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Online feedback frenzy is killing the art of complaint

It used to be fun telling companies what you thought of them before they insisted on it all the time

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

I used to enjoy ‘giving feedback’ in the glory years when nobody wanted it. Now, upon completing a routine transaction, the customer is bombarded with breathless demands for response. The neurotic corporate catchphrase is ‘How was it for you?’

The world is now in feedback frenzy. Companies endlessly prod us for our views so they can brandish positive statistics at each other — or sack somebody. A new app, called Impraise, even invites workers to evaluate their own colleagues anonymously. You could spend your whole day just rating every interaction as something between poor and excellent. From Uber drivers to call-centre workers, everybody’s chasing a tick of recorded acclaim.

I miss the old days, when good service was considered normal and feedback was known as complaining. The British often did it apologetically and the habitual complainer was a target for literary sport. The young Joe Orton, from his cramped Islington bedsit, invented a middle-aged character called Edna Wel-thorpe (Mrs), whose reproving letters were deliciously pointless: ‘I shan’t try any more of your pie fillings until the fruit content is considerably higher. My stomach really turned at what I saw when I opened the tin.’

The master of the form, however, was the late William Donaldson — writer, impresario, crack-cocaine user and erstwhile pimp, whose satirical alter ego was the robustly right-wing ‘wet fish salesman’ Henry Root. In the late 1970s, Root dispatched muscular letters of complaint to everyone from Esther Rantzen to Lord Grade. He had a genius for the multilayered insult (‘I want to talk to the organ-grinder, not the monkey’) and often included a pound note with the letter to create an uneasy sense of obligation in the recipient.


Written complaint once carried greater moral weight because the mechanics of production were so laborious. You had to pen a letter, find an envelope, pay for a stamp and remember to post it. But letters were also less damaging to companies. They could be filed away privately, in a cupboard or a bin.

The internet changed all that: it opened the floodgates of public complaint at the touch of a ‘send’ button. Companies fight back by pestering us for feedback. The second I complete a humdrum purchase online, I face some pop-up questionnaire. Respond at your peril. The questions drag on for ever. I started one which asked if I was male, female, or ‘prefer not to say’. Mucking about, I began clicking ‘prefer not to say’ to everything and I realised that in future I really would prefer not to say — anything at all.

It wasn’t always thus. In the days when email first became commonplace I was working in a newspaper office in Canary Wharf, where I found myself locked in a love-hate relationship with the branch of Pret downstairs. I was greedily obsessed with their sandwiches but driven crazy by their marketing.

I was particularly annoyed to find that Pret’s Christmas paper bag featured the three wise men from the nativity story slavishly following a star in the form of the Pret logo. What a disgrace and a disappointment it was, I wrote, to see the spiritual message of Christmas hijacked for commercial purposes. And I really did bridle at that bag, just as I bet that pie filling peeved Orton. There’s a tiny bit of Edna in all of us, screaming to be let out.

Well, the internet did let Edna out, and then some. It gave us TripAdvisor, which I enjoy in the same way as the diaries of Samuel Pepys or Alan Bennett: for the fine detailing of courtesies given or withheld, the delicate analysis of small failures. Once, when our children were very small, we stayed at an eccentric English guesthouse, which was clearly beloved by its regulars. The host, a memorable personality who played the Dam Busters music at dinner to his captive guests, was convivial in his cups and tetchy in the morning: one scroll through the write-ups and it all comes flooding back.

TripAdvisor is funny, human and uncontrollable, and hoteliers have the right of reply. Yet imagine if I ran my life according to the yawning template of the corporate feedback surveys, pestering my husband: ‘What did you think about that cup of tea? Could you rate its milkiness according to your preference? How readily, on a scale of one to five, would you recommend me to other people who might ask for hot beverages?’

The incessant demand for feedback is annihilating the ancient art of complaint, the spontaneity of true praise and even the joy of hoax letters. Edna Welthorpe’s tired now, you see: the zing’s gone out of the game.


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