The Trouble with Surveys

I sat in the customers’ lounge, which was basically the salesroom floor of the dealership, for the second of the past three weekends. There was a noise on the right side of the car my oldest daughter has been driving that I was eager to get fixed before it turned from annoyance to a bigger repair job.

Two weeks ago I had sat at the same table, early on a Saturday morning, well before the sales agents took over the place with brinksmanship and feigned friendliness toward prospective car buyers. At the end of that session, the front stabilizer bar had been replaced and the troubling noise had abated, or so I thought.

After paying the bill, I was told the car was just exiting the car wash and they would bring it right away. Fifteen, then twenty minutes passed. I grew impatient and walked outside. I found my car, parked in the middle of the dealer lot, boxed in by a row of cleaned vehicles, emanating from the wash. I had to ask an attendant if they could move the other cars so I could leave. Another ten minutes and I was on my way, a bit annoyed, but at least the car was fixed.

On the drive home, with the initial creaking before repair now gone, I began to detect a thumping noise during deceleration, a noise that was, in all likelihood, masked previously. Having spent several hours of my weekend at the dealer, I decided I would finish the drive home and return in the future if the noise continued.

I received a voicemail during the week seeking my feedback from my time spent in the service shop. I didn’t return the call. I received an email from the dealer encouraging me to trade in the vehicle for a new model, extending me the “good car maintenance owner” discount. I relegated the email to the trash bin. Shortly after, a second email arrived, containing a link to fill out a survey for the customer service department. I hit delete.

The following weekend I had other plans, so the thumping noise had to wait. It was the weekend next that I rose early and repeated the drive to the dealer, suspecting the thumping, which had consistently continued, was likely a bad front strut. I arrived twenty minutes ahead of my scheduled appointment, explained I was recently in and that the previous repair had not fully fixed the issue. I handed the keys to the attendant and went inside to “my” table.

After some time for diagnosis, my suspicions were confirmed: bad strut, right front. The repair would take an hour. I sat and watched the car salesmen and the silly go-between dance they did with the showroom floor manager (cordoned off in the corner of the building), with the finance “guy” (holed up in a windowless office in the back), and, of course, the customer (who I couldn’t help labeling “the mark”).

This was good people watching real estate. There was the Minnesota Vikings fan, his outfit completed with a sparkling purple Vikings jacket. The sales agent boasted about various Vikings players, all while landing the sale of a shiny new 2018 model. The dialog might have been sincere, yet I remained skeptical, it would be fairly unusual to find two passionate Vikings fans in Northern Virginia, typically Redskins territory.

Another husband and wife brought with them their Newfoundland puppy. Here the word puppy might give you the wrong impression, this was already a large dog. They were needing a bigger back seat and wanted to test drive with Spot, would that be ok? It was, and they bought the car.

Image38101-765x510So maybe you can forgive me for allowing the hour for the strut repair to stretch into an hour and a half. Since there was no sign of my car, I went to talk with the service attendant. I accepted the apologies for the delay and was assured it was just coming out of the car wash (Uh Oh!). As I paid the bill the attendant said,

“You’ll be getting contacted about the service you’ve received today. Was there anything which would cause you not to rate your entire experience a 5 (scale 1-5)?”

“I know how it works, thanks,” was my completely non-committal response.

Clearly not satisfied, he added a bit more aggressiveness to his plea. “Can I count on you to give me all 5 ratings?” He looked directly at me.

“I’ll be happy to fill out your survey,” I fibbed, staring straight back.

Here’s the thing: this mechanism of customer surveys is all wrong. The incentives, and likely heavy training, all fuel this guy to plead with me to select only 5s on the survey. He likely gets some bonus for high ratings, or worse, loses some pay if the ratings aren’t high enough.

As for me, the process made me lie. I’m not going to be happy to fill out the survey. I was starting to feel manipulated and I lied to get out of the situation. In fact, I was frustrated: with the repair that took longer than anticipated and the lack of communication from the service department. I was spending another Saturday morning at the dealership, and my source of entertainment was watching car salesmen haggle. At the moment, I wanted to rate the whole thing 1 star.

The car dealer and the car manufacturer don’t receive true customer satisfaction ratings from this process. They don’t get the feedback and the process doesn’t improve. And somewhere a manager is tallying survey results and making compensation or employment decisions with poor quality data.

I received the expected phone call a day later and there were emails asking me to complete the customer survey last week. I declined and instead wrote this. I will happily give you my feedback when you engage with me and those you want feedback from in an open and honest way. Let’s no longer boil our interactions down to a single number where the answer must be 5.

My lack of completing the survey hasn’t jeopardized my “good car maintenance owner” status, the latest email is still extending me the offer to trade in my car for a new model. I hope Spot is riding comfortably in his new back seat, I’m keeping the one I have and deleting this email too.

