Sunday, June 18, 2006

What the hell is up with mediocrity?

This has been bothering me for a long time now, and I think it's high time I did something about it.

Let me begin with an example. On Wednesday, we went to California to go visit some friends. We stopped in Hesperia at the Big Boy, because we (mistakenly) assumed that a moderately-well-known chain with a high-profile icon would offer a decent dining experience for hungry travelers.

We also assumed that paying close to $8 for a hamburger might guarantee a certain level of quality.

I won't go into the numerous ways our experience sucked, except to say that we're STILL waiting for Tyson's Dr. Pepper in a to-go cup.

Still, I've eaten worse food, food that someone had to work hard to make as awful-tasting as it was. I've received terrible service, service where some waitperson was determined to take her lousy day out on everyone within a half-mile radius. But I think my Big Boy experience was representative of something far more insidious: the American people are in love with mediocrity.

Don't believe me? Read movie reviews, then go see the movie (or vice versa, if that's your pleasure) and then think. Really think. Go over the movie in your head and try to make some sense of it. Let it marinate for a day or two. In most cases, one of a few things will happen:

  1. You recognize immediately that the movie was lame.
  2. You recognize after a few days that the movie you thought was sort of okay was really lame.
  3. The reviews you read said it was better than it was.
After you have decided exactly how average and unstellar the movie was, think back to the audience and their reactions to the movie. A lot of people in there probably thought the movie "rocked" or somesuch.

And it's not just movies, or food, it's music too. And niteclubs. Cheap stuff you buy at Wal-Mart. Pork chops. Even services like tech support and installation of hot-water heaters have become mediocre.

But WHY??

I can only guess, but I think I may be onto something: Mediocrity is a byproduct of laziness. People are too lazy to make something good or to do something well. Consumers, too, are lazy. We don't want to think, or learn how to do something differently, or to spend more money than we think we "have to."

Take the coffee example. I started working for Starbucks here in Las Vegas in 2000. There weren't more than about 15 stores in the Valley. (Now there are more than 60, not counting Albertson's and casino stores.) When I was hired, I competed with others for the job, and was hired with the assumption that there were other, qualified people to fill my position if I didn't work out. We busted our asses and made a good product and gave good service. Then, as the Las Vegas market grew, we started hiring people I liked less and less. People who "didn't do" dishes. People who gave the floor a half-assed swipe with the mop then said they were done. The company started to need employees so badly to fuel their expansion that standards were lowered again, and again, and again. The difference between a visit to Starbucks today and a visit six years ago is astounding. They've traded their reputation for service and quality for name-brand recognition and ubiquitousness.

But Seattle people, this is no news to you, I'm sure. And the same goes for chains like Seattle's Best (now owned by Starbucks), Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and even Peet's.

But why do customers stand for this kind of watering-down? I think your average customer doesn't know the difference between a good mocha and a lousy one. I don't even think he or she knows the difference between good service and lousy service. All that customer knows is that the coffee in the green logo cup is the coffee everyone says is good, so it must be. Plus, that place is everywhere, so it must be good.

Anyway, let me use this opportunity as a call to action for all three of my loyal readers. Let's fight mediocrity! Together we can bring a few more people to their senses, and maybe one day our grandchildren's children will not have to live in as bland a world.


David Harmon said...

Quality requires individual attention, and that's just not "cost-effective".... After all, they can charge just as much for lousy coffee as for good stuff!

K said...

I think the problem is too much power in the corporate area. Hence the obsession with "cost-effectiveness." Most people call this the Wal-Mart-ization of America (tomorrow...the world!).

So...perhaps the solution is to go anti-corporate. More unions! Of course, lately my answer to anything is More Unions.