This boomer gives ratings systems zero stars

One thing we baby boomers have learned to contend with: the endless stream of internet-based vendors, trying to get our approval. Everybody’s approval. But Howard Tullman, who knows a thing or two about business as executive director of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship and as author of a weekly series called The Perspiration Principles at Inc. Magazine, has had enough. Focusing on the ride-sharing company Lyft but writing really about a lot of them, he says they want you to rate your experience… as long as you have something nice to say.

As if Lyft didn’t have enough grief these days with all the talk about the shabby treatment of its drivers, I had another interesting ride experience that raised a couple of additional red flags.

The whole new “trust” economy— where we invite strangers into our homes, do business with sellers we’ll never see, and put ourselves and our kids into cars with drivers we hope aren’t dangerous or deadbeats— depends almost entirely on our belief in the aggregated and unbiased wisdom of the crowd.

Some of that wisdom takes the form of ratings systems regarding products, services, and people, designed to reassure us about the folks we’re dealing with. This is especially critical with ride-sharing because we know the two main players do next to nothing to satisfy us about the quality and capabilities of their drivers. But, even worse, what if the ratings we rely on are being gamed to the point of uselessness because they’re constructed to make everyone smell like a rose? Just asking.

In any event, I had a bumpy but decent Lyft ride recently and, as I left the cab, I got a message from Lyft reminding me to tip and rate the driver. I selected the tip and then clicked on a 4-star rating (out of 5) because there were a few hair-raising turns, some startling swerves, and a couple of abrupt stops in my short journey, which I thought didn’t make for a 5-star trip.

Still, I wasn’t really trying to knock the driver. Because I believe that drivers who work 14 hours a day to earn next to nothing for all their “gigging” don’t need any crappy comments from me. But I thought I was being asked for my opinion and that the rating was appropriate to briefly reflect my own experience. And, by the way, then I wanted to quickly get on with my life.

So, imagine my surprise when my 4-star rating spawned a multi-headed survey about what was wrong with my trip. All kinds of questions that I had no real interest in dealing with. Was the driver this or that? Were there other issues? Did I need help?

Frankly, I was simply trying to leave a tip, not deliver a treatise on customer service. And here’s where things got a little tricky. I couldn’t seem to simply leave the tip and close out the inquiry without responding to the survey. It was a little bit like trying to rate a book on your Kindle without leaving an accompanying comment. Of course, if I changed the rating to a 5-star, I was free to go. But anything less than ideal was an invitation to write an essay rather than making a quick exit.

I had the feeling, knowing human nature and how we’re all in a hurry these days, that whoever at Lyft designed this “user experience” would be perfectly happy to “train” us to just “go for the gold” (click the 5-star rating) so we could quickly escape. Makes for nice ratings results and great bragging rights— although it doesn’t really tell you anything of value about what’s really going on. This is a lot like websites that continue to rely on clickbait and other cheap tricks to drive meaningless traffic.

The Lyft ratings system is playing off the exact same hurry-up mindset and ingrained behaviors that have quickly taught us to accept and acknowledge the consents and boilerplate Ts & Cs (terms and conditions) that we quickly click on at a million different sites, knowing full well that we haven’t read or even taken away the slightest idea of what we just automatically and thoughtlessly agreed to. We do the same mindless and robotic actions when we like and share social media stuff that we absolutely haven’t read but are so happy to pass on to our own universe of friends as an invitation to waste more of their time. But I digress.

Howard Tullman

Honestly, in the moment, I could have lived with a quick-click response, but I wasn’t interested in a quiz. And, of course, if I was really in a hurry, I could have simply bagged the whole thing and not left a tip, which only ends up screwing the driver. Anyone who has ever abandoned an online shopping cart knows the feeling and the frustration. Ask too much of me, take too long, and I will happily take a hike.

So, in addition to encouraging essentially irrelevant but overwhelmingly affirmative feedback, a poorly designed survey system (which won’t let you opt out) would likely end up costing the drivers money. And it wouldn’t do anything material to weed out the drivers who actually needed to be doing something else. Maybe this was just an instance of sloppy design rather than something more malicious. But it sucked, in any case.

And this whole situation reminded me of the many years I spent with car dealers who tried all kinds of incentives (free car washes, giveaways, special events, etc.) to encourage recent customers to return the dealer satisfaction surveys they would be receiving directly from the manufacturers so the dealers could “help” correctly complete them. You can just imagine how favorably the surveys turned out for the dealers who were answering the questions about their sales and service themselves.

Of course, this made the results suspect, but I think the message that the customers got from the whole manipulative process was far more damaging. If the dealers’ actions were basically saying that no one really cared about the customers’ honest opinions and evaluations and that the paperwork was just a game they had to play to placate the manufacturers, then why would the customers conclude anything but that the dealers were probably just as happy to try to put something over on them as well.

There’s an old adage that still rings so true: people who will lie for you will eventually lie to you. These aren’t people worth doing business with under any circumstances. Entrepreneurs often find themselves walking the thin line between the hard truth and the little white lies. But for the people who want to go the distance, the choices are always quite clear because everything you do and all the choices you make are important part of your company’s culture.

If you tell the truth, you move ahead, and it becomes part of your past. If you lie, you live with it every day, and it becomes part of your future.

Howard is author and co-author of several books, including his newest, “You Can’t Win a Race With Your Mouth: And 299 Other Expert Tips from a Lifelong Entrepreneur.”

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