Postscript (09/18/2019):

Received an email from Audi today with a survey …
this was the last question asked.



Solve for Gender Pay, Solve for Sexual Harassment

Recently I was talking with a friend of mine about misogyny, sexual harassment, and the #TimesUp movement. She, like I, believes that most HR departments aren’t working to protect the employee, but rather setup to reduce the liability of the company. For example, having an employee sign a non-disclosure agreement stemming from a sexual harassment instance, effectively buries the problem, protecting the company. We also agree that women and minorities remain far underrepresented in many areas, and since it strikes close to home, we both acknowledge this is certainly true in the tech industry. She, like I, feel that the solutions to these problems lie in an inclusive dialog that includes all genders. We also acknowledge that we are both in a positions to positively influence things in our respective companies.

It is nearly every day that we see another resignation from a powerful male figure who is finally held culpable to his actions, behaviors, and attitudes. While it is wonderful to see a focused discussion to improve the climate in business for women, and to see real action being taken against those that continue to marginalize and prey, there is much yet to be done.

One place where my friend and I have differed is whether or not the structure and oversight of a public company actually prevents or greatly diminishes the occurrences of sexual harassment. We debated if we would we see public company executives held to account for their poor conduct? One argument to be made is that public companies have large staffs and extensive policies to advise CEOs, to help steer and direct the appropriate behavior. They also have boards of directors who have a vested interest in preventing the toxic culture that marginalizes any category of employee.  Finally, there is an obligation to a company’s shareholders. Sexual harassment and disempowering groups of employees decreases shareholder value, and that, at least, is something we know the market reacts to.

And yet … we see many legal cases of gender and racial discrimination, along with sexual harassment, that these checks and balances should be addressing. It took me only a few seconds to find current discrimination cases pending against a substantial number of public companies. True, not all of these cases contain acquisitions against the top executives, yet it is evidence that the current public company system isn’t working.

My theory is this: sexual harassment and unlawful and morally wrong treatment of women stems from an entitlement culture. Sheelah Kolhutkar (@sheelahk) says this far more eloquent than I in her excellent article The Disrupters [The New Yorker, Nov 20, 2017], “It’s the imbalance of pay and power that puts men in a position to harass, that gives them unchecked control over the economic lives of women and, as a result, influence over their physical lives. These subtler forms of discrimination, familiar to almost any woman who has held a job, can in fact be especially insidious, since they are easier for companies, and even victims, to dismiss.”

If public companies had the proper checks and balances to prevent sexual harassment, then why do so few disclose the readily available data on gender pay?

I believe the answer is because the data supports my argument about the imbalance of power. The lack of transparency, like the strategic use of the NDA, supports a culture of entitlement by burying the truth that the data is likely to expose.

If you haven’t solved for equal pay, then you haven’t solved for sexual harassment.


If you agree there is merit to this theory, than what can be done? Below I suggest mechanisms that I believe will positively improve a company’s culture and help to reduce the opportunities and incidences of harassment:

  1. Assume discrimination is happening. Reports should be considered true. Build an HR protocol that supports the reporter.
  2. Publish the salary information by gender and race for each role.
  3. Publish the number of reports of misconduct (those of merit & those found to be unmerited), break this down by gender – what does the trend show?
  4. If you terminate an employee for harassment, publicly disclose this, do not hide behind NDAs that bury the behavior.
  5. Publish the attrition rates by gender and race by department.
  6. Require the Board of Directors to be accountable by reviewing this data and signing-off on the programs for reporting and prevention.

Companies who address gender pay and create a truly inclusive culture are not just morally right, they will also have a competitive advantage by harnessing the best and brightest minds of all people while creating a culture of trust.

Finding Raymond Carver In All Of Us

I’ve just completed the 43rd book I’ve read this year. It was a small collection of Raymond Carver short stories. I have only recently been introduced to Carver. It occurred while reading Jay Rubin’s excellent book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, part biography, part analysis of Murakami’s writing. As many of you may know, I’m a huge Murakami fan. Unfortunately, I’ve run out of English translations to read, so I have been working through the catalog of influencers he has referenced and the large number of books that he translated to Japanese throughout his career.

Carver’s work shines a spotlight on the banal life of everyman, exploring relationships, boring jobs, and ultimately the restlessness that lives in all of us. Alcohol cost him his first marriage and contributed to his shortened life, many of his characters struggle with alcoholism too, and rocky relationships. The writing is raw, often unfinished, with hanging threads unresolved by a story’s end. And his writing is powerful, even in its sparseness.


In Why Don’t You Dance, Carver tells a story of a yard sale. The entire contents of a home have been placed in the front lawn, arranged as they were in the house: bed with his and her night stands, the buffed aluminum kitchen set, a big console tv on a coffee table, a potted fern. A young couple eventually stops, tries out the bed, listens to records, and shares a drink with, we presume, the male homeowner. They dance, all three of them, and the couple purchases several items on the cheap, no haggling.

