Customer feedback, citizen feedback: Two contrasting stories

By: Sandford BorinsA few weeks ago I purchased an aged trade paperback from one of the booksellers represented on Amazon marketplace. I wanted it in a hurry and was willing to pay the $33 asked.Then I purchased a few other aged trade paperbacks of similar vintage from the same seller, all of which went for $5.When I got an email asking for feedback about the first book, I gave the bookseller the lowest possible score, saying the book was scandalously overpriced.I was surprised to get an email a few days later from Melissa, a customer satisfaction agent, offering to reduce the price if I removed the feedback. We settled on a price of $5 – comparable to the other orders – and she refunded the overpayment to my credit card and I removed the feedback.So feedback worked for me. I have no idea if my feedback worked for anyone else, in the sense that it led this bookseller to review its pricing policy. Still, by writing this post, I can encourage you to do likewise if you think you've been overcharged.Now the citizen feedback story. The water pressure in our new house was low. After contacting the City of Toronto we learned that we could improve it by getting a larger diameter pipe from the water main. There are two parts to this job, replacing the pipe on city property and replacing the pipe on our property. The work on city property would be done by an approved contractor.I went to the city office and paid for the contractor's work and also purchased a new water meter, the latter costing $100. The city's contractor wasn't interested in doing the work on my property simultaneously, so I approached another contractor for an estimate. The estimate was surprisingly high, so I decided to get the wider pipe only on city property and see if this made a difference.The city's contractor came and did a good job replacing the pipe. They had to break up a patch of sidewalk, which they temporarily replaced with asphalt.Over time, there were two disconcerting problems. Eighteen months after the work, the city still had not replaced the temporary asphalt sidewalk with concrete.The water department called me and wondered why the new water meter wasn't being used. I told the agent I hadn't yet decided to replace the pipe on our property.She told me it was illegal to keep an unused water meter and unless I surrendered it that very day, she would call down the wrath of bylaw enforcement upon me. I asked if she would then refund the $100 I paid for the meter. No way, she said; if we ever replaced the pipe on my property, we had prepaid for the larger meter.A few months after that, the water department did a survey. I recounted how long it took to repave the sidewalk with concrete and wrote a letter about the meter incident, saying that I resented being treated like a criminal for an infraction I didn't know I committed and that the refusal to refund the $100 for the new meter was a cash grab, pure and simple.Did I ever get a response from the city? Not a word.So why the difference between how I was treated as a customer by the bookseller and as a citizen by the Toronto water department? Is it that businesses competing in the marketplace are intrinsically more responsive than public sector monopolies?Or is it that my feedback to the bookseller was more effective because it was posted online for all the world to see, while my letter to the Toronto water department went into the proverbial circular file?I'm inclined to think the latter, that online feedback will prompt response even from public sector bureaucracies. So here, somewhat belatedly, is my online feedback to the Toronto water department. And I'll make a special point of emailing this link to my municipal counselor and the relevant public servants.Next week, I'll follow up with a more general discussion of how disaffected citizens can use online postings to hold public servants to account.

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