Why do we travel? 4

This may be the last in the series as our trip is coming to an end and my interest in blogging about it may be as well, I fear.

Today we got a late start. We work up around 7 but didn’t really get our act together and find food until around 830. We ended up picking up some bagel sandwiches and cappucinos (called a white here, as opposed to a black or straight coffee) from Two Men Bagel House. The bagels were outstanding, crispy on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside as promised in the reviews and the sandwiches themselves were creative and filling. Our quality coffee escapades continued, I found my cappucino extremely satisfying as did the Wolf.

We ended up watching the rest of “Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark” on Netflix with breakfast and by the time we finished it was almost 1030. The day was fast getting away from us and we hadn’t decided what to do yet and were seriously considering just staying back and relaxing. But somehow this felt like a copout. We came all this way and we still knew so little about the city. The Gardens by the Bay and Cloud Forest seemed interesting but we just didn’t feel much excitement about potential sun and heat exposure… It’s really, really warm here.

We were working on narrowing down a short list of air conditioned history and art museums when my friend from LA started texting me. It led to an interesting exchange which I thought I’d partially relay here as its relevant to the subject of why we travel.

The first thing he asked is if I think this is Asia’s century. I’m borrowing some logic from a book I read on the way over, “[amazon text=Asian Godfathers&asin=0802143911]” by Joe Studwell, but my answer is not really. Taipei is an industrious, commercial environment but I didn’t see much in the way of economic trends noticeable back home and I didn’t see any brands or businesses I could imagine dominating the US or Europe. It seems their role in the value chain is to add manufacturing technology exports to branded finished products and serve their domestic markets with largely unconsolidated product and service businesses, at least for now.

When it comes to Western brands in HK and Singapore, financial services dominate but there are also some inroads being made most conspicuously by McDonald’s, Starbucks and purveyors such as Marks and Spencer. Global fashion brands have done an outstanding job of penetrating all of these markets. There is a 3story Apple store in HK in the IFC Mall but I don’t know where one is in Singapore or Taipei, probably somewhere though as I saw authorized resellers.

Again in HK and Singapore, I don’t see anything that looks like it could become an emergent global brand. So this is Studwell’s point– these economies are dominated by raw materials monopolies granted to local cronies and their near captive financial institutions, and none of these businesses face competition from global firms which also means the local entrepreneurs aren’t being challenged to produce brands that are exportable.

No exportable brands mean no “Asian century”. The demographics may be on their side but the political systems are trapped in the mercantilist past. That’s weird to say as a person who is skeptical of the idea that the West in general and the US in particular have not seen their power and prestige eclipsed.

But for now I’ll say, based off the limited experiences of this trip the Asian century is not upon us. But I don’t know what is. It also doesn’t mean I’m calling for stagnation or economic collapse in this part of the world (China the possible exception, that place is weird.)

I also was raving about some of the food we had had so far, here and the previous locales and my friend asked if I’d consider it best in the world or how I’d rank it. I think that question kind of misses the point. We decided to skip an opportunity to eat at one of the “Top 50” restaurants in the world here in Singapore despite securing a reservation months before our trip. That kind of restaurant caters to food innovation and the experience of dining. I’ve been to places like that– they’re amazing, you often feel entranced and delightfully confused about how food can be what it is on your plate or in your bowl or what have you. But that isn’t about eating so much as it is about imagining, in my mind. There’s a time and a place for it but I wouldn’t judge a place and its food culture by trying to rank it against experiences like that.

What I am after in eating is intensity of flavors and simple food made from timeless, cultural recipes that speaks to the incrementally developed genius of a people and their place and how they turn their culture into what they eat. I’m talking about the stuff people eat day in, day out, that I’d be happy eating with similar frequency. Some people call this “local”, whatever you call it, it’s not cuisine and it can’t be ranked.

Some of the meals we’ve had in this sense have been superb. The purveyors aren’t trying to impress or win accolades. But they sometimes do both in the course of making their traditional dishes.

Another thing we discussed was the purposelessness of this trip. We didn’t come for work. We didn’t come to see friends or family. We really don’t know much about the history or culture of these places. It is a bit of an existential crisis initially to arrive somewhere without anything to accomplish besides “seeing” it, and then, not knowing much about what you’re seeing or what you might keep an eye out for.

Having visited these three cities now and noticed their similarities and differences, both compared to one another and to places and ways of life back home, I feel confident in saying we could live here if we wanted to and we’d be quite comfortable. I’m sure of that. But at this point I’m still not certain why we’d want to move.

There are some things that are far ahead of where were from that are wonderful– the cleanliness and efficiency of mass transit, the cheapness and ubiquity of mobile communications technology, the attitude of cooperation and community. And there are some things that are unique, like some of the food spots that it will just be hard to find something of similar quality back home even in a diverse place.

