Too big to care

by Mike Stopforth: Entrepreneur and investor. Sometimes writer and speaker. Exploring how we lead, and how we should lead, in an increasingly complex world.
We moved to the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town earlier this year, along with what seems like half of Johannesburg. Rumour has it Capetonians LOVE the influx of GP number plates on their hallowed pothole-free roads. The politics of provincialism are perhaps for another article.

It’s been an adjustment, for sure, and there were many evenings in those first few weeks when, after opening and unpacking the eleventyhundredth box of the day, we elected for takeouts or a stroll to a local eatery instead of cooking.

We live within walking distance of Salushi, a particularly charming sushi restaurant in a refurbished old house adorned almost exclusively with cat-themed decor. Talk about striking all my favourite chords at once. Like so many of the wonderful culinary options in Cape Town, Salushi requires a reservation, even on insipid mid-week evenings.

Because many of our visits were last minute decisions, we frequently failed to book a spot. This fact did not stop my wife from standing at the restaurant's door, like one of the forlorn felines depicted on its walls, begging to be let in. Me, the husband who cannot bear even the idea of inconveniencing someone, standing three metres to her rear, dying a slow and excruciating death.

To her credit, her persistence almost always paid off, and despite our lack of planning or compliance, we have enjoyed many wonderful meals there (I now insist we book because I can no longer look the owner directly in the eyes.)

Of course, reservations are common practice in civilised society, and many of us wait weeks and even months for the chance to visit swanky restaurants, bars and clubs. A restaurant is constrained by its space and resources, and can only serve so many meals to so many people. Luxury brands constrain supply in limited edition runs to drive scarcity and appeal. Leading physicians are booked up months in advance and them being so makes them even more appealing to the prospective patient, somehow.

Services business are not constrained. Like gluttonous Blobs, we expand as much as we are fed, to fill whatever space opens up to us. Banks and telcos start out as maverick challenger idealists, often succeed, and then predictably succumb to the lethargy and mediocrity that comes unfettered growth, a jungle of red tape, a Bolognese of barely distinguishable product offerings, and an amorphous nameless mass of customers.

Agencies start out with dreams of Doing It Differently, win client accounts, expand, and eventually fall into the trap of non-delivery that leads to the manipulation of staff and clients rather than a shared value model.

We build beautiful brands with beautiful promises and then grow businesses behind those brands so bulky that fulfilling on our promises becomes nigh on impossible. Staff become delusional and disengaged, the old guard constantly lamenting “the old days before it got like this.” Customers and clients experience a slow degradation in service, for the same price or even steadily increasing rates.

In the last three months, largely because of the move, I’ve had to make changes and adjustments with my primary bank, telco (ISP), and insurer. I’ve been with the bank for over a decade, and both the telco and insurer for over twenty years. I spend a lot of money with all three parties. None of them have a clue who I am. And I don’t mean, they don’t know who Mike Stopforth is (I’m not a hashtag influencer ok). I mean they don’t know when I call or email or DM them that I’m a client of twenty plus years. The experience is as bad, as inconsistent, and as schizophrenic as the poor chap who signed up a week ago.

What might it look like if we built a bank that committed to serve only 100 000 customers with brilliant basics?

What might it look like if we built an ISP that provided calls that don’t drop and reliable fast connectivity to only 1 000 000 customers?

This kind of thinking sounds anti-growth, doesn’t it? ANTI-CAPITALIST! But it’s quite the contrary. I think carefully considered and curated constraints are precisely how you build robust, customer-centric enterprises. Otherwise we pursue growth with such relentless vigour that we land up with titanic monstrosities that employ thousands of people, 80% of which do maybe 20% meaningful work, a customer base who is completely alienated and only gets attention when they complain or leave, and a marketing team that is incentivised to ankle-bite for the scraps of available business under the addressable market table rather than focusing on building relationships with the customers who have already elected to contract with you.

Punishing loyal customers with bad service because you grew too big, and then getting upset when they choose someone else, is not just illogical, it’s obscene. 

Do not hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying growth is bad. I’m not saying companies shouldn’t do well. I’m saying companies shouldn’t be surprised when their relevance and impact is inversely correlated to their bulk and complexity. I’m not saying we shouldn’t grow, innovate and diversify, I’m saying spin off agile new brands like Hollard did with Naked, or Multichoice did with Showmax.

Yes, I know monolithic brands like all the big banks and telcos have don’t get that powerful or that valuable overnight. But their relentless pursuit of bigger and more has meant that we customers now tread water in a sea of sameness, juggling brands that are so busy trying to make everyone happy that they sound completely vanilla, and products that look so alike you’d be forgiven for confusing them.

A bit of a rant this month, wasn’t it! I’ll get off my Jerry Maguire high horse now.

Useful resources:
Beyond Binary
Beyond Binary works with its clients to unpack the impacts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on their businesses by plotting their journey in terms of five distinct categories: Digital Denialism, Digital Enhancement, Digital Transformation, Digital Speculation, and Digital Disruption.
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