Stop the Tyranny of the Perfect Rating
Companies are pressuring us to affirm that everything they do is excellent (even when it's not). Life is more enjoyable when we tolerate a bit of mediocrity
Some months ago, I used the Ritual app to order what for me is a fairly standard lunchtime feed: an Italian-ish salad, with tuna and oil-soaked veggies. To describe the app using the usual startup syntax — “it’s like X, but for Y” – you could say Ritual is like Uber, but for skipping the line for coffees and lunches around downtown Toronto. I use it on days when I find myself without time to line up and pay for something; the aim is to get myself some food units to push into my face with one hand while typing with the other. (And hey, how about this future we’re living in? Amazing, right?)
Anyway, the salad was decent. Pro: It hit the spot, did the job, contained tuna; and the veggies, while oily, felt virtuous. Con: It didn’t blow my mind; I wasn’t big on the dry white bread that came with it. Prompted to rate the salad – because we’re often pressured to rate all kinds of things nowadays, aren’t we, even salads? – I took these factors into consideration and selected an appropriate number of stars out of five.
Later that afternoon, someone at Ritual with a millennial-sounding name sent me an email. “Thanks for the feedback! Is there anything we could do better to improve your experience?” wrote Kyle or Ethan or Kaden or something.
“Why do you ask?” I replied. “I gave it three stars, didn't I? Otherwise something went funny with the app.”
“You actually gave it 4 stars,” replied Kaythen (or whatever), “which is pretty awesome, but 5 is the magic number. So how do you think we could earn the extra one?”
But wait. You’re right, Kylen: Four out of five is pretty awesome. If someone told me a salad deserved a four out of five (or 80%, an A-minus), I would try that salad. What kind of fool expects a masterpiece salad, the Michelangelo’s Pietà of Italian salads, for $11.95 in downtown Toronto? The thing was fine; it met my expectations. “A five-star salad would have to be the best f---ing salad I've had in a year, sorry,” I wrote, hoping to bring our discourse to a blunt conclusion. “It's a pretty good salad but I can't just go giving my stars away.”
Yet we are constantly being nudged, cajoled and outright urged to give our stars away, to grant the “magic number” to perfectly ordinary things and experiences. In the 2010s, a perfect rating has become just good enough. Everyone from cellphone providers to startups to service providers on Homestars are pushing us toward a Lake Wobegon world, where every service has to be rated as not just above average, but damn near perfect, simply to be acceptable. It’s like grade inflation, but for forcing the person who drives you home or makes your sandwich to live in a hell-world of relentlessly maximized expectations.
"If at first you’re not perfect, keep pestering until they say you are."
Take Uber. Reports say drivers whose rating dips below 4.6 out of 5 – or 92%, a solid A! – get sentenced to some sort of probation. (They’re also not supposed to ask you to give them a good score, but just last week I had a driver who had just dropped me off grinned and shouted at me through the window: “I gave you five stars!” You see, passengers get rated, too, and he implied we should scratch each other's backs.)
The last time I bought a cellphone, I was helped by a charming young fellow with an African accent. He popped the SIM card slot open using one of the quickest pairs of hands I’ve ever seen. From what I could tell, he ran that mall kiosk like a boss. He really did deserve a five out of five rating; I couldn’t imagine someone being faster, more attentive, more honest and more efficient while selling me a new mobile phone. And then he told me that if my cellphone provider called to ask how he had been, I had to give him a perfect rating in every category or he’d get a talking-to. I got a sick feeling imagining what happens to this nice (and presumably underpaid) guy every time a customer says he’s merely “satisfied” as opposed to “very satisfied” with an interaction. Needless to say, this feeling itself ruined my customer experience. That, and wondering how much of this young man’s vigour was his own and how much was really the invisible hand of his employer, animating him like a puppet.
In his 2013 novel The Circle, Dave Eggers painted a bleak yet drily amusing picture of tech corporations’ passive aggressive determination to achieve ratings perfection. The protagonist, Mae, lands a job in customer service for a fictional Silicon Valley giant; the Circle is a thinly disguised stand-in for Google and/or Facebook. The first time Mae helps a customer, she receives a satisfaction score of 99 out of 100 for the interaction.
“Wow, 99 out of 100 points,” says Dan, her supervisor. “That’s nearly perfect. And I say, exactly: it’s nearly perfect. But at the Circle, that missing point nags at us. So let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it. Here’s a follow-up [message] that we send out.”
Like Ritual, the fictional Circle corporation uses the cheerful-but-concerned follow-up as a means of "rectifying" imperfect scores. If at first you’re not perfect, keep pestering until they say you are.
"If companies actually care about good service – and not just the illusion of it – they need to relax and go easier on their workers."
My fear is that if companies bother people who give honest feedback, we’ll stop giving it. I use Ritual because it takes complication out of my lunchtimes; I don’t want to open a new correspondence every time I declare a salad or a fish sandwich to be undeserving of the highest possible evaluation. Hounded to frustration, I’ll be tempted to five-star everything (“Yeah, yeah, best sandwich ever, now leave me alone”). And then how will the Ritual community know which salads and sandwiches are the true masterpieces?
Case in point: After learning about Uber drivers’ correction regime, I adjusted my previous system, which had been one to three stars for drivers of varying degrees of mediocrity, four for unremarkable ones, and five for drivers who make a special effort to be friendly and/or helpful.
The next time I booked a ride, I got a driver who tried to explain to me who the Biblical Adam was, as if anyone can go through life with my first name and not know all about that. But he was fine otherwise: He drove me from Point A to Point B without incident; car was clean; he didn’t drive like a jerk. Four stars was what he deserved. But I gave him five so he wouldn’t land in Uber detention. My own rating ticked up from 4.59 to 4.6 after our ride (yes, you can check), so he must have given me five stars, too – even though I was curtly uninterested in hearing about the Biblical Genesis story.
Result: Uber, and other Uber users, cannot tell the difference between Adam and Eve guy, who is just OK, and all the truly great drivers who deserve special recognition.
If companies actually care about good service – and not just the illusion of it, as created by phony fives and 100s – they need to relax and go easier on their workers. Perhaps that’s counterintuitive. But we’ll only collectively be able to identify and foster true excellence if we can be honest about when we experience it and when we don’t. And we should accept that perfect service won't happen every time: Everyone deserves an off day or a grumpy moment, because that’s the kind and human way for the world to be.
If you’re in charge of customer service for an organization that collects ratings, please don’t regard my short-of-perfect scores as an invitation to interrupt, inquire and intervene. View them as motivation to do better.
Or not: I mean, as I keep insisting, that salad was actually fine. I wasn’t unhappy until someone told me I should be. Sometimes an imperfect lunch is perfect as it is.