Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 6 October 2016

Don’t believe the stuff about sharing and caring: it’s all done for the good of companies, not consumers

Long life | 6 October 2016
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In olden days, before the internet arrived, shopping was quite simple. You’d go into a shop and buy something, and that was it. If you liked the shop, if it sold things you wanted to buy at a fair price, and if the shopkeeper was efficient and agreeable, you might return. But otherwise you wouldn’t. The shopkeeper might hope for your custom, but there wasn’t much else he could do about it. The customer was not only always right, as tradition dictated, but was also left in peace.

How different things are today. The customer is constantly harassed. Anyone who has ever bought anything on the internet has had his name and his transaction publicised all over cyberspace. He is a sitting duck, ready to be approached for custom by any company in the world. For the rest of his life, and probably for long afterwards, his email inbox will be clogged with sale catalogues.

But even more annoying than straightforward salesmanship is the more oblique approach. There is, for example, Amazon’s claim to know what your tastes are. If you buy a cushion, it will conclude that you are interested in soft furnishings, and send you a list of other things you ‘might like’ such as sofas and armchairs; if you buy a machete, it might decide that murdering people is your hobby and therefore recommend an additional purchase of a gun, a chainsaw, or a noose.

But the most irritating thing of all is the way that companies, having taken your money, demand your feedback. I use a London taxi service that follows up every journey with a text message asking me to rate the driver’s performance. It says this will help it to improve its service to customers, but it feels more like asking me to act as a school sneak and to collude in getting somebody disciplined or fired.

All feedback requests are portrayed as symptoms of love and care for the customer, but really they are just a way of keeping a company’s name in a customer’s mind. It’s a subliminal kind of advertising. People who buy things from Amazon are often asked to describe the ‘experience’. What is there to say on that subject? Unless an item has been bought but not delivered, when a nasty argument may ensue, there is no experience worth describing — just the boredom of filling out a form on the computer screen.

Nevertheless, feedback has become so ubiquitous that even hallowed institutions now demand it. I recently purchased a croquet set from the venerable firm of Jaques of London, founded in 1795, which claims to be ‘the oldest games company and sports manufacturer in the world’. I ordered it on the internet, and it was promptly delivered to my home in Northamptonshire. I am very pleased with my purchase — mallets, balls and hoops all beautifully made and packed into an old-fashioned wooden box.

I enjoyed hitting the balls through the hoops, but my pleasure was spoilt by the arrival of an email message from Jaques headed ‘Your opinion matters to us!’ ‘Dear Alexander,’ it went on. ‘Thanks again for using Jaques London. We would like to remind you that writing a review of your experience will help us to improve our customer satisfaction.’ I can’t imagine how such a review could help Jaques do anything at all; and maybe it wonders as well, for it farms out the feedback branch of its business to another company called Trustpilot.

I looked up Trustpilot on Google and found not only that it was ‘one of the world’s largest online review communities’ but that Jaques of London was just one of 25,000 companies that collect customer reviews through it. This ‘review community’, as Trustpilot likes to call itself, seeks to promote ‘transparency’ in the shopping process and to ‘enable consumers to engage in dialogue with the companies they buy from’. ‘By sharing your experience online, you contribute to creating a better shopping experience for everyone,’ it says. ‘After all, sharing is caring.’

But, of course, there is a less-trumpeted purpose behind this sharing and caring; and this is ‘to build credibility, popularity, and reputation’ of a company and thus its commercial success. For as long as companies believe this, I can see no hope for peace ahead.