Surveying the survey

by Tim Kiek
13 Jun 2018
Surveying the survey

You don’t have to share the observational prowess of Sherlock Holmes to notice that survey production has mushroomed in recent years. Of course surveys are not a new fad; they date back to 3800 BC when the ancient Babylonians conducted a population census in which all citizens, livestock and goods were counted.

This census is the first recorded example of what we all now recognise as ‘quantitative research’: where things are measured according to their quantity as opposed to their quality. It doesn’t need me to tell you that its counterpart, qualitative research, is more exploratory by nature – dealing not with objective metrics but with reasons, motivations and opinions. As a concept it is encompassed by the philosophical tradition of phenomenology: the study of phenomena – to put it another way, how the world appears to those experiencing it.

The purpose of phenomenology, and the principle that thus underpins qualitative research, was articulated by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his 1945 work Phenomenology of Perception. To summarise, Merleau-Ponty argued that everything we know, even something as seemingly universal as science, stems from human experience – the logic being that if it wasn’t experienced in the real world there would be no science to investigate. As theories go it is quite a challenging one to rebut. Given I am not aware of ever transcending the realm of my own experience – whether in the conscious or subconscious world – how can I argue that there exists something more paramount?

Your experiences on reading this column will of course differ too. I imagine some will experience either antipathy, apathy or ambivalence (not many, I hope); some will experience pleasure and intrigue (lots, I hope); and others will have hardly experienced it at all and moved on to a section of the magazine that interests them more (there are plenty of interesting sections, I assure you). However, you will be relieved to hear that I don’t intend to find out via the specious device of a survey. This is not to diminish your opinions; it is because, in my experience, surveys are a risible way to extract, understand and deconstruct them. Nonetheless, we are bombarded daily with a blitzkrieg of opinion-based surveys – ranging from asking what we think of our toothpaste to what we think of our colleagues – and, almost without exception, what’s distilled represents nothing more than a gallimaufry of neither quantifiable nor qualifiable perceptions.

The explosion of surveys is a corollary of commodification; they are intrinsically dehumanising as they represent the attempt to convert human experience and opinion into ways and means of either making money or exerting control. As mentioned, they are also pretty bad at achieving this aim. The example that for me epitomises their fundamental lack of utility is the now defunct newspaper The New Day. At the time of its launch I heard the erstwhile editor of the title give an impassioned defence of its inauguration which, in an already crowded market and set against the paradigm of declining print sales, to everyone of sane disposition seemed to be a crazier decision than that made by The Royal Family in agreeing to appear on It’s a Royal Knockout in the 80s (a topical reference for you there). Yet, defying all reason, the editor said their market research firmly indicated there was a gap in the market for such a title… Two months later it came as a shock to absolutely no one when The New Day was, well, royally knocked-out of circulation!

As automotive businesses, then, don’t make the same mistake as The New Day; buck the wider business and societal trend of surveying people to within an inch of their lives. Your social media channels offer plenty of scope for customers to get in touch with you to tell you how they experience your business – and this can be done, unprompted, without the constraints and flaws inherent in leading, multiple-choice based surveys. Surveys neither increase profits nor improve customer service and if, as Merleau-Ponty asserts, life is all we experience, then let’s make it a darn sight our customers and staff less!

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