Thus I Enter my Grumpy Old Manhood

You may recall I mentioned my 14+hr layover in Copenhagen.

Expedia’s robo-marketing rather cleverly (for an AI) sent me a survey asking me how happy I was with my flight(s). Have a nice day, survey-bot! I hope you enjoy my “input” into your marketing “communications channel.”

As I was answering the survey, it occurred to me that there is absolutely zero benefit for the user to answer any surveys in any way less than complaining consistently and ruthlessly about everything. Because, either they will stop sending surveys (and we win) or they will frantically improve things (and we win) or perhaps they’ll help their marketing people find work on useful humanitarian projects (and we win).

Haven’t these people thought about game theory? And, for that matter, don’t they understand self-selected sampling bias? When you do a customer satisfaction survey you’re going to get mostly the very unhappy, who are grumpy enough to take 30 seconds out of their busy day to hammer out their misery on your customer satisfaction form. What really would have taken the cake would have been if I’d been trapped in the middle of my 14+hr layover in Copenhagen and it had asked me, “since you’ve got some free time, why don’t you answer our survey?”

From now on, I think I am going to respond to every survey I ever get, carefully “going negative” only on one randomly-chosen issue so that I don’t get thrown off the data-set for being an outlier. The whole idea cheers me up immensely.

By the way, the SAS lounge in Copenhagen airport gets 5 stars from me! As does the kindly Swedish gentleman who got me in there.


  1. says

    The whole idea cheers me up immensely.

    It’s not just grumpy old people who complain about whatever has annoyed them. Everybody complains. For example, when a doctor refused to sterilize me, I spent the remainder of the day complaining online and writing complaint letters to every single Latvian government agency that oversees hospitals (it turned out that there were several). Not that I achieved anything, though. I suspect that complaining is how people cope with being in a bad mood. Hmm, maybe letting pissed off customers vent their anger by filling out customer satisfaction surveys is a clever marketing plot how to prevent angry customers from complaining somewhere else where their complaints might actually get heard.

  2. komarov says

    I can think of two reasons for having surveys, maybe two and a half, even if there is no intention to improve anything. Naturally it’s always about manipulation:

    1) Catharsis: You get to vent your anger and maybe that’ll make you more likely to use their service again (or less likely not to). No idea if it works like that. But if marketeers ever dug up some spurious psychology study saying so that would be all the reason they need to implement this. Then again, maybe you’d also see punching bags in airport lounges.

    On the upside: If you get to scream at online forms you’re less likely to vent on some innocent bystander trapped in a call centre somewhere on a distant (sub)continent.

    1.5) Appearances: Customers are surveyed. A company wouldn’t do that if their service is crap, would they? Therefore they can’t be that bad, even if there are some negative reviews or critiques. (Plus: You could always fake some nice surveys)

    2) Data piracy: If your survey design is clever enough you can get the participant to give precious data to abuse or sell. And it’s legal because they gave it to you. You’re then merely ‘processing’ the results in ways that coincidentally make you rich.
    Hang on, since it’s legal that should really by Data privateering. And now I finally get where “privatisation” comes from.

  3. says

    komarov @#2

    1.5) Appearances: Customers are surveyed. A company wouldn’t do that if their service is crap, would they?

    There’s more to appearances—customers are surveyed, this means the company cares about their customers being satisfied, the company also collects feedback in order to try to improve their goods or services. Even if the company collects feedback purely for show and doesn’t even look at all the complaints they have gotten, they still create the illusion that they care about customer satisfaction.

  4. avalus says

    Maybe an added layer of fake authenticity? “We hear your comlaints (They are processed in Ablage P*)”

    *Ablage P: German saying, lit: Folder P with P short for Papierkorb – wastebin.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    The entity I would like most to complain to/about is the American Red Cross.

    They send me emails about blood drives even though I requested no emails about blood drives.

    They send me emails about blood drives even though I just recently made a “Power Red” donation and therefore will not be eligible to donate again for months.

    Just recently they sent me a couple texts. I logged into my account and the checkbox for “send me texts” was indeed checked. Did I do that accidentally, or was I confused about wording? You see, I am willing to receive emails or texts about blood drives that I have signed up for. “Blood drive X has been moved to a new location…”, “Blood drive X has been cancelled.” But I bleed for them so regularly that I do not feel there is any need to notify me about blood drives for which I did not sign up and would not be eligible for.

    And the one time I wanted to hear from them but didn’t: I was promised a premium gift for donating regularly; they said I would receive an email about it in January. At the end of January, I asked them “what about…?” They said, “Well, your checkbox said you didn’t want to receive emails about blood drives!”

