Trout Fisting In America #35 – Customer Service

In a sense, all US jobs now are customer service jobs. The service industry is the only industry we have left. Even your typical US congresscritter is just a glorified version of Burger King fry cook (albeit w/free healthcare that Burger King employees can only dream of—you’re welcome, congresscritter assholes). Do you really think Mitch McConnell believes climate change is a hoax? Or Paul Ryan? Does it even make a difference? Those guys are paid to say that shit, and they’re paid even more to make sure they vote the right way. In the congresscritters’ case, their customers are billionaire donors—and in the interest of partisan fairness, there’s no doubt some of Barack Obama’s policies were influenced by his own personal desire for shitloads of money. That’s just our current political reality. Because in the service industry, there are no principles.

And you should always keep in mind that just because someone works at Arby’s, it doesn’t mean they love roast beef.

Which might be for the best, this workplace pragmatism. I mean, you always see these help wanted ads: ‘MUST HAVE A PASSION FOR _____’ I saw one of them outside a Johnny’s Pizza one time, and let me tell you: if you care even a little bit about pizza do not get a job at Johnny’s Pizza. Working there because you have a passion for pizza is like getting a job at a glue factory because you love animals.

And having worked in the coffee industry for years, the worst employees are always the people who  are ‘passionate’ about coffee. When I was a manager, I’d have to explain to these guys (and they were always guys) that the customers also had a passion. They had a passion for not being late to work, and so maybe they could add a little brevity to their breves if you get what I’m saying. As it turned out, the customers had many passions. They were passionate about getting the drink they ordered without the barista telling them their drink was going to taste terrible and they should order something different. They were passionate about the barista making their drink with skim milk, even if the barista thought it wouldn’t taste as good. They were passionate about the barista steaming the drink to the temperature they asked them to steam it to. You get the idea. Because even when a customer orders a drink that’s going to taste terrible—and I mean objectively terrible, like a chai latte steamed to 200 degrees—you go ahead and make it for them, regardless of your personal passions. Because if you won’t make their drink the way they want you to, they’re just going to go somewhere else.

I knew all this because I was forced to attend yearly customer service training classes while I worked for the Marriott corporation (two years as a front desk clerk followed by three years bellstand/valet parking/doorman). And yeah, customer service is a bunch of fake-ass bullshit. But just because something is a bunch of fake-ass bullshit doesn’t mean it doesn’t actually exist (see also white middle-class social norms).

The first Marriott I worked at, the San Diego Courtyard by Marriott (Courtyard being the Marriott branch ‘designed for the business traveler’) was actually named Hotel of the Year three years straight. That’s out of every single Marriott hotel in the world, jack. And I bet you’re wondering: how exactly do you evaluate a hotel? Well you know those customer service surveys? They come in the mail, or in your e-mail, or whatever, and you score different aspects of your customer service experience on a scale of 1-10, or 1-5, or true-false? Well these get compiled, tabulated, evaluated, and turned into hard data that is then used to evaluate whether the customer service people are doing a good job. The results are taken at face value, not open to interpretation, and—at the SD Courtyard at least—a drop in overall score by even a couple percentage points can be a reason for an all-employee emergency meeting.

And our scores were higher than any other Marriott in the world. Now I’m not saying we didn’t do a good job, but the SD Courtyard had a number of advantages when it came to customer surveys. We were located in Sorrento Valley, a tech hub of San Diego that was so business-centric that everything in the area basically shut down at 6pm. That means probably 85-90% of our guests weren’t paying for their rooms. And you know, it’s hard to have a bad customer experience when that experience is free.

In the other direction, you have this Goodwill by my house here in Athens, Ga, which in addition to a half-dozen or so thrift stores, also has the highest poverty rate for a city its size in the United States. That means you’ve got a lot of bitter, resentful people at the bottom end of the economic ladder with a massive chip on their shoulder and an even more massive bag of chips in their bellies. So this Goodwill has an electronic machine by the front door with a sign that says ‘How Are We Doing?’ and four buttons underneath: a green smiley face, a green less-smiley face, a red frowny face, and a red face that’s as frowny as my 3-year-old’s when I tell him he can’t go play outside. The idea is you press the button that best represents your experience at Goodwill.

