Customer Service

[caution, following videos contain profanity, violence, and potentially rated R]

This latest customer verbally onslaughts service employee video with Britt McHenry is nothing new.  and, to quote Larry Wilmore from the Nightly Show, what the employee might call, simply “going to work.”  Customers berating and belittling bottom rung service employees (waiters, cashiers, sales associates and the like) is nothing new.

Stephen Colbert, once a waiter before his career took off, said that everyone should have a job where they have to just take it and are not allowed to respond…perhaps he thought so as a humbling experience, or, as I would figure, so that non-service employees can get a taste of what it’s like…when you can’t defend yourself, when you have to just smile and take it – and, more often than not, not only will your manager not support you, they will give in to what the customer wants – more than likely something relatively petty – under this idea of squeaky wheel gets the grease.

The only difference nowadays is the ubiquity of smart phones and the internet, which also broadcasts surveillance footage.  When I thought to begin this rant, I wanted to mull over what I might think might be some reasons as to why customers can be so nasty to lowly employees – and I still intend to address that.  But in searching out a few video clips for this, another topic came to mind, which is the changing nature of privacy and free speech, particularly regarding home cell phones and posting to the internet.

On the one hand, particularly with police brutality, I think we are seeing that the barrage and ubiquity of cell phone video footage, subsequently uploaded to the internet, can be an overwhelming force for good, whether it is something as substantial as providing evidence of murder and brutality, to something as …unfortunate but commonplace as rude customers such as Britt McHenry.  Legions of surveillance cameras and cell phones and the internet are a kind of incredibly powerful amateur journalism, a kind of vigilante journalism, which is so large and so grassroots as to fight cover-ups, fight propaganda, and create evidence for cries for justice…  that’s this at its best.

But at it’s worst, is complete lack of privacy and McCarthyism.  a 24/7 world of candid camera.  Back in the day, if you made an embarrassing mistake – were publicly wasted or picked your nose or whatever – chances are that it would blow over, and that it would have a limited impact of the relatively small radius of people who personally witnessed it.  This is a new era of infinite scope, in breadth, in accessibility, in time and space – your embarrassment immortalized, seen by all, and, due to copies of copies of copies, can’t be removed from the internet.  Cyber bullying…  but there could be a more nefarious nature behind that, if we were to swing into another McCarthy era.  Virtually everyone does effectively have the ability to spy on you.  and what about privacy and consent?  Back in the day, if a journalist wanted to take a picture of you and publish it in the newspaper, even the smallest of school outfits, they would have to obtain your permission.  Does this concept even exist any more?

I don’t want to try and necessarily place restraint on something that could be a force for good (though I speculate most people film or photograph something more out of voyeurism or 15 seconds of fame than fealty to vigilante journalism and justice).  In this following video, is the owner of the video, and others nearby, recording for truth or justice, or to capture and exploit a fight? (or even proselytize and renounce)

There are no calls to 9-1-1, no one rushing to help, surrounding people just seem either vaguely voyeuristic or apathetically aloofly self-involved.  Maybe cellphone bearers’ hearts could be in the right place, the cellphone as a tool for truth and justice.  But, as has also been a criticism levied at journalists, when do you put down the silent observer and take action?  or is the point of documenting reality to spread reality or to obtain profit through entertainment?

Or perhaps it is reactionary and antiquated to think that these such things, cellphone videos of people, loss of general privacy in the internet age, can be restricted, like trying to…cling on to sand as it slips from your fingers (analogies not my strong suit).  But I do think questions need to be asked about when personal (and especially clandestine) footage of someone, especially when then posted on the internet, go too far, what rights to privacy do people have, if any, in an internet age?

Angry Customers

Now, to segue awkwardly back into angry customers…  Some actual apologists for Britt McHenry seemed to defend her insults by virtue of the “logic,” that
a) everybody does it – the difference here being that a1) she was a “celebrity” and a2) she was caught

I do not see this as a defense.  The “everybody does it” has also never been a moral action defense.  I think that’s fairly self-explanatory.  Though I see how it could be defended, in that societal morals are usually based on standards for a group, set by a majority.  For example, if the status quo was that all males must have hair no longer than their shirt collars, now long hair in males is seen as improper – this is not based on any kind of crime or idea that any one is coming to harm, but is a cultural rule set by a majority at the time/culture/etc.  But, for larger crimes, culture does play a large part – is vigilantism absolutely criminal, sometimes justified, or honorable? and so on…  ok, so maybe “everybody does it” could hold some water. but…

b) some apologists did think that perhaps McHenry was justified going off the minimal evidence.

It is good critical thinking to be skeptical of your sources, particularly when you only have one and it appears to be edited (Zapruder, Watergate, whatever).  Their claim was that, not knowing what the employee said back to the customer, maybe the customer was provoked.

This logic may have made sense given a different dialogue.  But I don’t think there is any way to defend what McHenry said.  The proverbial high road – no matter what anyone says to you, there should be some way to defend yourself and stand up for yourself, but without resorting to nastiness.  But, in this case, you can hear some of what the employee says, and it appears she is courteous, professional, and polite.

Ok, so, why might customers treat low-level in-the-public service employees so rudely?

