Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Passive Customer Service

Being a customer service practitioner, I can be a difficult customer at times.  Sometimes, it's because I simply want fair treatment - for someone else to work as hard at meeting my needs as a customer as I work to meet the needs of my own.   Other times, it's because I'm testing out an idea.

The idea I wanted to test out was that customer service sometimes requires helping the customer to find a solution that will suit their needs - and it seems to me that they often forget or neglect this task.  It's not a matter of passively doing whatever the customer says, because the customer sometimes doesn't know what he really needs.

And so, I tried this out in a restaurants a few times.  It seems to me that wait staff are the ultimate order-takers, particularly because one of their primary functions is to take the customer's order.   I wanted to see if they were capable of providing good customer service, by way of making recommendations to a customer who wasn't sure what to order.   In general, it did not go well.   A typical "service" conversation went a bit like this ...
WAIT: May I take your order?
ME:  I was hoping you could help me decide.  What's good here?
WAIT: Everything is good here.
ME: I'm not hungry enough to eat everything.  Can you recommend something?
WAIT:  Well, what kind of food do you like?
ME: I'm flexible.  Not a vegetarian.  Not on a diet.  No allergies.
WAIT:  Then anything on our menu should be OK.
ME: Right.   So what would you recommend?
WAIT: Well, people seem to like [this].  And [this] and [this] are pretty good, too.
ME: So which of those three would you recommend?
WAIT: It depends on what you're in a mood for.
I could go further here and sometimes did when I was in the situation, but for the most part I let the poor wait wriggle off the hook and made a decision after a few rounds of attempting to get them to make a recommendation.

I do have to give credit to the few who actually did make a single recommendation, though usually with some further prodding.  And I do have to give discredit to the one who quickly suggested the most expensive item on the menu (it is a stereotype that waiters will do this to increase their tips - and he was perfect example).   But in the most part, it ended in stalemate, with the "service" provider growing increasingly annoyed by my request for what seemed to be a very simple service.

The eureka moment finally came when I asked one wait why she would not make a specific recommendation.   Her reply was this:  "If I choose something for you and you don't like it, then it's my fault you had a bad lunch."

And that gets to the very psychological issues that underlie so many poor service encounters (or interactions of any kind): fear and self-doubt.   A person who is fearful of making a bad decision and doubts in their ability to make a good decision will simply freeze up and wait for someone else to save them.

For now, I am simply exploring an issue to get to the root of the problem.  I expect the solution requires some changes to the behavior of both the server (who must be confident enough to make a decision for the customer) and the customer (who must accept the risk that allowing someone else to decide might lead to disappointment).

It's probably something that the customer can address explicitly in the situation (assure the server they will not be blamed), but that seems a bit slapdash and ad-hoc.   So it will likely take a bit more thinking and experimentation to arrive at a viable solution that has broader applicability - but it does seem worth the effort to address this service deficit that is all too common.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Rationality of Irrational Choices

The choices that people make are by necessity rational – each choice follows some course of reason, even if that reason is flawed or inappropriate.   Except for simple reflexes, all of our actions are undertaken in response to a choice to pursue the satisfaction of some desire.

Very often the term “irrational” is simply used by those who, being vain and arrogant, presume to pass judgment on other peoples’ aims and volitions.  No man is qualified to declare what should make any other person happier or less discontented.  We may assume that others seek the same ends as ourselves, and can assess what we might do were we to exchange places with another – but to suggest that others should act in a manner that reflects our own will and aspirations is merely contempt and manipulation.

Another basis for the accusation of irrationality is that every action accomplishes some things at the cost of others.  A person who seeks to obtain something of little value at the cost of failing to obtain something of greater value is not irrational, but his reasoning may seem flawed.   But again, the decision of what things matter more than others is essentially a decision each person must make for himself.   If we judge the action of another to be irrational in this manner, it is often because we have different values and, again, arrogantly assume that anyone who does not share our values is mentally compromised.

Consider the debate over whether it is better to live in wealth or in poverty, or the choice we make in the face of any opportunity to exchange our self-respect and dignity for some material gain.  The choice an individual will make is a reflection of his values.

It is even arbitrary to consider the satisfaction of the body’s physiological needs to be of the highest order – the man who risks his life for an ideal is by no means irrational, and who says that he is so fails to understand the values of a person who would make such a choice.

When the intended goals of an action are understood, then a course of action may be considered in light of its effectiveness and efficiency at achieving that goal.  That is, the “right” action achieved the greatest degree of success with the least effort.   But because man is not omniscient, omnipotent, and infallible it’s generally witnessed that the course of action he chooses to pursue is flawed and often quite poorly considered.  But again, this does not mean action is irrational, merely imperfect.

Thus considered, the only truly irrational behaviors are reflexes, a response to stimuli that cannot be controlled by the volition of the person concerned.  Even the actions of an insane person are based on reason, albeit a perverse and ill-conceived form of reason.  As to insanity, maintaining the expectation that others will pursue the outcomes and follow the reasoning that we feel they ought to, rather than acknowledging they can and will think independently and follow a course of those of their own choosing, reeks of egomania.

