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The Customer Is Always Writing

TWO friends who meet once a year for lunch always celebrate at the same restaurant in an upscale hotel. They like the ambience - crisp table linens, fresh flowers, pleasant music - and the attentive service.

But this year they noticed something decidedly downscale: Heavy white mugs, more appropriate for a pancake house than a pricey restaurant, had replaced the usual china cups and saucers. When they expressed dismay, the waiter nodded understandingly. "A lot of people have complained," he said.

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Then he urged the women to fill out a customer-comment card. "The managers don't necessarily listen to us," he explained. "But they always read the comment cards."

From restaurants and motels to stores and airlines, executives everywhere are soliciting opinions from those whose patronage they depend on. Their requests have become the corporate equivalent of the question made famous by New York's former Mayor Ed Koch, who delighted in asking, "How'm I doing?"

At Bloomingdale's, tall ballot boxes placed near exits are painted with the pleading words, "Talk To Us." Cards stacked on top carry the same request, adding, "We're all ears."

In packages of one brand of stockings, a large card makes an urgent request: "Hanes Women - Speak Your Mind!" The form invites customers to join the company's new "Quality Control Panel as our consultant," then concludes, "Be it compliments or complaints, we want to know, because we'd rather make a change than have you make a change."

Even Boston's airport is putting on consumer-friendly airs. "Please take a moment to tell us how you feel about Logan," a survey card reads. It asks travelers to rate 15 aspects of the facility, from "Roadway Signs to the Terminals" to "Public Information Booth Assistance."

To these, add the toll-free consumer hotlines printed on everything from cereal boxes to toothpaste tubes. Think of the marketing questionnaires that arrive in the mail with a crisp dollar bill attached as an incentive. And don't forget the registration cards accompanying new home appliances - the ones that want to know about everything from your "major activities" to the "most important things in your life." The evidence is unmistakable: A conscientious consumer could spend hours playing unpaid market r esearcher.

By giving customers an authoritative voice, these corporate information-seekers appear to be making a thoughtful, service-oriented gesture. The report cards they receive may, in fact, represent one of the few places where grade inflation doesn't exist. A time-short shopper who has waited in one too many long checkout lines - or been ignored by one too many indifferent clerks - is hardly apt to offer an A when performance rates a C.

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Yet could it be that what passes for corporate solicitude is often a marketing tool in disguise? Big Brother Retailer or Manufacturer wants you - and your ZIP code, and as much personal and demographic information as you're willing to divulge. Survey questions have become increasingly nosy: "How old are you? How much do you make?" One friend says he's sometimes tempted to list his age as 13 and his income as $200,000, just to keep market researchers humble.

Can anybody complain because "service" has become the mantra intoned by all kinds of merchandisers? So why not fill out one more questionnaire, participate in one more telephone interview until marketing researchers know more about customers than their mothers ever did?

The trouble is, customers don't all want one and the same thing, to be defined by a simple check mark in a single survey box. Furthermore, after going to all that expense to discover the consumer's opinion, businesses will sometimes ignore their polls, trusting their own judgment ahead of those votes that would automate the motto: "The customer is always right."

Willy-nilly, providers and customers continue to engage in an unpredictable guessing game with one another, making marketing still an art as well as a science. Perhaps that's for the best - even though, as of this week, those providers of inelegant mugs have not yet acknowledged their sputtering sippers' protests in support of china cups.

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