    Arg. And my ultimate recourse – to stop donating – would punish people who need blood in emergencies, not the American Red Cross.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    Another thing I would like to complain about: your commenting system. I read your post, logged in, composed a comment, then when it was time to post it, I was somehow no longer logged in. Is there some too-strict time limit involved? Or is it just a generally poor quality commenting system?

  7. Roj Blake says

    It’s good old managerialism. Measure the things that can be easily measured. Don’t concern yourself with solving problems that cannot be surveyed.

    As Arlo sang

    And they was using up all kinds of
    Cop equipment that they had hanging around the police officer’s station.
    They was taking plaster tire tracks, foot prints, dog smelling prints, and
    They took twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles
    And arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each
    One was to be used as evidence against us. Took pictures of the approach,
    The getaway, the northwest corner the southwest corner and that’s not to
    Mention the aerial photography.

    And it was all for nothing.

    Back in the 1980’s, pre PC days, I had a friend who was boss of the Australian outpost of a British book publisher. He told me the key to his success was writing 3 year plans, then at the end of year 2, writing a huge report about what had and hadn’t been achieved followed by a new 3 year plan. He said as long as he kept throwing reports and plans at them he was left alone to run things as he wished.

  8. says

    Reginald Selkirk @#6

    The entity I would like most to complain to/about is the American Red Cross.
    They send me emails about blood drives even though I requested no emails about blood drives.

    Yeah, spam sucks. I could complain about this one too.

    This got me thinking about just how much we all complain here. For the last week we have been complaining about F-35s, Donald Trump, corporations dividing markets, etc. Here we are—a bunch of people spending our time complaining online about things that neither of us can possibly influence. Our complaining about these topics isn’t going to make a difference, it’s not like politicians will do something and change their actions just because they read a blog post and a bunch of comments below it. We aren’t actually achieving anything tangible, all we do is complain here.* Apparently, complaining about what we cannot influence anyway feels better than simply accepting that the world sucks and nothing can be done about it. Complaining online feels like we are doing at least something. Now that I’m thinking about it, I feel sort of pathetic—here I am, spending my evenings typing online comments about things I cannot possibly influence. I should get a life.

    * Theoretically, I could make an argument that there is a benefit to reading depressing news and complaining about everything you dislike. This way you at least stay informed about what’s going on in the world. The alternative would be living in a blissful ignorance, which would make you vulnerable to getting manipulated by the politicians and corporations and, well, basically everybody with bad intentions. Uninformed people are easy to mislead and abuse.

    Moreover, a single person complaining isn’t going to change anything, but millions of people complaining about something can actually result in things getting better.

  9. says

    Reginald Selkirk @7, try clicking the “keep me logged in” button, then log out manually if you want to later. The cookies evaporate more slowly that way.

  10. jrkrideau says

    Haven’t these people thought about game theory? And, for that matter, don’t they understand self-selected sampling bias?

    Of course they have. Their bosses with the shiny MBAs learned that one should have customer surveys so they shrug and do them. It’s a job.

  11. witm says

    The one type of survey I always try to answer is when I actually get individual help from somewhere, even when they weren’t all that helpful.

    Giving a positive review to service personnel who were helpful, and thanking them personally a) probably makes their day better, b) might help their performance review, and c) at least I wasn’t shitting on their day (someone probably would just a bit later).

    As for companies… *sigh* Not so much a fan, but I try to keep in mind the ‘most people who were ok to pleased with the service won’t say anything’ heuristic so if I think it may have an effect I will say something. This leads us to always try to give positive/constructive comments when we respond to our annual survey from our kindergarten. People always complain about their precious ones getting a booboo or their kid getting sick, or not enough being done for their baby, but if you actually watch the systems in place and pay attention they have done more to keep the kids healthy and protect them then most of the parents do.

    Negative thoughts, unless they were for something like Ieva’s problem, I deal with by having a workout. Negative reviews, are far less useful. ‘I didn’t like your food.’ Wtf. do I know, I have the sense of taste of a corpse most days. ‘I didn’t like your service’ — I don’t want to deal with me either so I can understand that sentiment.

  12. lochaber says

    I’m reminded of that story about putting in a fake, but accessable thermostat in an office, and supposedly people complained less, even though it didn’t do anything, because they had some illusion of control..

    witm @12 – I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories about people working customer service type jobs getting penalized for scoring anything less then perfect. I’m one of those people that tends to rate almost everything as “average” unless it’s really outside the bounds of “average” one way or another. Since I’ve heard of that, I try to give the people I interacted with high ratings, and only negatively rate the things they can’t control (like the options menu, or satisfaction with the company overall, etc.). I also try to be polite with them, you know, say “Hello”, “Please”, “Thank You”, and not take out my anger on them, and I’ve generally found most customer service type people to be pretty pleasant and helpful with what they can influence.
    On sorta the flip side of that, when I worked in public facing jobs, I would go out of my way, and bend rules to a degree to help those people who were upset at my employer, but polite and patient towards me. I also did very little to help those who were abusive towards me and other staff.
    More people should work public facing jobs, IMHO.

