Annals of Commerce: Post-encounter surveys

Friday afternoon my wife and I stopped into our local Wells Fargo branch to figure out why her ATM card wasn’t working.  We had a ten-minute conversation with a nice staffer, solved the problem and went on our way.

Tonight the phone rang at about 9PM: it was a nice young woman from Gallup “calling for Wells Fargo” to interview me about my recent experience at the branch.  This has become a plague, and the bank’s rudeness and arrogance in doing this is so astonishing that I’m not sure about the motivation.  Just to be clear: the bank and I have a deal about services and payment that in no way includes my providing free management consulting at a time of the bank’s choosing: the survey would have taken about as long as I had already committed to the ATM card problem.

I have done survey research and taken the time of customers (in that case museum visitors) and I understand there’s some irreducible imposition;  I usually reply to political surveys if I don’t read them as push polls or tendentious.  At the museum, we were careful to make a fuss about how grateful we were for the respondents’ time, and gave them a couple of free admission passes as at least a gesture recognizing their cost.  Some of these irritating follow-up surveys enter you in a lottery with unknown odds for some sort of prize, and some are online so you can do them when convenient.  But calling a customer at home in the evening is really over the top.

Perhaps this is some idiot’s idea of making the customer think the bank cares how he feels.  If they get anything useful from these surveys, it’s profitable for the bank, and they pay their staff, Gallup, and everyone else a share of the gains: what this little exercise made me feel, as so often happens when we interact with people selling us stuff, is that the bank thinks my time is worthless to me (or, I guess, that I find it amusing or useful to respond to one of these surveys).  They are wrong, and I hope a wave of resistance to this spreading imposition develops.  I can assure anyone reading this that the result of the bank’s lame marketing idea was to turn a perfectly satisfactory commercial encounter into a disagreeable one that I will remember with distaste, and of course I didn’t answer their questions either.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

29 thoughts on “Annals of Commerce: Post-encounter surveys”

  1. The sad part is that I was just reading this long Reddit thread over the weekend, about bad/stupid customer service interactions (mostly wildly clueless customers; it was basically a collection of humorous rants) and one story that stuck with me a bit was about just this sort of customer-service follow-up survey: a tale of a bad customer who got their revenge by sabotaging this sort of survey – and so the customer-service rep lost a $350 bonus they were in line for. Underpaid and unappreciated workers in miserable jobs can have significant amounts of money riding on the people they’ve helped cooperating with these incredibly annoying, inappropriate surveys.

  2. Michael: I have been wondering the same thing about the NHS. The more they survey people on satisfaction the more satisfaction seems to go down. Could it be that asking and asking causes people to become more critical than they otherwise would be, meaning that assessing satisfaction so much reduces satisfaction?

    1. Or seeing surveys on satisfaction raises people’s expectations above reality.

  3. I had a different experience recently. I was called (in the evening) by the manager of the branch where I had conducted some business. Rather than a survey person who had no personal knowledge of the bank, nor any method of inducting my free-form input, this bank manager could ask me how I liked my visit, why or why not, and whether I had any suggestions how she could improve the service at her branch. Having been a systems consultant in my career, and having been frustrated by the ineptitude of the systems people in implementing user interfaces, I took this opportunity to praise her personnel while offering constructive criticism of her bank’s systems. She seemed appreciative.

    This type of survey, though anecdotal rather than statistical, has IMO a much better chance of paying a good dividend to the bank. And a side effect is that, in spite of taking a chunk out of my evening, it also cemented my “loyalty” to that bank. Unfortunately, since it takes time of management personnel to do it, this type of survey is also very rare.

    1. Actually, there is no reason this sort of survey has to be anecdotal. Textual data remain data. The key to a proper statistical survey lies in the selection mechanism. Of course, context effects enter into things as well, so the questions asked (and their sequencing) is important. But if you hand the branch manager a list of several randomly selected customers together with a sequence of areas to cover the result can be useful data.

  4. I don’t think it comes from the world of commerce, at least not originally. We can start with student evaluations 40 years ago; then we can move to granting agencies evidently requiring non-profits to show some direct evidence that they’re having an effect, to which they responded by passing out instantaneous surveys people did at the end of any presentation. This latter is a plague that’s infected any “service” operation in universities and maybe even private companies (IT is particularly big on this, but so is anything human services). I also get mailed surveys from car dealers and their service departments, etc, and expect them any minute from department stores if I use their credit cards. And from the medical people I also hear about Medicare-required patient satisfaction surveys.

