How ratings result in worse, not better, customer service

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were in Galle, Sri Lanka for a much-awaited vacation. We chose a villa with great reviews on TripAdvisor. It seemed a decent place. A little far from the main town, but the hosts were quite friendly.

But we couldn’t get much sleep any of the nights we stayed there, because our room had bedbugs.

After we came back from the trip, we made sure to rate the place. We left not one, but two ratings (one each from my wife and me). Both of them were 5 stars.

Wait, what?

Did we enjoy getting bitten by bedbugs?

I was surprised too. Not just at my own rating, but at other ratings on TripAdvisor too. This place was one of the most recommended ones in Galle!

So how did this happen? How did I – and all the other guests – rate inferior customer service so highly?

 

Do ratings work?

The prevailing wisdom is that ratings work. That’s why they are everywhere. When you open an app on your Android phone, it asks you to rate it on the Play Store. Complete a ride on Uber, and you have to rate your driver. Order something from Amazon, same story. Open your inbox after a long vacation, and what’s the first email you see? A message from either your airline or hotel, requesting you to rate your experience.

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I’ve always found the act of rating quite empowering. The equation is simple – if you can rate a service provider in public, he has every incentive to ensure that you get great service. Right?

Well, after that incident in Galle, I realized that ratings may not result in better customer service. In some situations, they may be worsening it.

Wait, how does that make sense?

 

I’ll explain. But first, let’s agree on two key facts about ratings.

1. Ratings have an impact on service providers. That’s one reason they’re ubiquitous. Drivers on Uber do get blacklisted for low ratings. Top-rated hotels on TripAdvisor do get ten times as many bookings as lower-rated ones.

2. Customers know ratings have an impact. This makes them capricious (this Verge article calls them – us – entitled jerks). To see this, you only need to see a few app reviews. Sample these ratings on Circa (an app that used to provide summaries of important news):

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Ratings are supposed to highlight how good an app is. But no, sometimes you get a 1-star for an innocuous review request.

This customer fickleness is not just an app store phenomenon. As the Verge article says,

We rate for the routes drivers take, for price fluctuations beyond their control, for slow traffic, for refusing to speed, for talking too much or too little, for failing to perform large tasks unrealistically quickly, for the food being cold when they delivered it, for telling us that, No, we can’t bring beer in the car and put our friend in the trunk — really, for any reason at all, including subconscious biases about race or gender.

Please the customer, and hope for the best

The fact that we wield a strange amount of power and know it, turns upstanding, proud cab drivers and B&B hosts into fawning, obsequious and servile slaves. You can’t jilt or offend a customer in any way. A single misstep, and you get a 1-star rating. Not a 4- or 3-star. Your last five customers may have given you 5 stars, but this single rating could put you out of business. In New York, Uber delists drivers from the platform if they go below a 4.5 star average!

So what is a service provider to do? Provide honest-to-God great service. And hope that nothing gets screwed up.

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But there’s an easier way.

The honest approach is hard, time-intensive and expensive. And it’s subject to random whims of the entitled customer. If a customer expects Hilton service at McDonald’s rates, you’re bound to get 1 star. No matter what you do.

But there is an easier, quicker and more inexpensive way. One of the oldest psychological tricks in the book.

Dr. Cialdini, the author of Influence, calls this trick “Liking – The Friendly Thief”. Studies show that if you spend more time with a person, you end up liking her. And if you like a person, you tend to favor her in your dealings.

At a certain level, this is obvious. But that doesn’t make it any less powerful. Malcolm Gladwell cites a great example of this in Blink. Patients don’t file lawsuits when they suffer shoddy medical care, if the doctor is polite. They only file when they feel the doctor mistreated or ignored them.

“People just don’t sue doctors they like.”

So, to get a great rating, all you need to do is: (a) smile a lot and appear likeable; and (b) talk a lot, to create a human connection and familiarity.

Tried and tested. Once you get to know the service provider, you’d be a stone-hearted reviewer to leave anything less than 5 stars.

