Customer Satisfaction is Evil

Back before I decided to be an artist I was an "internet person" back when we weren't entirely sure what the internet was for. Around 2006-7 I found myself at the SWSW Interactive festival which was an amazing experience, surrounded by hundreds of other nerds who weren't entirely sure what the internet was for. Twitter had just launched, Facebook was on the ascendence and the venture capitalism money was flowing fast. It was an interesting time that, over 12-16 months, raised my spirits and then dashed them on the rocks. (Although I did also meet my wife, so it was definitely all worth it in the end). It's probably no coincidence that the term "social media" was coined in this period, taking vague notions of distributed, autonomous citizen media and codifying them into corporate silos. But that's not the subject for today.

News of Uber's ban in London, and the outrage from their customers, reminded me of that SXSWi trip. Along with the usual social networking nonsense there were a lot of customer satisfaction services, helping companies to gather feedback and respond to it. This was seen as a positive thing as both parties wanted the same thing. Consumers get their grievances fixed and companies learn how to improve. Win-win. These days I'm not so sure.

Customer satisfaction as a metric is not new. Retail businesses have been parroting "the customer is always right" for decades. But as anyone who's actually worked in customer-facing jobs will tell you, the customer is often very wrong indeed. The reasons are multiple but there are two that I think are particularly pertinent.

  1. Modern customer facing environments simplify and infantilise the experience. In an effort to make things as frictionless as possible, the complexities of selling an object or service is buried deep. Just as a toddler doesn't appreciate all the time and effort that enabled its dinner to appear on the table, the customer is completely ignorant of the global economic complexities of how that pair of jeans is on that shelf for that price. They just take it as normal. We're admiring graceful swans unable to see their frantic paddling against the current. So when something goes wrong and the reality is revealed, it doesn't make sense. The customer demands normality, not realising that normality is a facade.

  2. Customer service is about power. You exchange your money for a modicum of privilege - the right to have something you might not normally be entitled to. This is subtly different to making a deal, which is what buying and selling is supposed to be. Bartering and bargaining is about finding the point where both parties are satisfied. Customer service is about making the customer feel special, to make them feel they have some power in the exchange and are winning. They're not, of course. An individual has no power against a corporation. But they need to feel like they are. Power is intoxicating, especially to those who don't have much normally, so when combined with the above it it can be problematic.

Problematic, that is, to the people on the ground whose job is to ensure customer satisfaction no matter what. Reality doesn't apply in these cases. And that's why I always respect store managers who will stand up for their staff when the customer is blatantly wrong, and I'm always suspicious of negative feedback that isn't part of a coherent pattern.

The ills of customer satisfaction don't just apply to abuse of minimum wage staff. The side effects move down the production and supply chains to give you the range and service that you "deserve". Pollution, low wages, tax evasion, all the stuff we moan about corporations indulging in is a byproduct those companies putting customer satisfaction at the centre of everything. It's a cancer, really, because being truly satisfied is impossible.

Of course, the solution isn't grumpy shop owners refusing to bend. In my retail days (before my internet days) I often enjoyed going the "extra mile" to get a customer what they wanted. But it was mostly on my terms, and you didn't get it if you were rude. Back then I wasn't being monitored, of course, and rude customers didn't have a simple way to feedback to head office. Nowadays they do, and I'm very glad I don't work in the corporate customer-facing industry anymore.

What we need to do is grow up and stop expecting to be treated as children in exchange for money. I don't hold out much hope for this, but in the meanwhile I encourage you to look behind the facade of your satisfaction and consider why that company you love to use might actually be a bit evil.