It was Monday, December 29 and I wasn’t happy. I had spent part of the morning at home working on odds and ends and another part of the morning at the office working on a book review and a few other things. I was in a funk because I’d forgotten to answer an email from a friend and mentor asking about having lunch today, I had a billion little things to do, and to top it off, I had to go to the local inspection station for a third emissions test to see if the $560 or so I had plowed into my 1995 Saturn had reduced my hydrocarbon emissions enough to please the City of Memphis (it didn’t; about $300-$400 later, it finally did). Comfort food is a natural human weakness that is especially appealing when one isn’t happy. I opted for Taco Bell.
I pulled into the drive-thru and fully expected my order to be handled with outright belligerence, as had been my experience at other fast food outlets recently. I was surprised, nay, shocked, when the person who took my order was genuinely cheerful, clear, and helpful. I was further surprised to find that my food was hot, my order was 100% correct, and my takeout bag included a wet nap and a mint. Not bad for less than $4.
I resolved then and there that I would find out how I could recognize the service I had received. I wrote the first draft of this while waiting in line to have my car checked; since I bought a MacBook Air a few months ago, I can type from the “comfort” of my driver’s seat, and after returning home from a recent trip I visited the feedback website and let them know how happy I was with my experience.
This speaks to a larger issue that will be of interest to Lifehack readers: how do we get the most bang for our buck in our charitable endeavors? As a citizen, I want to help those who are less well-off than I am. As an economist, however, I am all too aware of the law of unintended consequences and the frequency with which our charitable endeavors actually work to the detriment of those we wish to help. Tyler Cowen has an excellent discussion of this in his 2007 book Discover Your Inner Economist: he notes that in parts of India, people actually pay to have limbs amputated in order to increase their begging take. This is positively destructive, so the concerned citizen interested in maximizing bang for his or her charitable buck will want to look for ways to transfer resources without distorting incentives.
One way to do this is by providing positive feedback where it is warranted. Few people taking orders at fast food restaurants will be in the same position in a few years, and employers are always looking for ways to identify talent. Giving credit where credit is due is one way to help people get a leg up in life. In addition, markets work more efficiently the more valuable information is available.
There are added benefits, too. As a college professor, I try to teach my students the ability to offer constructive criticism. I regularly ask students to send me an email at the end of the semester detailing what they liked the most and what they liked the least about my courses. Providing feedback on customer service when it is requested (or when it is appropriate) is an easy way to practice giving constructive feedback while helping people who deserve it.
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