Monday, January 15, 2018

Survey Says...

America has a survey problem.

That's actually too broad. American businesses have the problem, though it's American consumers who do the heavy lifting. Businesses are hooked on customer satisfaction surveys, but it's consumers who are asked, multiple times a day, to fill them out. Transactions, interactions, casual contacts, small purchases--it seems everyone who's selling something, or helping consumers feel better about having purchased that item, wants our opinion on how the contact with the salesperson or customer service representative went. Every time I call Kaiser Permanente to schedule an appointment, I'm asked to stay on the phone afterward to take a survey on how it went. Any purchase I make from the Amazon Marketplace results in a deluge of emails pleading with me to write a positive review of the item. Grocery store and restaurant receipts come with offers for extra fuel points or a free side in exchange for taking an online survey. It seems everybody I do business with wants my opinion, and while I appreciate their concern for my satisfaction, it's starting to get to me.

It's important to note, of course, that it's not actually the people I interact with who are asking me to take these surveys--though I'm sure they'd love it if I did and gave them five-star reviews. No, it's The Man, the corporate entity that employs these call center workers, grocery clerks, and fast food servers, who really wants my opinion of how things went, the more specific, the better. I'd like to think there are rewards built into getting positive reviews, but I suspect there may also be penalties tied to the negative ones. And in the case of the call center workers, I know there's recording equipment running to back up anything I might say about the operator who seemed a bit out of it, perhaps was less than ideally polite, or asked an inappropriate small talk question. Maybe that person  just got off the line with an extremely demanding customer and hasn't quite got her bearings. Maybe that guy was up all night with a colicky infant. Maybe I was just in a bad mood, particularly with respect to a discrepancy in my bill, for which the poor kid on the other end of the line had no responsibility whatsoever other than to take down my complaint and tell me to call back in a week.

For all of these possible explanations of an interaction that left me unhappy, and many more, I simply do not take the surveys.

That's right, I hang up the moment my business is completed. I could selfishly say that my time is just to valuable to spend it rehashing a quick phone call or a purchase with a robot, but in truth, I'm rejecting surveys out of hand. The reason is quite simple: as a teacher, I've studied the principles of assessment, and I can tell you without reservation that the results of all these surveys are utterly subjective excrement.

To be valid and relevant, evaluative tools need to be purged of outside influences. In the case of standardized tests, that means creating an environment for test-takers that is free of distractions, then running the results through algorithms that purge them of all factors that could skew them one way or another. There is a huge industry that spends billions of dollars constantly refining these tests, doing all it can to make them valid in every school setting.

And most teachers will tell you--preferably without an administrator in the room--that those efforts have failed. We all have bright, gifted students who, for reasons beyond our control, simply cannot score well on a standardized test, no matter how much the system may do to render it as objective as humanly possible. Some children come in with empty stomachs--they overslept and skipped breakfast--while others got no sleep at all because the car they sleep in didn't shield them from the elements. Some have taken intensive test preparation courses that teach them to game the tests using strategies that have nothing to do with the subject matter of the tests. Others just find taking a test to be a terrifying experience, and freeze up, unable to proceed, the moment the paper is put in front of them, or the question appears on the monitor.

So in the most ideal of settings--an environment in which testing is a seasonal routine, and both administrators and takers of those tests are as free of influences as they can possibly be, and the tests themselves are geared to shed those influences--there are still far too many invalid results.

Let's go back to the marketplace now. Where evaluation instruments in a school setting are administered to every subject, marketplace surveys are entirely voluntary. My own experience suggests there is a high degree of self-selection going on, as well: I'm far more likely to feel like responding to a survey if I'm dissatisfied (though as I said earlier, that's precisely why I don't answer surveys). If I'm unhappy with an interaction, I know my answers will be skewed to the negative, and probably lean on the "extreme" side of rating the experience. That means the corporation is getting anything but an unbiased take on it.
To be honest, I hardly ever take the AI running the survey up on its offer to answer a few questions, click a few boxes, write a comment or two. My time is too valuable for me to write up a

No, I don't want to take the survey.

There was a time when corporate entities relied on a single indicator of customer satisfaction: money. Consumers voted with their pocket books. As a young adult in the 1980s, I exercised this franchise frequently, changing banks, long distance providers, insurance companies, airlines, grocery stores, and so on. Thanks to taking Econ 101, I had no brand loyalty: I knew most branding was cosmetic, and thanks to the lecture on price discrimination, I knew store brands were, underneath their packaging, identical to the more expensive name brands, so I stuck it to The Man by buying My-Te-Fine frozen peas and Safeway orange juice. Acting in this way, I put the "free" in "free enterprise," and was reasonably content.

