Bad.”

    I fight big every chance I can get. Whenever possible, and sometimes it just isn’t, I avoid patronizing big. I last ate a meal in a chain restaurant 30 years ago; my bank is tiny; my drugstore has no branches. The last good thing “big” did that “small” could not have done is build the atom bomb, and some people think that was not such a hot idea.

    Why is small better? We live in a time when you are considered an evil person if you don’t think people are equal. I’m evil because I don’t believe anybody is equal to anybody else. I also believe that by so greatly diminishing merit’s role in the rewards system (look at what’s going on in New York with the teachers), we have so debased the quality of our work force to the point that we have become, as you suggest in your examples, “third rate.”

    You have a much better chance of being “first rate” if you are small enough where the boss knows his employees, keeps the good ones and fires the bad ones without having to write a bunch of memos.

    I don’t know what it’s like now, but the US Army found that out many years ago. That’s why, when it was it its best, even the general’s admitted that it was really being run by the sergeants.

    Lastly, if you want to fix things in this country, I suggest you that you tax the heck out of big corporations (and rich people), and give the middle class a chance to get off the floor and run things again.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I don’t know that taxing the heck out of big corporations will help the middle class because the taxes will simply be passed on, adding to the cost of things and to inflation.

    However, I do believe that loopholes for the rich and exemptions for big corporations should be stopped and that they should pay their fair share. For example, if a small or medium sized business is slapped with a big tax and threatens to leave a city or state, nothing will happen. A large corporation making such a threat will be forgiven the tax.

    As for being equal, I think the idea is to try to level the playing field so that bright people are given a chance to use their brains and energy and to succeed and not be held back by, for example, arbitrary rules such as bloodlines. I fully agree that those who work smart and hard should be better compensated than those who squeak by doing the minimum.

    A small company can’t afford the squeakers-by. A large company may need that kind of cushion as not everyone can rise to the top and yet a company needs bodies to perform certain functions. Further, many people aren’t interested in running things, or are perfectly happy being the best receptionist anyone has ever met and they, too, should be able to work.

  11. Carolyn Gatto Said:

    If you have a travel-related service issue and want to reach someone “at the top,” check out (and bookmark) this site: It includes head-honcho contact info for a long list of airlines, car rental agencies, cruise lines, travel agencies, hotels, and car manufacturers. The site was launched by Christopher Elliott, a well-respected travel journalist and travel-consumer advocate.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Thank you, Carol! What a great tip.

    And who would know this info better than you, a founder of the award winning travel site,

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