 

Nice host + bad customer service = 5 star rating

That’s what happened to us in Galle. Even though I was aware of this cognitive bias, I was powerless to counteract it.

The owner received us with great cheer. He chatted with us for hours. Always smiling and laughing (even when I didn’t crack a joke. And I’m not that funny anyway). I learned a lot about his life. I commiserated on his past troubles, and lauded him on his recent turn in fortunes.

My room still had bedbugs.

But my wife and I didn’t complain. Who can tell off such a nice guy? And when he requested us to leave two ratings on TripAdvisor, how could we refuse?

 

Talk more. Do less. Get 5 stars. Repeat.

This is just one small episode. But it sets in motion an insidious feedback loop, which could result in worsening customer service over time.

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  1. Customer give a 5-star rating despite bad customer service.
  2. Service provider sees this as validation of his strategy. And becomes more chatty, more fawning.
  3. Soon, if he’s smart (our guy was), he realizes there’s no return on actual customer service. It’s much easier to smile and bluster, than it is to clean the room. Over time, he’ll become more talkative, and true customer service will degrade.

Woe betide the unsuspecting traveler when that happens.

Thus, ratings may have an impact that’s the polar opposite of your intention.

 

How do we break this loop?

Now, I’m sure you want great customer service. So, how can we break this loop?

Just being aware of what’s happening is not enough. You’ll only feel worse, as you continue to give 5-star ratings like a powerless lab rat.

The only way to break this cycle is to have a system of multiple ratings on different attributes, instead of one single unidimensional one.

Why would that work? For three reasons:

  1. It would force objectivity. If you’re rating your stay at a B&B separately on Cleanliness, Quality of Food and Friendliness of Staff, you’re more likely to question the halo around your host’s head, and distill your cheery feeling into its components
  2. It would give the service provider the right feedback on how to improve.

 

Ratings are here to stay. Let’s make sure they actually improve customer service. Rather than slowly turning us into smiling zombies.

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Why Taj is the best customer service company in the world

I stayed at a Taj Hotels property in Delhi last week, for a conference. And I was blown away by the customer service there. Thinking back to my days as a business consultant, I stayed at several hotels across the price spectrum while traveling. But Taj hotels – whether Gateway, Vivanta or the higher-end ones – were always head and shoulders above the next best ones. Why, even when I’m just visiting a Taj for a meeting, the customer service there is superior to other hotels that I may actually be staying at.

But this post is not about why Taj is the best hotel. It’s about why it’s the best company, across sectors – how it embodies customer delight like no other company.

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Over the years, I’ve interacted with a bunch of companies that excel at customer service. Amazon, for one, always has me marveling at how wonderfully well it treats its customers. Whether the big stuff (the ridiculously good deals that it offers with Prime and the Kindle) or the small (you don’t have to call Amazon if you have any issues; rather, they call you), Amazon has got your back. Many of Amazon’s customer service decisions fly in the face of its bottom line, but they are guaranteed to make customers happy – and Amazon always trades off in favor of its customers. It’s not for nothing that its stated vision is “to become the Earth’s most customer centric company”

But whether Amazon or Zappos (which introduced the “Try different shoes, and send back the ones you don’t like” model), excellent customer service feels ‘processified’. So, over time, these become expected and fail to surprise you anymore. So, while you would become a loyal customer of Amazon (I am), you’d not necessarily become an advocate (I wouldn’t write a blog post solely extolling its virtues). This is excellent customer service no doubt, but it’s not customer delight.

