Recent Items

Do We Want to Foster Customer Neurosis?

Posted on by

As a resident of New York City, I am acutely aware of the perils of neuroticism. This town is full of it. I am as guilty as anyone, although I try to keep it under wraps. If I wasn’t concerned about looking like a control freak in front of clients and friends, I would grill waiters about how dishes were prepared, and issue specific instructions (not that I expect compliance, but one can always hope), And I’m not the worst offender. I’s not uncommon for hosts to get calls from dinner party guests telling them what foods they won’t eat (and that isn’t due to allergies or religious strictures). Entertaining is always fraught, but now menu planning has become a minefield.

How did all these picky eaters come to be? I doubt they were difficult as children (in my day, that wasn’t well tolerated). Somehow, advertising, diet fads, and fears about food safety have helped create a vigilant cohort of customers. But how great is the net gain? They may feel they are eating healthier; given the lousy state of nutrition science, it’s hard to know for sure. And being that watchful takes some of the fun out of food.

Now consider this new service idea from Springwise, a newsletter that writes breathlessly about “new ideas for entrepreneurial minds”:

Mapping the best and worst seats in hundreds of airplanes, SeatGuru is one of our favourite examples of transparency tyranny—the power of detailed information to help consumers find the best of the best and leave the rest behind. So we were pleased to hear about TripKick, a similar venture that’s tackling another aspect of travel: hotel rooms. While TripAdvisor (which acquired SeatGuru in 2007) gives travellers access to detailed hotel reviews by other travellers, who occasionally include info on which rooms to book, there’s definitely an opportunity in getting specific about individual rooms.

TripKick—”your hotel sidekick”—launched with about 250 hotels in 10 US cities, with more to follow. Coverage of each hotel includes detailed information on which rooms to request: which rooms are oversized (rooms ending in 03 and 04, for example), which have great bathrooms or are quieter than others. TripKick, which spent a year gathering all of this information, also points out which floors are better, and which to avoid. Guests are encouraged to add their own reviews and upload photos of rooms they’ve stayed in.

Is this much information really empowering, or does having such fine grading merely make some people unhappy when they don’t get what their little website says is the best? John Kenneth Galbraith noted that consuming (he really meant shopping) takes effort. This level of shopping is work for perilous little return.

The fallacy of these services is that the difference BETWEEN vendors and classes is much greater than within. A two class plane has worse business class seats than in three class plane, and getting cross country planes that fly international routes too are the best. And even within a grade of service, the vast majority of customers pick a carrier based on some combination of price, schedule, and mileage group preferences. Thus, obsessing about one’s seat beyond a few obvious considerations (avoiding middle seats, not being in the back row) takes care of most problems. The rest can usually be solved by earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.

And that goes double for hotels. The difference between a Ritz and a Raddison is greater than the difference in rooms (within the same room category) in a facility in either chain. The very few times I’ve been unhappy with rooms has been when the problem was endemic to the hotel: chambers as dim as a bar when I needed sufficient light to work (I guess I misunderstood what sort of business customer they were catering to), rooms that were badly in need of refurbishing (unavoidable in Zagreb), or sub par room service. A hotel isn’t home; is it really worth fussing about getting the “best” room on the “best” floor?

Now I’ll admit that there may be value in seeing the photos of typical rooms if, say, you are planing a vacation stay. Then comfort is a greater consideration. But again, the main benefit is making comparisons between hotels or room grades, not within.

Innovation expert Michael Schrage says that most businesses need to fire 15% of their customers. With services like these fostering generally unproductive fussiness, he may have to raise that threshold.

Print Friendly
Twitter0DiggReddit0StumbleUpon0Facebook0LinkedIn0Google+0bufferEmail

19 comments

  1. Peripheral Visionary

    Interesting post. I do use some of the new information services, and while they may foster some neurosis, I think that overall they’ve had a positive impact. In general, they have forced businesses to get serious about the quality of the goods and services they offer, rather than let them get away with selling junk in an attractive package.

