Blog and Essays

Freedom From Speech

The other day I went and got a service. An item I own had malfunctioned, at least according to a light on its dashboard. I won’t say anymore about the item, or the company, but suffice it to say, that I called, they checked it out the next day, the warning turned out to be precautionary — on the part of the light on the dashboard — and everything was fine.

Until afterwards. When the email started to come. Would I complete a survey on the service I had received? Sure, I said. I filled out the survey.  The people who make this product, by the way, and the product itself are fabulous. I love this product.  My own mother told me the other day I am having a love affair with this product. And it is true. But nobody is perfect. And if you ask me to rate something, I cannot suspend my critical faculty.

I could not give them perfect scores on their contacting me or on their waiting room. I called them before they called me and the company has been renovating its building for the past year or so and one looks out at pandemonium and plaster dust. On everything else I was highly complimentary.

A day later I received a phone call. The company was not happy that I had not been happy. Had everything gone smoothly? Was everything okay? What could they do to make it right?

I attempted to explain to the man who called that everything was fine. Well, they were concerned about the speed with which I had been kept up to date on the repairs. Well, I had been anxious to get home and had called before they’d had a chance. They understood.  They still had to call.

The next day, I received an email from the head of the company in New York City lamenting their mistakes and asking for further description of the experience from me. I declined and wrote back that the experience reminded me of that Monty Python sketch where the Maitre D’ ends up killing himself over a dirty fork he has been alerted to by a customer.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve been assaulted by a survey recently. I’d also been sent one by our mortgage company with whom we’ve recently refinanced to a wonderfully low rate that has greatly improved our financial standing, in a lengthy process that had my wife and me tearing our hair out.  When the process was done, we received, you guessed it, a survey asking us to rate the experience.  They knew we had not been happy with the process so the expectation, or at least the hope seemed to be that the survey would reveal that we had somehow secretly loved waiting months too long for our new mortgage to come through and just hadn’t said so?

So how to respond? The old adage if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything came to mind. But I couldn’t, so I wrote in the box for additional comment that we were very happy with the result but that some of the delays had been on the verge of extreme. There was no slot on the survey for “tearing our hair out.”

Apparently this is not happening in isolation. The New York Times reported recently that more and more companies are relying on customer surveys to assess their employees and even their performance as companies. At first bite, this seems like a good thing — the idea that companies are listening directly to customers and responding — but not if they are tailoring what they take in of our responses to either perfect or utter disaster.

Utter disaster would refer to our cable company — perhaps the worst survey offender of all.  Literally seconds after I get off the phone with the cable company, I always get a call asking me to rate the experience. It’s particularly irritating given that the usual interaction with the cable company consists of being put on hold for a long time and then being asked by the tech person whether I’ve rebooted — techspeak for “Why are you wasting my time?”

Recently someone from the cable company called out of the blue to say that we could get a free upgrade. All I had to do was take my cable box in and exchange it for a higher grade cable box and we would have faster internet service. No free lunch, I should have assumed. But I bit. I went in, waited and was given the highest grade cable box there is, higher grade in fact than the service I am paying for. It didn’t work. Then it took two internet-less days worth of calls to the cable company for them to figure out their mistake. They took $20 off my bill, but they couldn’t give me my two days back. And still, they wanted me to answer a survey. I declined.

It’s easy to make fun of this rather clumsy interaction between actual customers and customer service, but I think this is part of something more disturbing and more familiar. Getting a chance to tell a company what we feel about it feels democratic, American for cathartic. But like so many other facsimile versions of free speech, it isn’t.

We are, free of charge, assessing our service company’s employees. Yet the companies are not interested in the nuances of our reactions, only how our answers fit their questions and amalgamate into a larger average. Do I love my car company? Yes, but they should speed up their renovation. Why? Because it would raise my rating from a near perfect to a perfect. And the data they’re doing it from seems faulty. Who has time to respond to surveys or wants to? Cranks like me who then go on to write blog posts about it, that’s who. That’s speech that’s a little too free, if you ask me. (Which, after all, they did.)

Most of all, at least in the case of the mortgage company and the cable company, it’s not really clear they’re doing anything in response to our assessments.

Luckily, my car company really is as good as I think it is. During a recent trip for the fourth of July combining vacation with taking kids to camp, I concluded that my rear windshield wiper wasn’t working.  This was particularly inconvenient during a series of torrential rainstorms in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

When I got back to New York, I brought the car in. I chatted with the same guy who had helped me before and told him about my survey experience. “You must be Jonathan Sapers,” he said, smiling wearily. I felt terrible.

Then we talked about the wiper. He asked, very politely, whether I knew that to turn on the wiper I was supposed to push the lever forward. We went out to the car. The wiper was working perfectly. They kept the car for the day to check out whether it was also doing a little lurching when it slowed down, but this was really to make me feel better, which it did. When I picked up the car, I spent 20 minutes extolling the excellence of the repair department to a potential customer who came up and asked me my opinion. Now that’s a customer survey.

Image: Can Stock Photo.

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1 comment to Freedom From Speech

  • I was just getting ready to send our camp evaluation (survey) out when I decided to start perusing your website! Hmmmmm…not sure what to do now:-) Seriously, I’d say the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. Glad to have your family as part of Maine Arts Camp (http://www.maineartscamp.com)!

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