Ultimately, we must act the subjectivity of human action, and acknowledge the right of each person to make his own choices.  The degree to which anyone may pass judgment is in assessing whether the course of action chosen was effective in achieving the desired outcome – and refrain from presumptions of being a fit judge of what is useful for others and what will make them the most happy.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Predictably Irrational

I have for some years been dodging Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational.  In spite of the fact that it brings together two of my greatest academic and professional interests (economics and psychology), the book itself is very popular with unsavory characters (pretentious pseudo-intellectuals) and suffered in my estimation from guilt by association.   Having read the book, my estimation of the book and its readership has not improved at all.

The introduction sets up a basic premise: that the flaw in traditional economics is that it portrays the behavior of the individual person as perfectly informed and completely rational, which is not at all the case when you look at consumer behavior.    This is why economics (which attempts to encourage the right decisions) and psychology (which considers the decisions people actually make) are often at odds with one another.

The problem is that the author proposes the opposite extreme: he suggests that decisions are always based on a person who is completely uninformed and completely irrational – so we should toss out the economics texts and surrender to pseudopsychology instead.  The problem here is in implying that because something isn’t perfectly true, its opposite must therefore be perfectly true.  In Rhetoric 101, this is referred to as the “black or white” fallacy that fails to account for probabilities: because all swans are not white does not mean all swans are black - most are white, a rare few are black.

Granted, there’s a great deal of argument to be had about how many black versus white birds exist in the general swan population – and for the present topic, there is likewise a great deal of argument to be had about how many consumer decisions are rational and informed as opposed to being irrational and ignorant.  A statement of “all” in favor of either extreme is likely very wrong.

If the book were complete stuff-and-nonsense, I’d be far less offended by it – but like all successful acts of deception it contains enough of the truth to gain credibility with people who do not pay much attention.   That is to say that irrational decision making does occur, and the examples the author provides often draw upon well-founded principles of behavioral psychology.

That is, we do act on impulse, we do not have sufficient information for the decisions we make, we do fail to consider the long-term consequences of a short-term decision, and so on.   But we do these things sometimes, not always, and the seeming disparity between economics and psychology is the difference in the definition of two words: do and should.

So in the end I do not accept the all-or-nothing approach of the author, nor condone the notion that economics should be discarded for the sake of psychology:  both have their place.   Economics counsels us in what we ought to do, psychology makes us aware of what we actually do.   For any individual, both are essential in comparing the “as is” state (psychology) to a desirable “to be” state (economics) – and that if a successful synthesis of these subjects is ever to be written, it will have to be by an author who respects the importance of both.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Commerce as Gambling

Examples of gambling are often used in explaining statistics, as they are the most common use of statistics in actual experience: a game is a situation in which the environment, equipment, and behaviors are tightly controlled to restrict the possible outcomes, such that probabilities can be calculated that purposefully ignore any factor that falls outside of the contrived events of the game.

That is, any outcome that results from the players acting in unexpected ways, equipment fails, or the environment changes is ignored – which is very much the same as statisticians approach the real world, only events in the real world cannot be replayed.  If a cargo ship sinks on a trip across the ocean, there is no “do-over” with a replacement ship and the amount wagered on its successful completion of the voyage is lost, regardless of whether the statisticians accounted for weather conditions.

There is a finicky distinction between betting and gambling: a bet is placed on an event that will occur regardless of whether a wager is involved and gambling is placing a bet on an event that is arranged for the sole purpose of being gambled upon.  (I sense this might be entirely incidental.)

It’s also mentioned in passing that we presume gambling to be done for financial gain, but it is also psychologically motivated: many individuals make proclamations of outcomes in order to flatter their own vanity, and wagering is merely a means to get someone else to pay attention to them.

It’s briefly mentioned that any affair in business is some form of bet or gamble that will profit the investor only if probability works out in his favor, though he his more able to act in ways that influence the outcome in his favor.

But at the same time it would be a mistake to extend the metaphor of “game” to any human action.   Most actions are not competitive, and do not aim at causing anyone to lose, but instead seek an improvement in conditions.   There are competitive situations where one may gain at the expense of another, but it is certainly not always the case.

The businessman makes money by supplying customers with goods they wish to acquire, and it is in the nature of transaction for each party to feel it has gained something it values more than what it gave in return.   There are swindlers whose approach to doing business with others involves deception, but this is not the typical mode of a business that has any desire for longevity – it must be supportive and cooperative with its customers to forge an ongoing relationship to sustain profitability.

There is also the sense of competition between firms to serve a limited market, but this is a misrepresentation of their actions:  each strives to serve the customer better than the other such that the customer chooses their product rather than the competitors.  When business competition is viewed as a contest and the customer a prize to be won (rather than a rational individual who chooses for himself), dysfunction results.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Why it is Difficult to Change

One of the most important functions of the human mind is to help us make sense of the world around us: in our minds, we create representations that becomes our own perception of reality.  Normally, this is quite positive and healthy.   The problem arises when the mind attempts to fill in the gaps in understanding in a manner that does not correspond to actual reality.  The total of our perception includes both fact and fiction, and even the facts are based on our limited experience and from an individual perspective.

