Rendered Fat Content


“Commerce between master and slave is despotism.” Thomas Jefferson

The Muse thought, since we were moving into a fringe area house with an installed TV Dish® already on the roof, that she would sign up for the satellite TV service. The technician arrived while I directed the movers, who were unloading that last forgotten crate, and he encouraged me to finish that chore while he poked around, climbing onto the roof to check the dish angle and fiddling with wiring along the side of the place. After the movers left, he asked questions and poked around some more, finally coming around to the fatal question. “Do you have the power cord for the TV? I need to check reception on the actual TV before I can call the installation complete.”

Of course I didn’t have the power cable for the TV, and I told him that I had no idea where the cable might be. I found myself in the middle of one of those mornings where I just cannot properly parse the world around me. My judgement had not returned from dreamland the night before and I was barely functioning, but I found my trusty box knife and commenced to opening some boxes in the master bedroom, none of which yielded the sought-after cable. The technician would point at a box, asking, “How about that one?” I mindlessly responded by cutting open that one, then the next, then the next one after that.

I quickly began feeling assaulted, but continued with the absurd dance anyway. I was opening boxes out of any rational sequence, unable to place the contents into any proper context. I was making a mess when I needed some calming tidiness. I finally called a halt.

“I can’t report this install as completed until I finish that check,” the technician reiterated. I told him that I could not help him accomplish that because I didn’t have the power cable. I predicted that it would eventually turn up in the normal process of unpacking. Probably. He looked panicky, explaining that the company holds him personally responsible for following a defined process when installing service. Unanticipated deviations, I gathered, were not tolerated and considered to be the fault of the installer, though this was nobody’s fault and, it seemed to me, a reasonably anticipatable outcome which time and a little patience should resolve.

He offered to come back to finish the process wherever that cable turned up. “I don’t live that far from here,” he insisted. “I can come back anytime.” This is a desperate man coping with a serious threat.

It took more time than I wanted to spend, but I finally nudged him out the door as he explained that I would be receiving a phone call survey from his company. “Be sure and respond to the questions with a nine or a ten because if you rate me less than nine, I’m in trouble,” he counseled. So there’s the threat.

The lust for superior service seems to have encouraged a glut of what I might most charitably label Customer Satisfaction Surveys asking inane questions in the apparent belief that the responses might yield ‘actionable’ information. These ‘surveys’ typically employ the childish ‘on a scale of one to ten’ framework, one that baffled me even as a child. The Muse insists that I’m not all that much in touch with my feelings, so asking me to quantify something I’m not much in touch with never made sense to me. I quite naturally shut down in the face of questions arriving in this fashion. I feel lousy about shutting down because I really, really, really want to please the questioner, but cannot.

Here we find the under-appreciated aspect of the questionnaire. In this culture, it elicits the victim’s empathy toward the tormentor, subtly insisting upon a response. Forced choice dresses up like free will to yield ‘actionable information’? I respond to fend off the guilt I would feel if I didn’t respond. Someone somewhere compiles similarly coerced impressions from other customers to produce an ink blot portrait of excellence. Or not.

When The Muse and I facilitate workshops we counsel the client against distributing what we call Happy Sheets at the end of the experience. These surveys seek to generate immediate feedback on the workshop’s ‘quality’ (whatever that means) by interrogating newly-shell shocked veterans. The client expects an average rating of nine or ten to mean a successful experience but we’ve learned to anticipate bi-polar feedback. We figure that if the workshop has been successful it should have deeply dissatisfied at least half of the participants, if only because it failed to confirm their preconceptions about what they would learn by suggesting that they might have to engage in some extremely discomfiting unlearning. If the purpose of the workshop was about satisfying preconceptions rather than learning, a nine or ten might qualify as reasonable expectation, but the workshop would have to be unnecessary. If it was about learning, about half might love it while the other half reviles it in the moment after it ends. Ask a month later or a year later, after the experience has settled into practice (or not), and, in our experience, those who earlier reported the worst experience later discover the most satisfaction emerging in practice.

If you want to ensure my dissatisfaction, ask me how satisfied I am on a scale of one to ten. I can’t even pretend to grok that question. A scale? Of one to ten? Could you please provide some examples of what each of those points on that scale mean? If I’m feeling suicidal after experiencing your service, do I respond with a one? Does secretly plotting to run away to Vegas with the service provider rate a ten? I do not understand the calibration. I suspect the questioner doesn’t understand the calibration any better than I do. Rating experience seems like something a machine might try to do, not something a sentient human would ever even consider attempting. The very idea reeks of that adolescent urge to understand in a way that could only preserve preconception.

The clearly paranoid Disk® technician exhibited what excellence actually means in today’s thoroughly modern organization. It means that the people live under the thumb of an ignorant and inherently cynical tyranny where coercion produces the excellence they pursue and where any decent employee might be very well advised to counsel their customer in how to put their thumb on the scale to yield the desired result. Excellence requires me to Jinn up a nine or a ten no matter what my experience might have been.

The experience felt crappy, but I cannot hold that hapless technician at fault. I was in the middle of a terribly crappy morning when he appeared. I have a life-long attitude about all things electronic. The Muse wanted the service. I didn’t, but who would I have to be to deny her? I told the technician that for me, the best outcome would be not finding the power cord so the TV would remain a dark mirror. Circumstances beyond anyone’s control forced him to violate the defined installation process and he’s responding as might any innocent with a threatened livelihood. Even I can smell that distinctive aroma of circling Gestapo. I’ve been there.

I think I hold the moral responsibility to refuse to engage in surveying. If someone wants to know how I feel, they’re going to have to help me understand what they mean by that. If they employ a ten point scale, I should conclude that they have deluded themselves into believing that feelings emerge calibrated, a concept not quite worthy of the label Absurd. Furthermore, I do not expect or seek peak experiences when engaging in any commercial relationship. I quite reasonably expect to survive the transaction but I won’t blame anyone but myself if I leave disgruntled. I can own that. If I feel slighted, I won’t return. If I feel moved to provide what’s now popularly over-labeled as feedback, I’ll explain with something more explicit and personal than an easily compiled but eternally indecipherable ten point scale.

©2015 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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