Customer surveys: just say no

The customer-service questionnaire is a sign of a company that doesn’t trust its staff to care

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

Not long ago, I woke up in hospital, in pain, with a damaged back, but grateful for the sleep that a couple of doses of morphine had secured. ‘Morning,’ said a sixtysomething man who appeared by the side of the bed. ‘I’m Derek, I’m a volunteer here.’

‘Hello Derek.’

‘I’ve bought you some cornflakes.’

I wanted to hug him.

‘Also…’ He produced a sheet of paper. Oh no. ‘There are a few questions here about how you’ve found your stay with us. I can fill them in for you if you want…’

Luckily I was too weak to get angry. ‘Could you just leave it there, Derek? I might look at it later.’

You can’t go anywhere these days without being hit by a feedback form. Restaurants, shops, hotels, dentists, hospitals — no matter what service you’ve paid for, the company involved wants you to answer a series of questions on how well they provided it and how they might provide it more efficiently in the future. Even galleries ambush you with forms as you walk out. Can you measure the value of seeing a Titian on a strongly agree/strongly disagree scale?

Often, as if to acknowledge what a faff this is, the firm adds the offer of a free meal/train journey/Hawaiian massage to a winner drawn at random from all those completing the form. Well, businesses of Britain, here’s the only bit of feedback you need: if it takes an A4 sheet of moronic multiple-choice questions — or an interminable click-box online survey — for you to decide whether your customers are happy, you’re doomed.

It was very simple in the old days. A company knew if it wasn’t doing a good job — the till was empty. And for any decent outfit this is still the case. You don’t get corner shops issuing feedback forms. Or family-run restaurants, independent plumbers or local cab firms. They assess how happy their customers are by — radical concept, this — talking to them. If a newsagent gets three people asking for a particular magazine, he thinks, ‘Hang on, might be worth my while stocking this.’ If the owner of a sandwich shop notices that a regular has stopped having the coronation chicken, she might revert to her original recipe. If a boiler engineer gets a dozen calls starting ‘a friend recommended you’, he knows he’s on the right track.

Corporate Britain, however, doesn’t work that way. Corporate Britain needs everything written down for it, then itemised and analysed. Only when it has systematically collated the answers from all the feedback forms and compiled a report (or, as any normal person would call it, ‘entirely missed the point’) can Corporate Britain rest secure.

There might conceivably be a justification for online customer satisfaction surveys — dealing with your punters over the internet prevents you seeing the whites of their eyes. But not in the real world. If you haven’t got staff with enough nous to observe what’s happening and then respond accordingly, no sequence of crosses will do the job for you.

But then so often these days that’s the problem — there aren’t any staff on the ground, or at least any who display a sense of representing the company that pays them. More and more retail and leisure encounters feel as though it’s the two of you versus the owners, a hidden global corporation that takes the profits but isn’t actually there. If you try to complain about something, the person behind the counter will sympathise but then say they can’t help because ‘company policy’ doesn’t cover these circumstances. They are just as cynical about their employer as you are, indeed they call the company ‘them’ rather than ‘us’, but essentially they’re powerless to help because the ‘system’ won’t let them. In a set-up like this, feedback forms are the nearest that business owners — or NHS senior management — get to meeting their customers.

Needless to say, I left the hospital questionnaire uncompleted. Only when there’s a ‘How could we have improved your experience?’ box am I ever tempted to respond, by writing ‘not handing me this stupid form’.

You could see Derek’s astonishment at someone refusing to play ball. Maybe that’s it — we Brits keep being given these forms because we’re too polite to ignore them. The even more cynical thought is that firms know the forms are meaningless, and only provide them to con customers into thinking, ‘Oh, look, they’re asking us whether we’re happy, therefore they must really care.’

But here’s another way to look at it, Corporate Britain: all that energy you put into writing and designing those forms — why not put it into simply being better at your job in the first place?

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Show comments
  • Damaris Tighe

    Many ‘feedback’ forms are semi-transparent ways to garner personal details or referrals to potential new customers. They are very short & lead inexorably to the punchline: Please give us your (or your friend’s) contact details.

  • William_Brown

    I hate these damned things too.

    If service is acceptable, I’ll make no comment – it’s what I expected. If I feel strongly enough that a service has been either stunningly good, or shockingly bad, I’ll let the company concerned know about it.

    The whole ‘feedback form’ meme is a risible, approval seeking flatulence from insecure organisations with too large a marketing budget.

    Oooh, I do feel better for that!

  • Michael H Kenyon

    Give the wrong information and confuse them.

  • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

    The feedback formas are meaningless.They merely offer an excuse to deliver poor customer service. These silly little tick box lists that reassure the bosses and underscore the bonuses make no difference to the casual arrogance with which big business treats its cusrtomers.
    If you have a beef write ( and I mean write a real letter to a real person).Do not E mail,do not make a comment on twitface,and ignore the feedback form.Write and expalin you expect better, you expect a goodwill gesture or compensation and you will go to Small Claims if they do not play ball.
    It amazes me how many firms simply pay up when you bill them ,rather than risk losing before a Judge.

    • Ooh!MePurse!

      Twitface! I like that!

      • Alexsandr

        if you can get a trend going on twitface it can make companies sit up.