Is this a moving sale? Is it a scorned husband taking revenge on his now divorced wife? Has this man simply gone off the deep-end? We don’t know. Carver weaves this spell in a paltry seven pages, and it is memorable and mysterious.

In another story, The Calm, the protagonist describes his trip to the barber where several other patrons sit waiting for their haircuts. One man begins to tell a story of a hunting trip. He and his son shoot at a deer, the man wounding the deer, the son emptying his gun in a wild, excited volley, missing. The deers runs off. The man becomes irate and cuffs his son, giving him a concussion, while his son recovers, the sun begins to set and they fail to go find the deer. Another patron takes offense that the first didn’t bother to track the deer, leaving it to the coyotes to find. An argument ensues, all the patrons leave in a huff.  Mundane, and yet these are the types of stories we all carry with us, that surround the people we interact with everyday. It is the connected tissue we use to build relationships. A story we can relate to, one we envision telling others, even as it happens to us.

I gathered with a group of friends yesterday, some former co-workers. Past the initial greetings and “How are you”s, the dialog took on the familiar, comfortable tone of people sharing their stories: One had recently installed a wood pellet stove to heat his basement, two updated us on the gigs they have been playing with their band, another is starting a new job on Monday, one has put his house up for sale and moving to Colorado.

It’s these moments that have a currency. There is value in telling and in listening. If we remind ourselves to be aware, the bonds we seek can be strengthened and while we learn more about our friends, we are learning more about ourselves too.


If you are interested in exploring Raymond Carver’s writings, a good place to start is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

My Method for Reading The New Yorker

I read the New Yorker, the print version. Here is my method.

To begin, I study the cover. The iconic art work of the The New Yorker has a historic past.

The cover is a snapshot, and a window, of our current times. I like to parse out the symbolic messages, I’ll go back to this image a few times while reading an issue, often finding a missed detail that an article inside the issue may highlight.

Opening the magazine I will skip to the Night Life section. I love learning and listening to new music, I read every short review in Rock & Pop and create a Spotify playlist from any artist that piques my interests, future fodder for my running or travel time. Occasionally I will find an artist from Jazz & Standards to add as well. New York City attracts lots of great artists, which provides a wide diversity of material to consider.

Next I jump ahead to Food & Drink. While I don’t live in New York, and chances are I will not set foot in nearly all of these reviewed establishments, I love the language used to describe food, drinks, and the atmosphere of these eateries. For a few minutes I’m transported to be a patron of these establishments and can visualize the experience.

Having completed these first two sections, I close the magazine and will now go page by page to read every comic and poem in the issue. I do this for two reasons. First, I find that reading this way reduces the distraction I encounter later, while reading a long article, I don’t want to context switch to comics and prose, I’d rather stay focused on on the subject at hand. Secondly, I rarely read poetry. Giving myself a defined space and establishing a mindset to read poems, slowly and with lots of contemplation, allows me to enjoy them fully. This is a foray for me, a departure from my usual reading, an exploratory journey, approached as a curious adventure.

Sprinkled throughout each issue are a series of small images depicting a singular theme. These tend to appear in the longer articles, of which there are a few in each issue. The graphics appear to be used to add visual appeal to an otherwise black and white, full text page. I like these icons, they are quirky and often very creative. Sometimes I’m inspired to recreate one of these images myself in a little book of drawings I keep. As an example, a recent issue depicted people reading books in various settings: skateboarding, riding the subway, and directing traffic.

Finally, I return to The Talk of the Town under the New Yorker masthead in the early portion of the magazine. I will read nearly every article form here to the end, getting a perspective on politics, current events, and solid investigative journalism.

No other magazine has provided me this amount of great content across such a wide variety of topics. This isn’t meant to be an endorsement, this magazine might not be for you. However, I have never developed a method for reading a magazine before, and as I thought about this it felt interesting enough to share. The approach we use to absorb material and nurture our creative side is important, and should be something we actively cultivate.


A $1,000,000 Smile

I had a meeting last week, on Thursday, at a local company. After finishing my 11 o’clock appointment, thinking about the conversation I’d just had, I headed toward the receptionist. I vaguely recognized that there was someone different at the desk than when I had arrived. Still caught up in my own thoughts, I scanned the visitor log book looking for the line with my name, intending to record my departure time. A pleasant voice brought me back to the present.

“How are you today?”

When I looked up my eyes met the friendly face of a woman waiting for my response.

“I’m doing very well, thank you. How are you?”

“Amazing” was her immediate reply. She smiled even more broadly.

Wanting to know what prompted her enthusiastic response I hinted, “It sounds like you have something exciting planned?”

