Ralph Gardner Jr: We Appreciate Your Feedback

May 4, 2019

Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.

Our Honda CR-V feels like a member of the family. Our first one, purchased in 1997, was the second CR-V on the East Coast. We could have had the first but it came in black and we wanted silver.

The vehicle had accumulated 320,000 miles when my daughter’s boyfriend, a lovely person but a novice driver, totaled it on the Taconic State Parkway. Even though it flipped three times before coming to rest on the shoulder of the road he and our daughter walked away with hardly a scratch.

It was a no-brainer when we bought another CR-V a few days later.

The process couldn’t have been easier, including the good-natured haggling that reduced the price to what the dealer probably expected to sell the vehicle for in the first place. 

So when I received a request to rate my experience I did so happily, giving my salesman what I thought were flying colors. 

Within the next few days I received a call from him. He sounded distraught. He wanted to know where he’d gone wrong. I had no idea what he was talking about. But apparently, based on my numerical, one to ten responses, his job sounded like it was hanging by a thread.

“But I gave you eights and nines and tens,” I recalled. “There may have been one seven.”

“That’s the problem,” he explained. “They weren’t all tens.”

For starters, how much of life merits a ten? 

My experience at that Honda dealership was not an isolated incident. It seems that every time you interact with someone these days you’re asked to complete a brief survey on your experience.

When my mother died a couple of months ago, the funeral director told me to expect a survey request. “Please give me all tens,” he said. 

And I would. Not just because the funeral home took excellent care of us and of every last detail relating to my mother’s service and burial, though at platinum prices, but also because I now realize the only acceptable score, the only one that keeps workers out of hot water, is a perfect ten. 

Which means why waste your time taking the surveys in the first place? They’re meaningless.

The New York Times contacted me recently because I got a new MasterCard and my information needed to be updated. I tried to do so online. When that didn’t seem to take – the newspaper kept sending me written notices that my print subscription was in jeopardy of lapsing. So I called their 800 number and spoke to a representative.

Our entire interaction took a couple of minutes and seems to have ended with my subscription once again in good standing.

“How well did your experience compare to the ideal telephone customer service experience?” was one of the questions on the subsequent one to ten survey I was asked to complete.

I’d read the guy a series of numbers and he entered them into his system without difficulty. “How well did my experience compare to the ideal telephone customer service experience?”

How was I supposed to answer that question? But obviously I knew what grade I was going to give him – a ten. I didn’t want to be the reason he found himself on the unemployment line.

This preoccupation with customer satisfaction – actually that’s not what it is; it’s the pro forma appearance of concern with customer satisfaction – has got to stop. It benefits nobody, illuminates nothing. 

It permeates every corner of our existence. Now when you check out at the supermarket the inevitable question is “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

And what if I didn’t? Is the checkout clerk going to ring a panic button that will send the manager scurrying over with an abject apology, a bouquet of flowers, and a promise to do better next time? If so, I haven’t seen it. I certainly haven’t noticed their shelves, on my next visit, stocked with whatever cheese or breakfast cereal I couldn’t find in the first place.

It’s all about grade inflation. Meritocracy run amuck. What matters isn’t real achievement but its illusion. The greatest rewards and recognition come not in achieving actual excellence but in knowing how to game the system, massage the algorithms. 

It’s part of the same syndrome as those parents who paid top dollar to cheat their kids’ way into college, making believe they were rowing or fencing or soccer prodigies.

The shamelessness of the parents may have been the least surprising aspect of the whole episode. Shamelessness has become its own reward.

Better to create a workplace where employees have humane incentives to do their best, not because they have that customer satisfaction survey sword of Damocles always hanging over their heads.  

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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