    Specific case in point: apartments. Apartment complexes knew fully well that people shopping for apartments would do so primarily on the basis of price point, amenities, and what the lobby looks like. They would therefore offer lots of amenities (of questionable quality) at the market price and keep the lobby in pristine shape–while getting away with lousy apartments, poor maintenance, and absolutely terrible management.

    But apartment review web sites, which I use, have (to borrow a phrase from the troll who posted before me) pulled the curtain back on the apartment industry, to the benefit of people like myself who actually care about the place they live in. Badly-behaved managers have not suffered much–trust me, there are still plenty of them–but it’s been easier to make a connection between well-managed complexes and discriminating (a.k.a. neurotic) residents.

  2. Francois

    “I’s not uncommon for hosts to get calls from dinner party guests telling them what foods they won’t eat (and that isn’t due to allergies or religious strictures). Entertaining is always fraught, but now menu planning has become a minefield.”

    ROFL!

    I can just picture one of these guests having to deal with my Mom.

    This is not neurosis, but total lack of manners. If one is not ready to set aside their comfort zone for ONE meal, then stay home buster!

    What the hell do you expect your host to be? A short order cook?

    Pathetic!

  3. Peripheral Visionary

    I agree with Francois, at least on being a good guest. Picky eaters (I am one, in spades) need to deal with their neuroses rather than expect their hosts to be aware of and make accomodations for their eccentricities. Set aside the pickiness, make an effort to eat some, if not most, of what is put in front of you, and be thankful for it.

    Now, if I’m at a restaurant and paying for my meal, well, that’s a very different story . . .

  4. Martin

    Recommend Schwartz’ Paradox of Choice. Specifically “maximizers” and happiness, or lack thereof. Not that he has any curative remedies over the behavior.

  5. Anonymous

    At this point in the business cycle, businesses don’t need to fire 15% of their customers. 15% of their customers have already left the business. And the businesses are dying…

    So “innovation expert” Michael Schrage might well want to rethink that brilliant advice.

  6. Yves Smith

    The deleted comment was a personal attack, not a discussion of the substance of the post. I welcome people taking issue with my ideas but slurs on the person who gives you a space in which to comment are not permitted. This one fell in the gratuitously ungrateful category, as opposed to the slobbering at the mouth sort.

    FYI, I’m more liberal on this matter than Barry Ritholtz: but think his policy should be viewed as the web standard:

    This may be a free country, but The Big Picture is my personal fiefdom. I rule over all as benevolent dictator/philospher king/utility infielder. Fear my wrath, mortals!

    I will ban anyone whom I choose from posting comments — usually, for a damned good reason, but on rare occasions, for the exact same reason God created the platypus: because I feel like it.

    I encourage a broad range of perspectives, philosophies, sexual orientations. Dissent is good. I want to see a debate of views, a battle in the market place of ideas. (Thomas Jefferson wasn’t so dumb after all). You can post on nearly anything, so long as it is at least tangentially related to the topic at hand.

    On occasion, I will “unpublish” a comment if I feel it is too impolite, harsh, ad hominem, inappropriate, or off-topic. Off-topic posts have been rising, and I have taken to unpublishing them en masse. Publish too many comments on a given post (3 or 4 relevant comments out of 30 are fine, 10 out of 30 is excessive). It takes me ~10 seconds to un-publish 10 comments.

    If you find yourself publishing way too many comments, consider this: This humble blog is my forum for expressing my ideas. Get your own damned blog.

    A few things that will get you permanently banned from commenting at The Big Picture. The fastest way to lose posting privileges is to misrepresent your host’s complex and nuanced views in some inane bumper sticker comment. Those who do this, be advised: I’ve read your prose and considered your thought process: Suffice it to say the literary world will suffer no harm for your deletion (Robert Frost’s legacy is safe).