But other than that, I haven’t seen anything that really appeals to me in some deep way, that I can’t get where I come from. These places aren’t freer. It isn’t any easier to start a business. Or even to grow wealthy– no El Dorado here, as far as I could see. Why pack up and go across the globe for what would essentially be an economic and financial reset?

P and I have remarked several times how fun it would be to raise children in a foreign place and let them learn new cultures and languages from their friends. But it would also be great to raise them in a uniform culture were familiar with, hopefully amongst a community of like-minded progressive parents like us (not big P progressive, mind you!!) Those are tradeoffs to pick one over the other and I’m not sure why we’d come all this way for that particular trade-off.

Living and working in Hong Kong and Singapore in particular seem like a young man’s game. If we turned back he clock ten or fifteen years and I was just about to make a go of it, and I knew of these places, I’d probably head this way and try to make my fortunes on my own, especially if there was greater opportunity for a Westerner looking to take that risk. Without a spouse, without family obligations and without a routine and a financial basis for myself back home I’d quickly set out for a place like this and see if I could try. The only reason I didn’t when that was the case was that these places simply weren’t on my radar.

But now, it makes less sense. Without some compelling economic reason, why come here versus continue on roughly where we are? That choice seems rather arbitrary.

One of the reasons we travel, and here in particular, is to see if we feel like we could make a go of it some place else. And I guess I’m a little disappointed to realize these last few times that we could, that we’d be happy, but I can’t find a compelling reason to jump.

Revealing Information From Customer Surveys

I currently manage a retail enterprise whose customers receive surveys from our product manufacturer in addition to the surveys we solicit from our customers for our own business management purposes. These surveys offer a revealing look into the mind and motivations of both our manufacturer partners and our customers.

First, our manufacturer. Our business is roughly divided into two key operating areas– sales, and service. The sales survey sent by the manufacturer has 6 numerical question categories, most of which are broken down into alphabetical sub-questions. In total the manufacturer is actually soliciting input from a sales customer on 23 (!) different questions, most of which are rated on a 1-10 scale while some are a binary “Yes/No”. The customer is of course invited to provide color commentary on these questions as they like, as well as on the survey overall. Similarly, the service survey has 8 numerical question categories but these are subdivided alphabetically so that the end result is 25 separate questions with 1-10 or “Yes/No” ratings.

The survey questions range across topics such as the timeliness and convenience of the business’s service, the friendliness and knowledgeability of staff, the subjective perception of the value given or fairness of charges, the perceived honesty of the process and people involved, etc., as well as the overall level of satisfaction and the willingness to recommend to others. Using a specific weighting formula (where some questions actually receive 0% weight, considered ancillary in nature, and others receive a relatively heavy weighting), the manufacturer arrives at a composite score on a 100 point scale (accurate within 1 decimal place) of the business’s overall “Customer Experience” index score. The bottom 2% of survey scores are thrown out at the end of each month and then the manufacturer provides bonus funds to the business if the composite score is above an arbitrary hurdle.

The national average for all related businesses in terms of both sales and service is ended up at four tenths of one percent above the hurdle for the year ended December 31st, 2015, and the hurdle is being moved up this year to one tenth of one percent above that!

The first interesting thing about all of this that I would note is the concept of false precision. The multiplicity of dimensions against which the business can be rated and the fractionality of the composite scoring system suggest an extremely precise, professionally-calculated measuring tool which itself suggests a customer experience that is almost scientifically specific in nature which, at end we would hope, reflects a consumer demographic that is nuanced, discerning and tasteful in character.

All three of these things are false. The measuring tool’s complexity is its own undoing in that customers rarely seem to understand what they’re rating or why (more on that below) and the surveys are sent out to the fraction of total customers who provide an e-mail at time of purchase, of which a still-smaller fraction actually bother to respond to the survey. Instead of measuring incremental behavior per thousand, for example, which might accurately capture meaningful changes in trend, the tool is instead measuring “fractions of a person’s experience” per tens in a given month in a given business… significantly meaningless specificity. The customer experience process is not as specific as the survey would suggest, many of the items being surveyed are accidents of history and essentially not controllable by the business without undue capital investment to change them. And finally, most of the customers are crude rubes who leave the business either gushing about how great it was, or pounding their keyboards in rage behind a Yelp review page trying to convince everyone that the business should be burnt to the ground and its employees mutilated on the public square in retribution for some minor slight or hiccup. There isn’t a middle ground and as far as the manufacturer’s scoring criteria is concerned, the middle ground isn’t valuable real estate anyway. As you will learn in a moment, there are entire categories of customers who don’t know or don’t care about many of the sub-questions on the survey which means the tool captures little more than their ignorance or angst.