    But in my experience only companies go as far as calling afterward. A theoretical history would be that some executives somewhere started talking this up to show how innovative they could be and/or were sold on the idea by survey firms, and there would have been a two-pronged benefit– customer feedback that would improve the chance of repeat business, etc etc, and a new way to evaluate and rate employees, one that management hadn’t yet dreamed up on its own.

    As far as the first benefit goes, they clearly haven’t allowed for responder fatigue (and irritation) so the results get less usable as more outfits do it. That’s assuming, of course, some degree of sincerity about that one; it could also be simply a marketing ploy, a simplistic Pavlovian reinforcing mechanism to keep the company name in our minds. Advertising guys have to do something now that the actual ad business has shrunk so much.

    The second is a feature, not a bug, and as increasingly negative responses give more of an excuse to deny raises and bonuses, there’ll be more incentive to use them. Of course a rational company would balance those savings against increased employee dissatisfaction, turnover, higher training costs, and the cost and brand damage of doing the surveys. But.

    Right now I’m afraid this is just one of those management fads that has to run its course. I usually just hang up. I hope that statistic will eventually tell someone something.

  5. We are about to see a vast increase in “survey” calls because scam artists have recently figured out that they can use the survey and political exemptions in the do not call law to avoid that law’s strictures. I understand that those involved use names such as Political Surveys Group or Surveys of America in their calls.

    Thus, I have recently started receiving calls on my (do not call listed) number for purported surveys which offer me, as a reward for participating in the survey, the chance to win a free cruise vacation, but they need your credit card number to verify your identity.

    Of course, the Wells Fargo survey call was more legitimate, but they are all annoying. I especially dislike the pop boxes that inform me Amazon or J.C. Penney has chosen me to participate in a lengthy survey that will only take two minutes to complete.

    There is a reason folks love the do not call law and registered their numbers in droves.

  6. Don’t worry, when the survey company calls to find out how you felt about your experience with the survey company call, you can tell them all about it.

  7. I find it interesting these surveys are only we’ve for determining compliance by lowwage staff. Decisions made higher up do not get run by the customer for approval. You can’t offer unsolicited options either.

  8. Umm, not that it’s any of my business, but why are you still at Wells Fargo anyhow? They do seem to get caught redlining and otherwise acting badly with some regularity. Sure, it’s convenient most of the time – no doubt — but now that cash is less necessary, why not explore your friendly credit union? I’m sure UC has a nice one.

    Also, they should just bring back the suggestion box. I am not sure that randomness improves the quality of the feedback, any more than I believe that everyone should vote. No, only people who read a decent newspaper every so often should vote. And no, they aren’t all liberal, either. The other people are simply not informed well enough from radio or tv. They should stay home.

    Random designs are to detect prevalence of something, correct? As in, did the customer rep spit on you today? If that’s what you want to know, then yes you need a big pool. But it doesn’t help on the issue of the quality of a thing, imho.

    Anyway, who answers their phone to unfamiliar callers at night? You are all so much friendlier than me. Now I feel bad.

    1. I once wrote what was, in my little-read local business journal world, a popular business column calling for the abolition of customer suggestion boxes and for the hiring of help capable of conveying a suggestion up the line. This column came about because My habit as an engineer is to constantly have ideas for process improvements and to offer suggestions. (I follow Linus Paulings advice, which was that the way to have some good ideas is to have a lot of ideas.)

      I prefer being told to bugger off and mind my own business to what I routinely get, which is a vague shrug in the direction of the customer comment kiosk and a quizzical slack jawed look with a halting ” Have you submitted a customer comment card?”

      I hate hate hate offering an idea to an agent of the business that wants, presumably to cut costs or increase sales, only to be told, essentially, that the business is not interested unless I am willing to write it on a tiny form of their design.

      1. Well, but what about email? I don’t know that I’d rely on a harried customer service person to even remember what I told them. They usually have enough problems. For them it’s just more work, and they might even get graded down for having extra conversation. We live in a world that nutso now.

        And I agree that even in management, there are probably few people romantic enough to actually listen to suggestions!! But I believe it’s worth a try. You never know. There might be one or two. If we all just give up, what will become of the world?

      2. Btw, I rather wish more engineers would run for office. They’d hate it, probably, but at least we’d have people in there who still believe it is possible to solve problems!! Fancy that. And they might know a thing or two. I am pretty frustrated now as I watch my government fail on the local, state and national levels all at the same time. Things are really not going well, and we are not pulling together, either.