    Other fast tracks to getting banned:

    - Knowingly posting false or malicious material;
    - multiple postings under different names;
    - generally engaging in troll-like behavior;
    - misquoting your host/overlord;
    - being impolite in the extreme;
    - ad hominem attacks;
    - being an asshole.

    Right now, someone is reading this and saying to themselves “What does he mean, being an asshole?” If you wondered that to yourself, well the odds strongly favor that you yourself have sphincter-like qualities. Thus, you should consider it likely that you will be banned as a rectoid from posting comments sometime in the near future.

    Note that I am gratified by the quality of the comments and (aside from removing the occasional spam) have only very rarely deleted comments (this is only the third non-spam incident in the year and a half this blog has been up).

  7. Yves Smith

    Anon of 1:23 PM,

    Schrage’s argument is that 15% of most businesses’ customers are so demanding and unreasonable as to be unprofitable and otherwise trouble (as in they will complain about you to third parties no matter how hard you try to please them).

    I don’t know about most companies, but it my day job as a management consultant, I have more than occasionally not pursued business opportunities even when I was slack and in theory could use the work because I could tell the prospect had unrealistic expectations. You are not gong to make someone who wants a Tiffany quality product at a Wal-Mart price happy, indeed, you can have trouble collecting on your bills with that type.

    So those who are more rigorous about screening customers might not have that problem.

  8. Peripheral Visionary

    The “15%” comment makes perfect sense. Some customers will cost more than they return in revenues. Banks would be much better off if they had “fired” the worst 15% of borrowers over the last few years.

    The source of the problem is compensation for sales personnel. Sales are (typically) compensated on revenue, rather than profit, so their incentive is to bring as much business in the door as possible without discriminating between clients. For a product with a fixed profit margin, fine, but for everything else that can be a problem. The solution is to put sales into a common profit-sharing category with operations, R&D, and the executive suite so that everyone’s incentives are aligned with the bottom line.

  9. MouseJunior

    The difference between a Ritz and a Raddison is greater than the difference in rooms (within the same room category) in a facility in either chain.

    Only partly true. I’ll get more sleep in a quiet room at the Raddison than a room right across from the elevators and ice machines at the Ritz (yes, I’ve been in that room, which was part of the process of realizing that brands are overrated).

    If this site has got information at that level, it’s worth it.

  10. Yves Smith

    mousejunior,

    Maybe it’s too many years of being a late check-in at hotels and figuring if I had a problem, I couldn’t do much about it (ie, if they are full, they can’t switch you even if you are correct that the room is deficient), so I travel defensively. Ear plugs are dirt cheap and very effective.

  11. Chef's Wife

    New product idea… motels/hotels should simply start providing sleeping chamber charts similar to seating charts provided by air lines. They can indicate which side is the most quiet, which rooms have a view, etc.

    Tip on restaurants: never eat out on Saturday, Valentines Day or Mother’s Day. Saturday because it’s the end of the week, and the food is less fresh. Busy nights because the chef is swamped so your meal won’t get the best attention.

  12. Chef's Wife

    New product idea… motels/hotels should simply start providing sleeping chamber charts similar to seating charts provided by air lines. They can indicate which side is the most quiet, which rooms have a view, etc.

    Tip on restaurants: never eat out on Saturday, Valentines Day or Mother’s Day. Saturday because it’s the end of the week, and the food is less fresh. Busy nights because the chef is swamped so your meal won’t get the best attention.

  13. Chef's Wife

    New product idea… motels/hotels should simply start providing sleeping chamber charts similar to seating charts provided by air lines. They can indicate which side is the most quiet, which rooms have a view, etc.

    Tip on restaurants: never eat out on Saturday, Valentines Day or Mother’s Day. Saturday because it’s the end of the week, and the food is less fresh. Busy nights because the chef is swamped so your meal won’t get the best attention.

