Work It

9 Jan

Let’s say your dishwasher broke down last night, and you really want it fixed. You call a local repairman, he checks it out, and he assures you he knows what the problem is. “Wonderful!” you think. But then all he does is kick the door a little. And then hands you a bill for $300.

How would you feel? My guess is that you’d feel cheated. He barely did any work… and yet he has the audacity to ask for $300? The shame! I had a similar reaction when I got a doctor’s bill in the mail last year. The doctor had only asked a couple questions and barely seemed to listen to my replies. She then waved me out the door in a hurry with what seemed like a catch-all solution. So when I got the bill in the mail a week later, I had a bit of sticker shock. What made that shock even worse? The bill literally listed “services rendered” as “15 minutes with the doctor.” It hadn’t even been that much, in reality. Way to rub it in!

In theory, better solutions should cost more (picture from a small BBQ restaurant in Alabama... still makes me laugh, 3 years later)

In theory, better solutions should cost more. Picture taken from a small BBQ restaurant in Alabama… still makes me laugh, 3 years later.

Now, the doctor may well have been right. She may have known exactly what my problem was and how to solve it, and simply didn’t need to go into the details because she’d seen so many similar cases in the past. But since I didn’t have a full conversation about my particular details, it seemed like she didn’t exert any effort. Because she was efficient and quick, much like your dishwasher repairman, the steep fee felt unfair. Regardless of whether I got an effective answer, I felt cheated.

Behavioral economics research has shown that we have internal constructs for what is “fair.” When we see a repairman fix something really quickly, it doesn’t look like he tried very hard, and it’s hard for us to grasp why he charges so much for the fix. Our construct of fairness isn’t rooted in logic: it’s rooted in a bit of a hazy equation of what seems fair. So even though his repair methods may be efficient and effective, and even though his efficiency likely comes from years of specialization, we feel cheated. Study participants have indicated a preference for repairmen who take slightly longer than need-be, simply because it makes it seem like the task was complex and required specified knowledge. We don’t necessarily want to sit around all day waiting for someone to fix our problems, but we want to feel like they put some thought into their solutions.

I recently saw a review on Yelp that complained a repairman had more or less done what I described at the beginning of this post – all he did was jiggle a few things to make a customer’s drain work again. The customer took to Yelp with rage (the Internet hath no fury like a customer scorned). Apparently the repairman also pointed out that it was an easy fix – and that anyone could do it if they just bothered to Google the answer. And even though the customer hadn’t bothered to Google it, and didn’t try to fix it himself, the sheer suggestion that he could have was enough to upset him. Because if that was all true, why did he have to pay the repairman so much money to do it?

Obviously, the answer can’t be that all of our repairmen and doctors add unnecessary steps and make slow decisions. The issue here is in how we evaluate fairness. But for all you doctors/repairmen/etc out there, here’s a good lesson: never make your job seem too easy and effortless!

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