Every time I go there I see people doing exactly what I would’ve done when I was younger: mashing the shit out of that red button on the right for like five straight minutes. And because I’m older now and have been on the receiving end of enough ultra-serious employee meetings, I try to mash the far-left green button to even it out, but I can tell it isn’t working, and I’m sure the Goodwill employees are hearing about how they need to do a better job greeting customers, or smiling, or whatever.

But that’s America: suspicious of everything & everyone unless it comes in the form of a number. We live in an age where we believe in our ability to accurately quantify everything. If I had 10,000 more twitter followers, I’d have a book deal—I actually had an agent tell me this: that my book sounded really interesting but I didn’t have enough of a fanbase (fuck him, and I guess fuck you for not following me on twitter, and I guess oh yeah fuck me for not tweeting enough). There’s this belief that we can measure attention, that we can measure good customer service, that we can measure anything. We can be certain of what the numbers tell us because the numbers don’t lie.

And yet, and yet, I remember when the owner of this coffee shop I used to work for almost banned music from the Five Points location after getting a voicemail from a customer complaining about the music the employees were listening to. The next day the customer came in, the one who’d made the phone call, and told the person working what they’d done. The employee was incredulous. This was one of their favorite customers, why would they do that? The person laughed. I don’t know, I saw the number on the receipt, and I was really stoned and I thought it’d be funny. The customer was horrified that they’d been taken seriously, and called the customer service hotline to let them know she’d been joking. And that’s the story of how the Five Points location got to keep their stereo and why if you go there today you don’t have to listen to piped in Starbucks-type music (the owner was obsessed with the success of Starbucks and constantly strove to emulate whatever it was they were doing at any particular moment—when customers pointed out to me ‘if I wanted to get coffee at Starbucks, I’d just fucking go to Starbucks, there wasn’t much I could do besides agree w/them).

That shows you how much power a customer has. And how little power an employee has. But with so many of us working in customer service, that means we’re trapped in this weird binary of power relations: either you’re the customer (all the power), or you’re the service (no power). And even if you’re the service, once you clock out, now you’re the customer. It’s turned US working life into endless weeks of eating shit while saddled with all these unresolvable contradictions.

You already know the biggest contradiction: The Customer Is Always Right. I sniffed this one out pretty quick on my very first day working in the snack bar at Marshal Scotty’s (a local amusement park that was more like a carnival that never left town). ‘What if the customer wants me to give them ten dollars out of the drawer?’ I asked. The manager training me huffed and rolled his eyes. ‘Don’t give it to them.’

‘So then the customer isn’t always right?’ More huffing. ‘What if he wants me to like give him a blow job or something?’ (everyone working there was between the ages of 17-20 so this kind of talk was normal, for better or worse). The manager guy said, ‘Jesus, Creney, just try not to piss off any customers, alright?’

Which is actually probably the best advice for anyone working in customer service, followed closely by ‘always make sure to cover your ass.’ You should also know that good customer service involves lying, or at least dishonesty. And honesty, that is to say bad customer service, will get you fired within a month. And so customer service is always a performance, one rooted in dishonesty. Given how many people work in customer service, it goes without saying there’s no such thing as an ‘honest day’s work.’ We all lie for a living. We are all con-men. And you wonder how people are able to relate to the president. We are emotional manipulators—to such a degree that when we clock out and now become the customer, we expect passive-aggressive fake cheerfulness, and you damn sure better expect a negative Yelp review, or Google review, or whatever, if we don’t get it.

We have all of us been reduced to desperate vermin scuttling for crumbs, faking our way through our jobs in order to barely eat, in order to survive. A nation full of liars, using pragmatic zero-sum logic to justify our lies. A race to the ethical bottom with no end in sight.

Get out there and make some sales. The future of the company, and someone else’s potential wealth, is depending on it.

Trout Fisting In America appears here every Tuesday (sometimes even more frequently!). We’re going to keep going until we reach #50, or until the Trout begs for mercy. You can check out previous installments HERE.

About ScottCreney

Scott Creney lives in Athens, Georgia. He is the author of "Dear Al-Qaeda: Letters to the World’s Most Notorious Terror Organiztion".
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