  14. Lune

    I think these services can be valuable if they allow you to maximize your purchase without wasting too much time/effort. I agree with you that worrying about whether you’re getting an extra square foot of space in your hotel room is overkill, especially if you have to spend an hour on the web and over the phone making sure that you get the exact room you want.

    But OTOH, if you can do so quickly at the time of booking, then why not? The difference between SeatGuru and jetBlue is instructive. If you use Seat Guru, then after you’ve purchased your ticket on expedia, for example, you have to figure out which airline and which specific plane your flight will be on, then go to seat guru’s site and pick out which seats are the “best”, then go back to expedia and reserve those seats (going back and forth if the “best” seats are already taken and you need to figure out your 2nd and 3rd choices).

    with JetBlue, information about seat pitch and location is already integrated in their booking site, and when you go to pick out your seat, jetBlue’s website itself will tell you exactly how much space each seat has. In that case, it doesn’t cost much extra time / effort to try to reserve the best seat.

    In my mind, using seatguru is needlessly neurotic because as you mention, aside from a few rules of thumb, the marginal difference between one seat and the other on one plane is so minor that the time spent looking such things up on seatguru is not worth any benefit you might gain. Needless to say, I don’t use seatguru even though I’ve know about it for a few years. But jetBlue’s site allows you to optimize that minor gain with very little time cost. So it has some marginal utility. And I do use it when booking flights with them.

    We’ll see if TripKick is able to survive the same cost/benefit analysis.

  15. don

    What is the allure of this new “product?” It is the activity itself.

    Carrying out this activity is done to improve one’s quality of experience. Supposedly. But this is really beside the point. The real enjoyment is found in the activity itself, as a recreational pursuit for which one feels good about themselves.

    Same with shopping in general. The aim is not so much to walk away with a product, but to have purchased an experience . . . from which one derives enjoyment.

    Cultural capitalism at its finest!

    See Jeremy Rifkin’s ‘The Age of Access’.

  16. don

    Assuming that the economy continues to deteriorate with a significant decline in consumption, then imagine also the psychic adjustment required of those who have grown used to the pursuit of life-experience by way of shopping.

    For many, it will feel as if one’s enjoyment of the shopping experience has been stolen . . . by a culprit for whom one will have a hard time identifying.

    But perhaps many will find that there is a solution. I suspect many will discover that they can still enjoy the shopping experience, but they’ll have to do so without actually buying anything . . . or at least not much.

    Perhaps, over time, many will find that shopping without buying becomes even more enjoyable than buying while shopping. Maybe they’ll feel like they really come out on top, not only keeping the enjoyment of the experience intact, but doing so while also saving money.

    Out of this one might then find added enjoyment, knowing that salvaging the shopping experience without buying, one experiences pleasure in getting back at some diffuse target who, albeit failed, attempted to steal one’s shopping experience.

  17. Anonymous

    Sy Krass said…

    Yves,

    This is the second time today I’ve read that New Yorkers are neurotic. I didn’t know this was the prevailing perception. I work in psychology in Chicago. It is well known neuroticism is another way of expresing a low grade depression. Not clinically, but in an everyday blah kind of depression. If I were counseling you I would ask you “what are you really trying to tell me? What is it that you’re missing from your life?’ Perhaps this is the state of modern man…

  18. Yves Smith

    Sy Krass,

    New Yorkers are neurotic. Woody Allen has long been our patron saint.

    I would bet SSRI prescriptions per capita here are the highest in the nation, in part because the doctors hand them out like candy.

    What is missing? People here are very stressed (and that’s not projection, that’s what people who feel able to let their hair down talk about for the most part). Most people either work like a dog and are affluent but time starved, or have time but are under financial pressure. I have trouble thinking of people who aren’t in one or the other camp (and some are in both).

    Compound that with status anxiety (reinforced actively; amazing sensitivity to subtle differences in standing here), unstable relationships, and lack of a sense of community. Plus crowding, which is known to promote aggression.

Comments are closed.