Satisfaction that just doesn't add up

We're living in a period of ongoing cultural self-examination that future historians may refer to as the "Tell Us What You Think" era. Everybody seems to have an opinion about everything, and there is no shortage of opportunities for expressing your views to a wide audience. The desire to know what is on people's minds is becoming especially prevalent in the business world.

Wherever I turn these days, I find myself bumping up against companies that are determined to find out exactly how I feel about their product or service. Travelers encounter this trend quite often because modern hotels love to get feedback from their clients. How'd your visit go? Things work out OK? Take a moment and help us improve our service.

Now, I don't mind responding to customer surveys, but it's exhausting to fill out a form that's longer than the Declaration of Independence, especially when many of the questions aren't soliciting what I'd call vital information.

"How did the room smell?" is the kind of inquiry that sets off alarm bells in my head. I don't usually notice smells unless they're intense, like a rotting compost heap under the bed. Why would a hotel ask me this? It makes me worry that perhaps the management is secretly allowing bizarre cults or other lowbrow clients to engage in dreadful activities that leave behind telltale odors.

It's also difficult to express my degree of approval for small appliances such as the hairdryer in the bathroom. How would I honestly know if its performance was good, very good, or excellent? Hey, it dried my hair. I'm OK, it's OK.

I think a perfectly useful hotel survey card only needs about two questions.

The first one would say "When you walked into the room, did you experience (a) happiness (b) disappointment or (c) revulsion?"

The second question would be "What can we do to make this place better?"

Get to the point, make it fast, keep it simple. But even when customer surveys are brief, they can still be intellectually disorienting. The dealership where I have my car serviced has adopted a new German scoring system which strives for a rating of 125 percent satisfaction. Anything below that level is considered a failing score. So if I don't want my service personnel to get in trouble with the company hierarchy for doing unsatisfactory work, I must give them a rating of 125 percent on the survey card.

Forgive me for being old fashioned, but I'm uneasy when asked to comply with any marketing or promotional strategy that involves abandoning basic laws of mathematics.

As the father of an 11-year-old, I'm struggling daily to help my daughter learn the tricky details of adding and multiplying percentages, and one fact I keep repeating to her is that the final answer can never be greater than 100 percent.

This is one big reason kids get so confused about how society is supposed to operate, because we adults tell them one thing in school and then they see us doing something totally contradictory out in the real world. When my daughter asked how the car people could get a rating of 125 percent, all I could say was, "Sweetheart, there's a lot about being a grownup that isn't logical. Get used to it."

So here's my advice to all customer survey specialists and consultants: When you want my opinion, keep the questions basic; don't get bogged down in tiny details that only a secret agent would notice.

And if I say I'm fully satisfied, don't push the envelope. Fully satisfied means the cup is full. One hundred percent. As the old saying goes: It doesn't get any better than that.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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