Oct 26, 2020

How’d We Do—Even Though We’re Still Doing It?

Rating the current obsession with instant reviews

By Ed Goldman

How are you enjoying today’s column so far? I’ll be sending you a questionnaire. You needn’t sign it but of course I’ll know who sent it.

—Okay, here’s what prompted this. On one recent day, all of the following occurred:

  1. My car’s transmission quit while I was driving it on the freeway, causing me to pull onto the shoulder and call to make an emergency appointment with my dealership (this was on a Wednesday; it couldn’t work on my car until the following Monday);
  2. I arranged for the car to be towed to the dealer after I somehow managed to grind it to within a block of my home and then, with the gears inoperable, literally coast it into my garage. I was able to do this because I’d been driving pretty fast, which allowed me to, as boat owners say, maneuver under sail. Harrr.
  3. I set up a car rental for the days mine would be unavailable;  
  4. I found out a package I’d paid FedEx in person to ship overnight two days earlier didn’t go out that day.

In each instance, when the crisis had passed, I was sent an email (which went directly into my nuclear-powered spam folder) asking me to rate, respectively: 

– The towing company dispatcher (her name is Karen and she couldn’t have been nicer); 

– The individual who came out to do the actual tow (his name is Rob and he was as nice as Karen); 

– The auto dealership’s concierge (her name is Trish and she’s efficiency personified); 

– The car-rental agency’s call center person (whose name is Joanie, for her handling of my reservation even though I didn’t even have the car yet. But she was very nice on the phone); and

 – Someone from FedEx who had such an impenetrable accent I finally had to ask to speak to the manager. “Ay YAM du manhannugar,” she said. (I’ve replayed that in my mind a number of times and for the life of me, can only come up with pidgin Esperanto as the source of her accent. Esperanto, as you probably know, was created by a Polish eye doctor 133 years ago. There’s no truth to the rumor that at the same time, an international linguist developed bi-focal contact lenses.)

At Your Survey

Anyway, this pander parade made me recall how, in the years I was a part-time instructor (at three Cal State U campuses and two community colleges), I was required to distribute teacher evaluation forms at the end of each term. 

I didn’t mind doing these, since it was one of the only ways, barring unannounced or incognito visits to my classrooms, that department deans could get a general idea if I was teaching what I was hired to teach: Journalism, Public Relations and Broadcasting—as opposed to Aerobics for Amnesiacs, Astral Projection on a Budget and Intro to Satanism).

Even when I was hired by extension campuses in the UC system to teach half- and full-day seminars, I still thought it was fine to ask enrollees to evaluate me, as long as it was after the class was completed. I mention this because one time, the surveys were handed out at the beginning of a six-hour seminar and I saw people filling them out during the first half-hour. I may not make a good first impression but I apparently make a speedy one.

Again, I had no problem with the concept of being reviewed. While the students might never see me again, the curriculum coordinators were entitled to know if they should offer some of my more esoteric one-offs again, such as (these are all real) “Writing Humor When You Personally Feel Lousy,” “Sending Memos to People You Can’t Stomach but Who Pay You” and my most popular course, “Maintaining Optimism in Your Life and Career After Finding Out Your Real Father Is Howard Cosell.” This last one lost a bit of its bloom after Cosell and his hairpiece were buried together.

But these while-u-wait critiques took on a whiff of absurdity three times: when I was invited to do one-time-only speeches for a local service club, an assisted-living community and, so help me, a funeral. In each instance, the host was cordial enough to ask me if I minded the questionnaire and in each instance I cheerfully lied, “Not at all.”

In fact, the funeral survey struck me as plenty weird. I half expected the last question to be, “On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the strongest positive recommendation, would you engage this speaker to address a gathering of mourners at the funeral of a loved one? Use extra pages if necessary.”

We’ve become a nation of critics. Yelp!, which I despise and have written about in this space, has empowered idiots in a number of arenas to hold forth on, and potentially end up causing to close, restaurants, hotels, airlines, cleaners, hair salons, and any number of mom-and-pop businesses.

I’ll admit that some incidents don’t require you to have a great deal of expertise on the subject you’re about to rant about. But even if you ended up arm-wrestling a cockroach for your entrée at a restaurant, it’d still be much more helpful to tell the owner and then, if you receive a rotten response—like, “Well, it wasn’t there before you came in”—to call the county health department.

But when you really don’t know much about cooking, hospitality, air travel and so forth, you needn’t become a town crier to get satisfaction. For example, I stopped frequenting an art gallery whose manager was consistently rude to me for reasons I’m truly clueless about. Yet I didn’t see any point in broadcasting my discontent on Yelp! or in any other available media. I didn’t care if the place stayed open but I also didn’t have any desire for it to go out of business. I just didn’t want to spend any more of my money there.

Nonetheless, I think it’s wise they’ve never asked their customers to complete a survey titled “How’d We Do?” And especially not to add, “Use extra pages if necessary.”

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).