With Taj hotels, on the other hand, customer delight is present in every interaction with guests. The staff – whether in housekeeping, at the restaurants, or room service – all perform random acts of kindness that leave you surprised. So, rather than a customer service process, a customer service culture shines through. When I was preparing for this post, I could remember at least 10 examples of how their customer service left me spellbound. I won’t share all 10 (I wanted to write a short post for a change), but here are a few:

  1. An ex-colleague of mine broke his suitcase trolley while in Nairobi on a project. He tried everywhere, but couldn’t get it fixed – the standard advice was “Buy a new suitcase”. After two weeks of lugging it around on one wheel, he had become inured to the inconvenience. But the moment he entered the Taj Palace in Delhi, the bellman came up to him and said “Can I get that fixed for you?” This was over 4 years ago, but he still uses that example to highlight the ‘jugaad’ innovation approach in India. I think, though, that the lesson is far deeper – he would not have received the same response at every other hotel.
  2. During my most recent visit, the waiter at breakfast remembered that I had ordered a dosa on the first day and brought it to my table himself the next day. I marveled to myself for a bit about how, among a multitude of guests, he remembered what I wanted. But when I started eating, I realized that he had also remembered what chutney I hadn’t touched the previous time – it was missing from my plate! I was quite spellbound at the detail-orientedness that goes into their customer service (and remember, they don’t have big data algorithms churning at the back!). And this is not necessarily designed to show every customer they care – if I wasn’t similarly detail-oriented, I may not have noticed. This is not lip service customer care – they genuinely want guests to feel comfortable.
  3. From the previous example, you may have guessed I have OCD. But the hotel housekeeping staff didn’t know that. Yet, when I returned to my hotel room after a conference session, I noticed that they had velcro-ed all the stray charging wires I had left hanging from plug-points. A great convenience, but one many guests are liable to not notice. But ones that do are guaranteed to be pleasantly surprised at how customer delight permeates every single interface with the Taj’s staff.
  4. This stellar customer service is not restricted to the hotel’s guests. I had a meeting at a Vivanta once, and I was an hour early. I ordered coffee at the hotel’s restaurant, and was quite a prima donna about it – I asked them to bring it to the lobby (quite a distance away), as there were no free plug points at the restaurant and I wanted to charge my laptop. Not only did they cheerfully comply, they were equally cheerful in saying that it’s on the house when I asked for the cheque an hour later.

A common theme across these examples is the element of surprise. And I think it’s essential. This tiny overlap of excellent customer service and complete unexpectedness is what really creates customer delight.

Another critical element of customer delight is service recovery. Anyone can smile pleasantly at genial and benign customers. But how do you rescue a negative situation – a disgruntled customer, an overturned wine glass, a missing booking, etc. – in a way that transforms the irate customer into a loyal one? Sure, you can create many customer-friendly policies like a free dessert or a large discount to defuse such situations, but to truly delight even the most agitated nay-sayer, you need to go above and beyond. These extreme cases are what distinguish merely excellent customer service companies from ones that delight customers.

And the Taj staff came through in what is perhaps the most extreme case of all – the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, when terrorists laid seige to the Taj Mahal Palace hotel at Gateway of India. Numerous employees, in different parts of the hotel, were instrumental in shepherding the guests to safety – all of them made sure that guests came through unscathed. They were the last men out. And in some cases, they did not get out.

The Taj has thus created a culture – not a mission, not a process – of customer service. And unlike a mission statement “We exist for and because of our customers” that’s only read out sonorously at company meetings, this has trickled down to the lowest level employees across departments – employees are empowered to make customers happy, even if it means extra costs.

This willingness of Taj’s employees to go beyond their remit – in both traditional and extreme situations – is how great customer service stories are made.


I can’t afford to stay at the Taj whenever I travel, but it’s one hotel I look forward to visiting, even if just for a meeting. Do you guys have any other examples of such companies – where you look forward to just interacting with them? Would love to hear about them – do comment below / mail me at gt.jithamithra@gmail.com / tweet at @jithamithra. And yes, do subscribe – I post roughly once a week, on startups, business models, consumer behavior, etc.

PS. I’ve just started a newsletter called The Startup Weekly with Abhishek Agarwal, a close friend, curating the most interesting articles, case studies, etc. for startups that we come across every week. It would be a good addition to your inbox. Sign up here – the second issue goes out this Saturday! And here’s a link to the first issue, in case you need some more convincing!

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