  13. Hatchetfish says

    As was noted at least once above, if your experience can be tied to individuals, then the survey is almost certainly being tied to them as well, like a tiny corporocratic version of China’s new reputation monitoring. Commonly anything but perfect marks (including non-response) is treated as inadeqiuate performance, to justify a personal pay and benefits freezes.

    I leave growing reviews on these things unless someone did something to actively make a situation worse of their own volition. IF there are open entry fields I’ll complain about company policy where needed, existence of survey included, but that’s it.

  14. says

    Commonly anything but perfect marks (including non-response) is treated as inadequate performance, to justify a personal pay and benefits freezes.

    Well, that’s one more reason why it’s beneficial for businesses to send out surveys. It’s not like they want to improve things, it’s just a handy excuse to reduce an employee’s salary. This is why I always leave perfect feedback when asked to evaluate a single person rather than some service as a whole. For example, unless something went very wrong, I will always leave perfect reviews for my eBay purchases.

  15. cvoinescu says

    Sometimes, companies do not make it obvious that a question is about a specific person. I had a tech support rep tell me that, when I receive the survey after the call, the “would you recommend our company” question would actually be about him specifically, and anything other than a top mark would count against him. What the fuck, unnamed British satellite broadcasting company?

    Ieva, eBay is something else entirely. You never rate eBay themselves. Sadly, ratings were over-inflated from the beginning — when most sellers were private, before eBay got really big, most feedback was like “Excellent seller! Super-smooth transaction, perfect item!!! AAAAA+++++”. Not enough pluses or exclamation points would suggest something was wrong. Neutral or negative feedback was utterly devastating. It’s got better today, when most sellers are businesses, and buyers stopped bothering typing more than “ok good” or “meh”, if at all.

  16. says

    cvoinescu @#16

    most feedback was like “Excellent seller! Super-smooth transaction, perfect item!!! AAAAA+++++”. Not enough pluses or exclamation points would suggest something was wrong.

    Now that’s ridiculous. I learned English spelling and punctuation from textbooks, which said that you should never use more than one exclamation point in a row; they also suggested using it sparingly only when absolutely necessary. Under this kind of system, sellers whose clients are academics would always get what’s perceived as negative feedback only because customers were unwilling to break spelling rules when typing their reviews.

    That reminds me, back when I was studying for my degree in philology, I took a course on translation. My professor, who was Latvian, spent an entire lecture talking about cultural differences and how they show up in language usage. During that lesson we had to translate recommendation letters from Latvian to German and vice versa. If somebody writes a recommendation letter in Latvian and says that they were satisfied with some person’s performance, then that’s exactly what the writer means—they were fully satisfied, and there’s nothing they disliked. However, a translator couldn’t just translate such a recommendation letter into German word for word. The letter’s meaning would change entirely for the German speaker reading the translated letter. What was originally meant as a positive recommendation letter would turn into a very negative one. You were “satisfied”? Only satisfied? That means the person about whom you are writing must have performed very poorly if you aren’t saying that they were amazing, highly talented, and the best person you have ever worked with.

  17. Raucous Indignation says

    One should search for my review of the Four Seasons in Austin TX. The title is: There is a new Fairmont hotel in Austin. You should stay there.

  18. cvoinescu says

    Ieva, yes, it was utterly ridiculous. But I don’t know how to fix it. Maybe ask first, “were you reasonably satisfied with the service?” and if yes, “is there anything exceptional you’d like to point out? (optional, does not count for rating)”. If not satisfied, then rate 0-4.5, from catastrophically awful to slightly disappointing. That should avoid confusion about where the “okay, no complaints” point is, because companies don’t always make it clear to reviewers. AirBNB, for instance, take a four-star review to be negative when considering a host for the “superhost” badge. Not knowing that, I might well have scored perfectly adequate but not outstanding lodgings as four stars, because 4/5 is great, right? After all, 8/10 is an exceptional movie on IMDb, how would I know the same ratio means “so-so” on AirBNB? And with 5/5 meaning anywhere from “okay” to “great” to “utterly exceptional”, it’s unfairly hard to recover from a couple of 4/5 reviews to bring the average back above 4.8.

  19. Curious Digressions says

    @8 It’s good old managerialism. Measure the things that can be easily measured,

    ^^ This. I’m on the team that’s supposed to convert ratings into meaning. And by “meaning”, I mean make the ratings say what exec management wants them to say. If you’re not meeting your goal, move the goal posts. Low scores on the first two questions of the transaction? Just redefine the metric to start at #3.

    When you see marketing that says, “We’re in the top 10% of [business type] companies at [business activity]!” be skeptical.

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