21 November 2013

On training

My car has been in for service today. I gather that I will shortly get an email questionnaire to evaluate my experience. I got that information when the front-of-house-guy said that my car would be returned shortly, after it had been washed. I asked why. It had been raining, there were muddy puddles everywhere, and more rain threatened. Because it was all part of the service, he said. The fact that it kept me twiddling my thumbs for 25 minutes before I could collect it and go was presumably also part of the service. But he did let slip about the questionnaire and that the franchise would be awarded points on the basis of my ratings--which would not accommodate a response to "Was your car washed?" of  "No, I declined because I wanted to get out of there and do other things."

This is not a rant about the "quality" of the service. Everybody was quite efficient, very pleasant and helpful, and apart from that unnecessary delay and the price of it all, I'm satisfied.

I'm merely reflecting on the fact that the staff are so well trained they behave like automatons.

When we sat down to "do the paperwork" (and why am I always religiously addressed as "Doctor Atherton" --they've only picked up the title from one of my credit cards?) I became aware of the script:
  • OK, Doctor Atherton, this is what we have done for you today... ("for you" is the giveaway, like the supermarket cashier who asks, "Can you just enter your PIN for me?" It's the kind of pseudo-intimate bullsh*t propagated by corporate "customer-service" training programmes.)
  • This raised an interesting question--was the 25-minute wait fortuitous? Or is there some research somewhere which testifies to its capacity to soften up customers--they won't argue when their priority is just to get on with their lives? (Or is that a shadow of my recent reading about paranoid schizophrenia?)
  • He then went through a sheaf of paperwork, at least three itemised accounts, before presenting the summary of what I had to pay. (I did think of telling him to cut to the chase, but I was beginning to be interested in the script...)
  • In each case he was punctilious about the facts of what was being charged for, or not...
  • Apparently, the car could have failed the MoT (roadworthiness test) because the rear indicator lights were not the correct colour. That sounds extremely implausible, but I was assured that the bulbs had been replaced, "and we have not charged you for that".
  • [At this point I thought--"Kahneman!"* I don't know whether whoever had written the script/trained the guy had read Kahneman and Tvarsky, or whether they had arrived at the idea independently, but it was a beautiful implementation of what K calls "anchoring". Many consumer trading interactions are assymetric. I, the customer, have no idea of what is a fair price for the service the seller is offering. {sorry about the nested brackets, but I encountered this at the same business when I offered my previous vehicle for trade-in. I asked "What will you give me for it?" They said "What do you want for it?"--which would have manipulated me into specifying a default figure around which they could argue. If I set that too low, I would have effectively capped the trade-in price I could get.} so they define the situation, or the parameters of the game--they set a more or less arbitrary anchor for the bargaining.]
  • He then went through the rest of the invoice. I needed two new tyres; this bargain had been set up on the phone earlier. He had quite rightly told me about the tyre situation (I could have disputed the judgement because I had checked previously elsewhere, where the guy had --contrary to his immediate interest-- told me they were legal) I had to work out the hassle of deciding to go elsewhere for a better deal, and then getting the car re-tested... so I asked him the price. Quoted price; £97 each... But he would do it for £79 each, because I was an established customer... Sounds good, but where is the anchor? I could find it on the net, I'm sure, but how much is that worth?
  • On every other item, he showed me how I was getting a discounted rate because of  a deal I had signed up for earlier, and then --coup de grace-- showed me how much I had "saved", as I paid £200 more than I expected...
There's nothing unusual about this, still less to be deprecated. It's what makes the wheels of commerce turn, and it has been going on for centuries--just lacking the meta-language to describe its principles.  

Caveat emptor.

Good--now I can simply cite this link in response to the incoming questionnaire.

* Kahneman D (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow London, Penguin Books

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