  9. It really does seem like B-school destroys every shred of empathy one has with normal humanity.

    To give another example: flights which are interrupted with a continual stream of verbal diarrhea of the pilot and cabin crew telling us the air temperature, how happy they are we are flying with them, the duration of the flight and other items of zero actual value. Is there a passenger alive who, when this idiocy interrupts their reading or movie, does not think “STFU and leave me alone”? And yet the geniuses running airlines appear to believe hearing this is actually going to make us love their airline?

    1. Even dumber, in my book, is the ceremonial reading-out-loud of departure gates, a person performing, but badly, the function of a signboard. It’s like a phone book that you use by having someone read it all to you in order while you wait for the name you want to some up.

      1. If there were a better way I could access departure gate info while still in the air, I’d agree with this. As it is, I’ve occasionally had connections where I was very thankful not to have to spend the extra minute or two hunting down a monitor.

        1. Right. Let’s see: they could truncate the reading to imminent departures, and they could print what the FA is reading from and have it on a tripod right at the end of the ramp, which is the first place you can use the information anyway, and which works better than voice because if you forget or your attention wanders, you don’t lose the information completely. They could write down gates on a 3×5 card for each of the few passengers with tight connections, and deliver them to their seats in the plane. They could print a couple of copies of the teletype and pass them down the aisle for passengers to look at and pass on.

          Making everyone listen to this long spiel, (i) a tiny part of which is of use to (ii) a few passengers, is just managing for supplier convenience, not real customer service.

        2. To add to Michael’s point, the inflight entertainment system ALREADY has a repeating screen telling us information like temperatures, local times, flight duration, etc. There is no reason it can not have departure gate info added to it.

    2. If you fly Southwest, you get treated to lame jokes and sometimes even off-key singing by the flight attendants.

  10. I love to take surveys when A0there’s a decent chance of winning a prize, or B)I actually get paid. I just completed a healthcare survey over the phone and they sent me cash in the mail. Not bad at all.

    As for B-school mentality, let me admonish its reductionist poisoning of public education (via neoliberal do-gooders).

    Earlier this year we previewed the next CA state tests for high school. Apparently, scores haven’t been so good, and the tests have been accused of not engaging critical thinking skills. The answer? More complex tests!

    What before might have been a simple series of multiple choice questions with four options, we now have multi-segmented questions with four, five or six options. A main gripe among those of us teaching subjects other than English, and to students multiple grade levels below in reading comprehension, has been the extent to which test questions are often written at reading levels prohibitively advanced for the actual standard being tested for. So in effect, half of what you are testing for is vocabulary and reading comprehension instead of the actual concept involved.

    In the end, this will inevitably drive ever more students to simply half-ass what is in effect a hoop-jumping exercise for them, as they have no direct incentive to perform well. Which goes to the whole other issue of how much the tests are measuring student “buy-in” to begin with. For instance, many schools make a big production of promoting test-taking skills and general boosterism, begging the question of how much we are now testing the efficacy of a particular school’s test-prep and promotional performance.

    OK, I’ll shut up now.

    1. Eli!

      a) don’t shut up, not ever.

      b) I hear you, and I am someone who, time permitting, returns bad fruit to the store. (Note: only if it’s really bad and/or was expensive.)

      At least half of all this nonsense could be avoided if stores would taste or try their products themselves. If you don’t know if something’s good or not, why are you selling it? Banks could have undercover customers if they’re really so bleeping worried about the “experience.”

  11. Hmm. Email seems a much better way to do this: no bothering people, they can answer at their convenience, and only the people who had a really good or bad experience will answer. Phoning is hateful.

    I normally answer all surveys, having once worked as a survey phone monkey, but recently there have been so many that I’m considering stopping. There’s one group that calls me and says: Hi, you helped us out in the past with one of our surveys, and we’d like to survey you again. I have taken to lecturing them on not abusing other people’s kindness, and refusing.


  12. These bug the crap out of me. If you give me extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad service, you will definitely be hearing from me about it. If you don’t hear from me, you can be sure that the service was satisfactory, so why ask?

  13. There’s something even worse going on with the surveys: according to at least a couple of frontline people at businesses I patronize, staff actually get evaluated based on whether their customers fill out the survey and what the results are. Which would be just fine a) if the surveys weren’t so annoying and time-consuming to fill out, with no compensation, and b) if any of the items on the survey were actually under staff control.

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