“No, but it’s Thursday and I’m glad to be here.”

Intrigued I probed, “Do you have anything planned for the weekend?”

“Nothing special, and that’s ok,” she stated as if that explained everything. “What are you doing this weekend,” she queried.

I told her I was taking the family to a jazz festival.

“Oh! I love jazz.” There was a twinkle to her eyes as she said this, and I have no doubt she approved of my weekend activities.

We traded a few more pleasantries and I made my departure, wishing her a great weekend. She reciprocated.

There was a lightness in my step as I walked in the bright sunshine to my parked car. This brief encounter with a cheerful woman had suddenly made my day better. Her sunny demeanor infected me, a B-12 shot to the soul. She improved an already pleasant day. I smile as I record our conversation here, nearly a week later. The good vibe persists. We all have this gift to give, a smile or a pleasant word at a chance encounter with a stranger. We often get too caught up in our own drama to recognize these simple moments. Best of all, the gift works for both the receiver and the giver. When someone asks me today how I’m doing, I plan to respond “Amazing” and smile broadly.

What’s Luck Got to Do With It?

Well … Everything!

We like to think it was our skills, talents, and experience that made the difference. It was the years we toiled away, refining our abilities, improving our judgement. We think our intuition is great, and our penchant for hard work is unmatched. Our success was a result of our training and the many trials by fire we’ve had to navigate. We’ve honed our craft and were well prepared to tackle this latest obstacle. We pat ourselves on the back and say “job well done”. We consider many of our unique attributes when we want to explain why it all worked out in the end.

When things don’t go so well we’re also quick to point to several reasons. It might be that the other team missed something, or this was the first time any one in the universe saw this problem, so what could be expected? We warned about just this type of outcome, remember? We thought it was a long shot and it was too difficult. Those guys didn’t work as hard as we did and it took us all down.

Except that’s not really the whole truth, is it?

We rarely say we succeeded because we’re lucky. We don’t like to acknowledge we failed because we underprepared, lacked the skills, or made too many errors. It’s easier to claim you are unlucky when things don’t go so well, and laud our abilities when they do.


The truth is, much of what we accomplish successfully is also because we got lucky. Phil Knight, the founder and former CEO of Nike, writes in his memoir Shoe Dog: “I’d like to publicly acknowledge the power of luck. Athletes get lucky, poets get lucky, businesses get lucky. Hard work is critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but luck may decide the outcome.” Throughout his book, you’ll shake your head in amazement at the missteps Phil made building Nike, it was ultimately luck that tipped the scale in his favor.

Phil’s not alone. Daniel Kahneman defines two great formulas for success in his supreme book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by stating:

Success = talent + luck

Great Success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

Robert Frank, an economics professor at Cornell, refers to research conducted by the University of California at Davis that shows “that recognizing our luck increases our good fortune”.  We get luckier when we acknowledge luck’s part in our successes.

So keep up the good work. Train, learn, and engage in deliberate practice – these things help improve your chances that luck falls in your favor. And the next time you get a pat on the back, it’s beneficial for you to nod and say “Thanks, I’m glad we got lucky too.”


Postscript: The title of this article is a nod to Tina Turner’s only number 1 hit, “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, released in 1984. Turner was 44, which made her, at that time, the oldest female solo artist to have a number 1 hit in the US. Cher currently holds claim to this mark, in 1999 at age 52 her single “Believe” hit number 1. It also ushered in a new technology called Auto-Tune.

Where We Do Our Best Work

A while back I asked several dozen employees a simple question:

Where do you do your most creative work?

They each took a moment and then captured their answer on a sticky note. Looking through the results revealed a common theme:

We do our most creative thinking when we are alone.

Here are some examples:

  • while running
  • in the shower
  • during the morning drive
  • late at night while everyone else is in bed
  • on a plane with noise cancelling headphones
  • meditating

What is surprising about the results is that no one provided an answer related to their work environment. In this sample study not a single person felt they do their best creative work in a meeting, sitting at their desk, or while attending to their email.

And yet, this is the expectation companies have of us as employees, that we step through the office doors and create our best work, that we innovate, that we stay ahead of the market with our brilliant ideas.

If the results of my experiment are typical, and my hunch is that they are, then what can we do to tap into our creative brains? I challenge you to take a walk or hit the gym in the middle of the day. Drink lots of water and keep your brain hydrated and performing at your peak. Schedule blocks in your calendar as thinking time and then step away from your phone and computer to engage your brain and do your best work.

Finally, don’t keep your ideas to yourself. While we generate our most creative thoughts solo, we get valuable feedback and important energy from sharing these ideas with others. Nurture your creativity by scheduling thinking time and iterate on your work by incorporating feedback from others.

I can’t wait to see what you create.


[Initial draft written with a Palomino Blackwing 602]