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          Fact is nobody with any self respect or dignity uses twitface.
          It only exists for the poorly educated, the shallow and the naive.

    • Mc

      I’m also amazed how few people use the Small Claims Courts and that no newspaper consumer advice column ever mentions that people should use / threaten to use the SCCs. Compare that to some independent consumer advice websites where they can’t stop mentioning the beauty of the SCCs.

  • rob232

    I don’t think I agree at all. How else is the company going to get feedback? If they ignored the findings you would have cause to complain but I don’t know if you have evidence of that. This is a very good method of finding out just how good or bad your staff is.

    • Mc

      Corporates rarely do things like creating customer feedback departments for the purpose of acting on feedback. Nevermind that acting on consumer feedback is typically near impossible to achieve in large corporates if it involves redesigning a process (unless a massive regulatory fine is threatened / imposed). Even where resolution involves something as simple as a goodwill payment or a refund, the timeline is long and often fails repeatedly.

  • JoleneWScott

    …. Some time hit the spectator Find Here

  • Ed B

    I think the author is looking at the past through rose tinted spectacles. I am (just) old enough to remember the 1970s, and my main memory is of shoddy products and slow, surly and downright rude service. The modern corporate world has many faults, but you have to admit that things are (by and large) better, cheaper, and easier to get.

    But I do admit that I hate those forms too. I usually ignore then, but if I have time I subvert them.

    • WTF

      Yep, its all made in China but at least back in the 1960’s the personnel department knew your name and if you had problems seemed genuinely willing to help you unlike HR today.

      I had an issue once when a manager refused to lend me his old rental company car for a week as mine was in the garage. He had a brand new car and the old one was waiting to be picked up. Rather than cost the company money and hire another car, I was told to use that one for a week BUT it was one level up on what I was allowed and this idiot decided I shouldn’t use it. It took 2 days for HR to tell that dumb s*** of a manage to hand over the keys but at least a year later, that obnoxious plonker got canned.

  • Alexsandr

    Far far worse are employee satisfaction surveys. Then endless drivel about the results. And stupid questions about how we can make working there more fun . SHUT UP. People go to work for the money. They want to go in, do the work then go home. these surveys are reason why I shun permanent employment. (Company meetings and appraisals are 2 other reasons)

    And websites that pop up the survey invitation as soon as you go on their site. How can I know how I feel about their site until I have used it?

    • WTF

      You’ve got that right as when the Personnel Department became Human Resources (imported from the USA), all we got were employee surveys which were no more than top management paying lip service into conning the staff they really cared.

      The reality was that the top layers of management were so far removed from the ‘shop floor’ they were clueless over what might be wrong, what improvements could be made and the ‘place men’ they put in to shield them from issues and to take the rap when it went t*** up just looked after their own a**** !

      The first time I had a survey, I answered it honestly, the 2nd one I kept it basically correct but took less care over but by the time of the third, I just ticked any old box and for comments, wrote total bollux. They were never read let alone acted on but the outside advisory companies that grew like a contagious rash to support HR departments, they made a killing !

      • Ahobz

        You are behind the curve, talent management is the current term with all the best employers.

        • WTF

          I stand corrected but in mitigation, I have been retired (thankfully) for 12 years now. “Talent management” sounds like a vain liberal fascist attempt to re-brand the soiled name of HR !

          • Ahobz

            Powerful mitigation.

    • WTF

      Sounds like you’re whats known as a Maverick just as I was looked upon as.

      Thing was, when the company had a s***storm of technical issues on its product around the globe, it was Mavericks like me who pulled the irons out of the fire for the company and regained customer satisfaction. That’s been the story of my working life in essence and sometimes I’m actually on the customers side as I knew full well that customers accept the odd product problem but what they will NOT accept is being fed BS and jerked around.

      I learned how to be economical with the truth to a small degree but paramount was solving the issue whatever it took was the important message.

  • WTF

    Just yesterday I had a classic load of BS from Direct Line (Linea Directa in Spain) on my car insurance. It runs out in two days and as I’m moving country in a few weeks I didn’t want to pay for a years cover. A year ago I was told that they would refund the difference once I had sold the car but I rang them to check.

    Good job I did as they informed me I’ll only get the refund if the buyer of my car insures with them and the best they could offer was 12 months lesser cover for 10% less and I should have approached them 1 month earlier. Be careful in Spain as insurance companies (health as well) have a habit of demanding 1,2,3 or even more months notice of cancellation BUT they don’t give you similar notice of the new premium. Consequently it is impossible to meet their T&C’s if you don’t like the new premium, basically its a scam !

    Anyway, I told this dumb tele-sale woman that I’ll just cancel the direct debit and “see you” as I leave Spain. Miraculously out of the blue, she put me onto another sales person who was much more helpful unlike the first one. She offered 3 months cover with automatic renewal if I needed it at a rate that was less for 12 months than the original cover.

    My point here is why do some companies deliberately go out of their way to p*** you off only to give you what you want when you ‘threaten’ them. It seems to be an endemic disease in the financial sector unfortunately, hardly good customer relations or satisfaction !

  • PaulineCBrown

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  • Needs2Cash

    Why then does The Spectator seek comments (right here) from the readers of its articles?

    Are we all wasting our time too?

  • uberwest

    You could offer to fill it out for a modest fee, say £50.