Dealing with corporate bureaucracies

Urban living would be practically impossible without large companies. From the moment we wake up to the moment we sleep, they provide things we need—electricity and running water, phone and Internet service, the food we eat, gas in our cars, safekeeping for our money, and, for most of us, our jobs. Large companies make all these conveniences available to us because they are bureaucracies.

The German sociologist Max Weber described the features of a bureaucratic organization as follows: fixed division of labor among participants, a hierarchy of offices, general work rules, and impersonal roles done by technically qualified staff. These features make companies as efficient as machines.

Sometimes, though, foul-ups do happen and this is where bureaucratic companies can give us headaches. Unfortunately, the machine-like features that make them so efficient in giving us what we need make them so difficult to deal with when things go wrong. Companies, like machines, are not very flexible in dealing with new situations and changing conditions.

Large companies can be inflexible in irritating ways. I once got a bill with a notice of disconnection from the phone company. My record showed that I had indeed failed to pay because I did not receive a bill for the previous month. One would think that the company would know this but because of the division of labor within it, the person who sends me the bill doesn’t necessarily update the person who checks my outstanding balance. The expression “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing” applies perfectly to bureaucratic companies.

What do you do as an aggrieved customer to avoid irritating close encounters with bureaucratic companies? I would recommend the following rules-of-thumb which counter the negative features of bureaucracies: over-specialization, impersonality and limiting rules.

Because of over-specialization, company members tend to see only parts of your problem. Each time you call, you may be put in touch with a different person. Therefore, keep a careful record of all interactions with the company. Aside from records of all payments you make, log dates and times as well as full names and designations of people you talk with. Also, get the names, designations and contact numbers of their superiors. Note down all commitments made to you. Share such background information with company people you talk to. It will help them piece the big picture together and, therefore, help you better.

Since companies deal with so many people, they will deal with you impersonally and tend to give low priority to your problem. Counter this by building personal rapport with those you deal with. Use their names as much as possible and, most importantly, be as polite as possible. Because irate customers often speak to them belligerently, company reps are more sympathetic to polite ones. Appeal to their professionalism as you patiently ask for help with your problem.

The scope of authority of any company person is limited by rules. If your problem is not being addressed by an individual, just elevate your concern to his or her superior. The hierarchy of a bureaucracy is the best cure against its weaknesses. As long as you are courteously elevating a valid grievance, you can count on eventually reaching a manager who has the authority to solve your problem to your satisfaction.

Company bureaucracies are a fact of modern life and they promise as much frustration as satisfaction. By knowing how to deal with their weaknesses, you can spare yourself much grief.