Essays on Technology and Culture

Long Receipts, and Why Customer Service Surveys Suck

Every so often, when I leave work, I stop by a chain pharmacy [1] on the way to the subway. There, I often purchase a beverage and, if I feel it, a starchy snack food. When I check out, the cashier hands me a comically large receipt, then asks me to take a customer service survey and give them a “nine.” Typically the receipt, and the information on how to take the survey never makes it past the trash can by the door. I’m certain I’m not the only one. The way the staff robotically repeats the exhortation to take the survey, circle the little spot on the receipt with the survey information, and insistence we give them a “nine” tells me that it’s a matter of job security. They used to promote the survey with the chance of a large cash prize, but that stopped, fast.

This seems self-defeating. The sort of person who is going to fill out a survey on customer service at a chain pharmacy is not the kind of person who is going to give a high rating by default. I view it in much the same way I viewed customer interactions when I was behind the counter: you remember the bad experiences more than the good ones—in other words, the negativity bias. I know I’ve had great customer service experiences, but I remember the bad ones more. [2] When we have a bad experience, we want people to know. When we have a really good experience, we want people to know, too. Where, then, does this leave the poor cashiers at the pharmacy?

When the bulk of the interaction is as workaday as buying a soda and a bag of pretzels, the “best” interaction I want is one that is as minimal as possible. Scan the items, tell me the price, take my money, return exact change, bag it, thank me, and let me go. Asking me to take a survey, even on my own time, is negatively influencing the transaction. This being a pharmacy, where people may have larger-scale interactions with a pharmacist, or need to find something they need for a medical problem, this would be more useful. However, the methodology is still flawed, in that you’re asking someone to take a survey and remember the experience they had, and the experiences that will stick with us are typically negative.

It’s the sort of thinking that is prevalent in large, bureaucratic organizations. [3] What’s the easiest way to get a tap into how things are going on a store-by-store level? Ask the customers! How do we ask the customers? Well, since stationing someone at the door to ask folks leaving if they want to take a survey is unlikely to work, so let’s just slap something on a receipt, and make our cashiers spew out a rehearsed line to customers. It’s cheap, it’s efficient, and means we don’t have to do any real work at the corporate office. Extra-long lunch breaks, all around.

A survey request on a receipt is the least effort you can put into getting feedback. Unless they’re spending the money on data analysis to smooth out the distribution of extremely negative answers, and the occasional extremely positive answers, what you will get is basically the fine beige mush of the few people who gave honest, middling answers, and where do you go from that? Nowhere, really. At least in fast food, you can focus on speed and quantify how long it takes for a customer to get food. Retail isn’t as easily simplified and quantified.

Generally, I have the same set of complaints about any retail establishment I go into.

  1. I can’t find what I’m looking for easily.
  2. I can’t check out fast enough.

The first is intentional on the part of every store. Stores, grocery stores especially, are designed to keep you moving through the store, and make a few impulse buys. The second part is the tricky one. It’s a combination of factors related to staffing, training, number of customers, number of items per customer, method of payment, how well the customer speaks the language, how well the cashier speaks the language… The easiest way to get around that is to throw people at the problem, but then you risk paying cashiers to stand around when the store isn’t busy. And please, don’t get me started on self-checkout machines. They don’t help at all. [4]

To reach the point that I’ve been laboriously trying to set up, retail surveys suck. Surveys that require the customer to put time and space between the transaction and the survey suck even more. They’re a waste of receipt paper, a waste of time at the cash register for the customer and the cashier, and don’t tell you anything you can’t already find out by walking into a store at a busy time of day and trying to buy a bottle of soda and a bag of pretzels.

  1. In the interest of not having myself linked to the chain pharmacy on Google searches, I’ve opted to leave them unnamed. I apologize for the vagueness.  ↩

  2. One example of a good customer service experience was calling into, my domain registrar. Dealing with Verizon, my former ISP, was considerably less pleasant.  ↩

  3. Speaking as a former government employee, and the son of former government employees, I know large, bureaucratic organizations.  ↩

  4. In fact, it could be said that self-checkout only makes things worse, despite it being cheaper for the store.  ↩