The surveying system, both its conceptualization, construction and monetary reward system, betray a highly bureaucratic mind completely detached from both business reality and customer capability. The bureaucratic mind sees the world as a series of levers to be pulled, with no easy answers, simple solutions or “good enough” approaches. The bureaucratic mind seeks to measure everything, regardless of how valuable it is. The bureaucratic mind ignores the variability in quality and capability of human response (the customer) and tries to slice and dice a bunch of statistical averages rather than being merely curious about something resolute like “Were you completely satisfied? Why or why not?”

The fact that the survey system is tied to a monetary reward means there is a strong incentive for the business to find ways to game the system (coach customers — even if “illegal” — and input fake emails or remove them entirely when a bad survey is likely), especially as the manufacturer moves the hurdle ever closer to 100. The bar being set as high as it is (95) betrays both a kind of cluelessness concerning how simple it is for slight mishaps in the customer experience to bomb the score below that and an undue sense of ambition that a “truly great brand” would have nothing less than perfect scores. “If we just keep moving our standards up, our customers are bound to think more of us!” Meanwhile, setting a monetary reward above a hurdle turns the survey system into the equivalent of a binary “Were you/weren’t you satisfied overall?” despite the 20+ questions because anything less than the hurdle is essentially a penalty. And without a statistically significant sample size the manufacturer’s agents have no real place in advising the business’s management team about responses to perceived trends in the data.

So, what about the customers?

There is great confusion on the part of the customer about who he is responding to and what the consequence of his response will be. Many customers can’t differentiate in their mind between the manufacturer’s brand and the business’s brand, and a common lament when the latter of a pair of surveys sent from the couple is received is “I already filled out your survey!” Few customers who had a positive experience understand how important it is (for the economics of the business) that they register their complete satisfaction by completing the survey. And fewer still who had a negative experience understand that by completely bombing the survey they’re increasing the likelihood that their survey gets thrown out and therefore has no impact to the business whatsoever. These disgruntled customers also don’t understand that their individual complaints are read not by the manufacturer, who is only concerned with the statistical averages, but by the business they dealt with, as they are often filled with specific pleas to right some wrong or to put the business out of commission.

The way customers respond to the survey questions is also revealing.

Some customers reveal what angry, destructively vengeful people they are. They will rate the entire experience poorly (for example, rating a 0 for honesty of personnel) because one aspect of it wasn’t to their satisfaction (for example, the product wasn’t received in the condition expected, or they paid more than they would’ve liked, etc.) Or they will rate negatively and cite as their reason a small slight or problem they could’ve easily brought to the attention of the business and had resolved with little cost or inconvenience. This suggests a personality obsessed with power and control that is easily touched off and uses the “tattle” opportunity as a kind of political leverage to punish the perceived wrong-doer.

Other customers will rate the experience a 7 or 8 with comments about never rating 9 or 10 because “nobody is perfect.” These customers seek to use the survey to make grandiloquent philosophical statements about the state of metaphysical reality and can think of no better place to register their beliefs than on a business survey. Their comments are edifying, perhaps, but again completely useless from the point of view of the manufacturer and the business being held financially hostage.

Some customers are incompetent. They will rate the questions all 10s and then rate the final “overall satisfaction” question a 5. When contacted, they’ll express surprise or confusion and say that they “gave you a great survey”, not realizing that final 5 drops the overall score down to a 90% and thus a failing grade, if they can even explain why their “overall” score was inconsistent with the rest of the data they relayed about the specific parts of their experience (they usually can’t). Others will put negative color commentary and express unresolved problems but rate the sections of the survey highly. Others will write very positive comments, including a willingness to recommend to others, but then provide mediocre scores, especially on the willingness to recommend question.

Then you have the “deep thinkers.” They will get extremely granular on every question, providing a specific rationalization for each score given. Sometimes, when questions ask for similar information about a part of the experience, they will take the time to repeat themselves at length but using slightly different words. One gets the impression of a person who takes themselves and everything they do much, much too seriously. Undoubtedly hemming, hawwing and head-scratching were the prelude to the pages-long survey submission.

Everybody shows a bit of themselves and their values with a survey, both the survey maker and the survey taker. The particular survey world I inhabit leaves a lot to be desired in terms of making the survey a useful, honest tool for managing my business. At the very least, however, it provides a good chuckle now and then in reading an inane response or contemplating the unknowable mysteries of the workings of the manufacturer agent’s mind that thought a 20-some item questionnaire would provide invaluable insight into the customer experience. Ignoring the signal that profitability sends in a competitive market, I guess it’s still better than some I’ve heard about wherein the manufacturer’s scoring system revolves around customer responses to the prompt, “Can you imagine a world without [the manufacturer’s product]?”

That’s a real epistemological misfire right there!