Moreover, the mental representation of reality attempts to be accurate and consistent and resists the notion that it may be incorrect.   For example, when someone asks why made a decision, you answer immediately - but this extemporaneous answer is often inaccurate.  You may not remember the reasons that were in your mind at the time, if you were ever fully conscious of all the reasons that influenced your decision.   But the mind fabricates a plausible set of motivations that are consistent with the mental representation of reality.

And to conserve energy, the mind makes assumptions about reality that may be inaccurate.   In so doing, it often reinterprets facts that seem to be of little consequence to create a consistent conception.  This happens automatically, and people fall into habitual patterns of decision-making and then attempt to apply those patterns even when they are inappropriate to a given situation.

To change the pattern, these habits must be disrupted: the perception of reality needs to be changed.    The problem is: the mind doesn't want to be changed.   Its preference is to maintain its current settings and do what it usually does, generally because the habitual patterns were established as habit because they have been successful in the past.   It maybe a black-or-white perspective, but our tendency is to sort things into opposites: anything that does not match "success" will be "failure" and anything that is not "helpful" will be "harmful."   We do not immediately consider whether it may be more successful or more helpful, merely that it is different to the known and must therefore be its diametric opposite.

Emotion is the first line of defense for the human mind.  Before we think about something, we feel it, and our thinking is generally inclined to defend its ingrained successful habits against any suggestion to the contrary.   By some theories, emotions are the default procedures of the human mind - established by a rational process, but rather hasty and superficial in nature.

Putting the two together, an unfamiliar option constitutes a threat to success that has the potential to be harmful and such a threat activates very primitive emotions that trigger the fight/flight survival mechanisms that defend against threats.   When dealing with ideas, the physical fight/flight becomes resistance or avoidance, which is then justified in arrears by the reasoning processes.

This is not to say that the human mind is incapable of change - of pausing to consider the new information, and questioning the habitual ways of thinking.   However, that is not the default response.   We generally reconsider our way of thinking when we recognize something is different about the current situation - but our first inclination is to match the current situation to experience and dismiss the cues that would enable us to recognize the differences.

In order to learn, change, or grow, it is necessary to have these instances of uncertainty - and instead of automatically falling back on habitual reactions, to pause and question whether these habitual reactions are appropriate to the situation at hand and consider whether there might be better options.    This requires setting aside the initial emotional reaction to be guided by a more rational process.

This can be uncomfortable - and as such is typically avoided.  And this is part of the reason that people fall into patterns of decision-making and patterns of acting that merely apply familiar habits, regardless of whether they match to a present decision.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Consumer Tastes

In spite of all efforts to influence consumers’ preferences, taste remains the primary criteria for purchasing choices.  Individual likes/dislikes drive preference in a vague manner that is only partially explained by innate and socially acquired factors.   Some patterns have been observed, though most are based on the rational factors that ought to influence a consumer’s choices rather than the irrational factors that have a more demonstrable effect in actual purchasing behavior.

It is theorized that while cultures as a whole consume a broad array of goods, each falls into a pattern as a result of habitual consumption.  When societies were more isolated, consumer preferences tended to what was locally available and there was little intrusion of or exposure to anything else, accompanied by a species of bigotry that regards anything from outside the community as foreign and undesirable simply because it is outside of the norm.

It is believed by some that tastes can be most easily influenced during formative childhood years rather than challenging the established preferences of adults, such that earlier familiarity with a variety products and brands leads children to be more accepting of new ones later in life.  This is practiced in the home, before children become independent as consumers: the choice of brands made by their parents influence their buying decisions throughout their lifetime – for a specific, narrow range of brands or a more liberal sampling.

There is also evidence of culture’s impact in consumer preferences over time.  The “golden ages” of societies are often accompanied by a plethora of product options, which leads to more varied consumption, and during an economic recession there is a return to less hedonistic and more practical choices.   As such, the flexibility of taste fluctuates with the economic success of societies.

In that sense, consider the past century in western culture:  the periods of recession and expansion marked by the World Wars, the Great Depression, the postwar recovery, the mid-seventies recession, the boom era of the 1980s and 1990s, then the recession of the early twenty-first century.  Each period of recession coincides with a retraction of product variety and an increase in self-denial, and each period of expansion with the return of choice and self-gratification.

Furthermore, the globalization of markets has enabled consumers to regain some of the options they might otherwise have lost by making products available at a much lower cost, even in times of recession. This may be a symptom of a cultural identity crisis, but the products of foreign manufacture adopted into domestic use are pursued in a mercenary manner – consumers seek to gain the advantage of the product within their means and are not concerned with the cultural underpinnings that led the components to become popular in their own culture.