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Customer care for dummies (or how to rate the ratings)


Suresh Menon | September 13, 2011

Ladies Choice is terror, wrote Jean Paul Sartre – unless what he said was ‘Freedom is terror’, in which case you are free to choose what you like while we attack the problem from another angle. “We are at the crossroads,” wrote Woody Allen, “one path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us choose correctly.”

The modern version of these ancient philosophers (you can add the name of the carmaker Ford to that list. Remember his famous “You can have any colour you want so long as it is black”?) are the customer care officers at our retail outlets.

“How do you like your car?”

“It’s fine, thank you for asking.”

And the conversation with customer care should have ended there. Polite, civilised, and with just the touch of ambiguity that leaves both parties wondering whether they have been complimented or insulted. I mean, I do like my car, and I am touched that a total stranger should ask after its health and show such concern for its happiness. And customer care should be happy that they have managed to get one satisfied customer so early in the morning–and perhaps that is a good augury for the remainder of the day.

But of course customer care is not satisfied. On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate your experience of the car, the voice at the other end of the phone line wants to know. “1 to 8 means you are dissatisfied, 9 and 10 stand for customer satisfaction,” she explains. 

Well, I am not dissatisfied, so it must be either 9 or 10. But that sounds excessive. I am glad, of course, that the steering wheel does not come off in my hand when I take a left turn, but on the other hand (so to speak), it is not quite like lying in a warm bath surrounded by Cleopatra. So I hesitate. Like Woody Allen, I am at the crossroads. One road leads to a wall, the other to a dead end.

Is this what they call Hobson’s choice? Hobson, trivia buffs will know, was a stable owner in the 17th century, who, in order to rotate his horses offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the nearest stall or nothing at all.

Customer care’s new rating system makes Hobson look like an amateur. We can expand its application to understand its full import. For example, how do you rate your cricket captain? One to nine indicates that he is a mass murderer, 10 means excellent. Or, how do you rate your best writer? One to nine means he ought to be taken out and shot at dawn, ten means that he is the greatest in the world. 

It is not just in our politics or economics or literary criticism. The middle path is dropping out of our rating system too. We have arrived at what future lexicologists might call ‘Bushtremes’. Either you are with me, as Dubya said, or you are against me (although there is a rumour he actually said ‘without me’).

Of course, it could swing the other way too. How do you rate the new baby? One to nine he is the cutest thing in the world, ten if he can read newspapers backwards. Or, how do you rate your government? One to nine is excellent. Ten is great. And, as they say on some university question papers, there is no negative marking.

So, when customer care insisted I had to make a choice, I explained that this was no choice at all, merely a trick to get me to say nice things about her company. “I would rather not open my mouth,” I said, while trying to explain the concept of ‘zugzwang’ in chess, a situation where a player has to make a move, although any move made would be disadvantageous.

Customer care people are like insurance agents – not easily discouraged. This one needed either a nine or ten. “Will you put on record whatever number I tell you,” I asked, and when she said “Yes,” I replied, “Then please write down my satisfaction level as 9.3468.” I haven’t heard from her since. When in doubt, decimalise.



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