Except, of course, when The Man stuck it to me.

There were several occasions when I angrily quit the Columbia record/CD/video club. The situation usually played out in this way: Columbia was an opt-out subscription service. They'd send out a catalog each month, along with notice that a title was going to be shipped and billed to me unless I returned a card saying I didn't want it. I rarely wanted the monthly item, so I returned those cards the day I received them. That didn't always keep Columbia from shipping the item, anyway, or, on a few occasions, billing me for something I never received. When I refused to pay, they'd threaten me with collections. This would lead me to angrily write them a letter disputing the charge, and to cancel my membership. The letters worked: I never wound up paying for an item I didn't order.

Apparently, I wasn't the only customer expressing my discontent with the opt-out model, because at some point, Columbia--as well as a few other book, movie, or music clubs I belonged to--moved away from the opt-out approach. Now the catalogs were simply descriptions of items I could purchase if I wished, not warnings of something I'd be billed for unless I returned a post card immediately. The invisible hand of capitalism worked exactly as it was supposed to: the market said "enough of this," and the vendors had to respond.

I'm no fan of the market. It continues to screw me from time to time. But I have to say, I'm starting to miss the time when corporations only responded to economic complaints, because it's starting to feel like the market has become far too responsive to the opinions of customers.

Lately it feels like I can't make a purchase without the vendor requesting me to fill out a customer satisfaction survey. In some cases, this makes sense: expensive durable goods, for instance, big purchases in which losing a customer can mean thousands of dollars in commission. A perfect example is my most recent car purchase, in October, 2016. I was looking at Honda and Subaru cross-over vehicles. I test-drove a Subaru Outback, liked it very much, but felt some measure of brand loyalty to Honda. So I test-drove a CRV, and like that very much, too. I told the salesman at the Honda lot I wasn't ready to make up my mind, but was leaning toward the CRV. Then the dealership's financing person barged in and begin hard-selling. He turned me off so completely that he made up my mind, and the next day I went back to Subaru and ordered an Outback. I'm very happy with the car I now have. I do wish I could have filled out a comment card for the Honda dealership, though. I'd like to give that guy a piece of my mind.

Most of the requests I get for surveys come from much more penny-ante purchases. Buying a phone case from Amazon gets me two or three emails from the manufacturer begging me to write a positive review of the purchase. Calling Kaiser Dental to schedule a cleaning automatically gets me a request to stay on the line to rate my experience. As I pay for my groceries at Fred Meyer, the checker circles a note on the receipt that tells me I can earn extra fuel points by participating in an online survey of how well things went at the grocery store.

For the most part, I ignore these requests for my time in the same way I do panhandlers in a tough neighborhood. There are so many of them I just don't have the resources to tackle them all. If I were to review every item I purchase on Amazon, answer every survey that's connected with a customer service call, or fill out every comment card that's handed to me by a service department, I'd have little time to enjoy the products and services I was purchasing.

I don't know how these satisfaction surveys became so ubiquitous. I suppose it reflects a positive trend: the corporations finally realized customer satisfaction affects their bottom line. When enough people stop shopping at a grocery store, it feels the pinch, and has to take steps to repair whatever flaw has led people to shop elsewhere. It probably does that through intensive research involving focus groups, secret shoppers, and assorted other tools of the trade.

Or, rather, it used to. Nowadays, the corporations have gotten lazy. Rather than hiring expensive researchers to ferret out the information, they want us to provide them with it for free. They're coming directly to us every time we shop, in hopes that we will voluntarily hive them this information for free.

I, for one, have had enough. I used to answer surveys whenever I was asked. These days, it has to be an exceptional transaction--good or bad--for me to consider spending time online, or on the phone, answering questions. The Honda experience, for instance: I would've loved to rake that dealership over the coals. Or the time Providence Health Services kept me in limbo for months about a wart removal bill that insurance had refused to pay. I spent hours on hold, waiting to plead my case to yet another sympathetic operator who would then prove utterly ineffective at passing it on to whomever could actually do something about it. There's a company that could've benefitted from my opinions.

But I digress. Quite simply, there are too many capitalists who've become too lazy to do this leg work themselves. To expect the customers to do the work of enhancing their experience is ridiculous.

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