First of all, to question assumptions, do they?  Are all customers assholes?  If you work with the general public, you might be inclined to think so, or, if not mean, dumb, or if not mean or dumb, then very impatient…or…  but are they?

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly…

Working as a cashier at a large retail chain myself, I did think, at one point, that most of the general public were either mean or stupid or rude or impatient or some combination of all of the above.  But it did occur to me that my perceptions could be biased, in that I might subconsciously not remember the nice customers and/or “overremember” the negative customers, such that it skews my perspective.  So, for a couple days, I did make a tally: the customers who went out of their way to be nice, the customers who were particularly mean-spirited, and the customers who were effectively neutral…seeing numerous customers in a day.  And my results were that, overwhelmingly, most people were neutral.  In a given day, I may have a couple nice customers, and one or two bad apples – unless it’s a particularly bad day (like the christmas shopping season, for added juxtaposition).  So, rather than thinking the number of mean people was at least 51%, it was more like 10, maybe 15%.  This informed me that one bad customer (out of 7 neutral ones and 2 nice ones out of 10), might make me so upset that that is all I remember for that day, and then tend to think that that is everyone…

(until you work in retail long enough that you become numb to it; or – sadly – say you work at returns, unfortunately it appears that the customers who are the nicest to you, call you by name, ask you how your day is going, are usually the ones trying to pull something…which now, in addition to retail making you misanthropic, it now has to make you distrusting…)

But, yes, negativity is out there.  It’s not so much the good customers, the bad, and the ugly, but the neutral, the bad, and the really bad.

What might be some reasons for this?

One) The customer is always right.

I am not quite sure how this dictum entered into corporate dogma, though I can speculate about fierce competition and corporations shifting focus from compelling customers through quality, inventory, or even pricing, but through customer service – maybe, at some point – there was a ceiling with quality and inventory and the rest – that all direct competitors pretty much had the same items, the same amount of items, the same relative prices… that a corporation will automatize whatever it can (I think I had this same rant before…robots, sales associate robots down the line), and its human workers, sales associates and cashiers are the last pieces…bits of randomness, and algorithms don’t like that…so customer service, it its way, is quantified and objectified and measured as tightly and numerically as possible, as well as seen with great importance, as the last thing left the company can do to pull customers into the store and retain them…  all of this pushes “customer is always right” into unprecedented almost sacred territory.

And I believe this adherence to the dogma of the customer is always right has created an atmosphere of….I suppose one word would be entitlement.  This would be to say that much of the American public has been cultivated to believe they can get whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, for the price they want, and at the speed of light.  There is this sense of perfection.

Even when customers are calm, there seems to be that expectation of perfection, expectations beyond which may be realistically feasible.

I think reasonable product for reasonable price is fine and there are standards of quality that should be upheld.  If I buy a brand new product from a store and discover it is damaged, I should be able to receive a non-damaged product.  If I go to a restaurant and the meat is uncooked, I should reasonably request to receive a cooked meal.  However, if I go to a restaurant and the meal is cooked, everything looks fine, there’s no fly in it or anything of the kind, but I just don’t particularly care for it, I would not see this as grounds for complaint.  (and it’s certainly not the waiter’s fault)  It’s more that, on coming to the restaurant again a next time, I would order something else, as that dish was not my cup of tea.

Maybe the kernel of truth in the initial complaint of many customers is a profound distrust and dissatisfaction with the grift, marketing, bureaucracy, and Kafkaesque labyrinth meets corporate overlord that is commerce.  Businesses can scam customers on a far more systemic level than any Robin Hoodian individual thief could scam back, after all…

With retail, there should be a line between a reasonable request and basically saying it’s ok to rip off the company.  (nor should the company rip off the consumer) It’s one thing if the product I purchased is broken.  It’s another thing to return a tape measure that looks like it’s been dropped off a cliff, backed over by a truck, drowned in mud, and used for twenty years, without a receipt, and just swap it out for a brand new one.  Or the entire concept of returning a dead plant.  It’s a clump of mud with a stick in it…you didn’t water it…it only cost $3…and of course you want your money back….  and, anecdotes aside, I think trust, all around, is the missing component – consumer advocate agencies (Consumer Reports, Better Business Bureau), regulations on businesses, unions and support for staff – but all these agencies may come under scrutiny for corruption and nepotism and the like…and maybe there can be no ultimate trust, so long as money and power are involved….

At the end of the day, a lot of what gets to me is what I see as pettiness.  The degree to which customers get upset over the seemingly most petty of things….$2 off this, a phone, a flower… I once had a customer yell at me over forty cents  (of course I marked the item down 40 cents for them and it was never in question that I wouldn’t…but they didn’t ask me nicely or start from calm or give me two seconds to mark it down…just started launching into me the second I scanned it and it was 40 cents more than what they thought the price was).

I have three speculations about pettiness.
one) entitlement and customer is always right.  This has gone so completely to their heads and, essentially, people are so spoiled, that they really do get upset about the smallest or most superficial of things – or their life is so great, that this is the only thing off in their life.
two) the “principle” of the thing.  it’s not so much the small matter at hand, but that this, to them, is symbolic of something else.  Perhaps it’s not that they need to have $2 off this item, but they are mad at …I don’t know…sales tax rates or corporate policy or the confusing signage in the store…and this little thing has become their symbol, their banner…maybe, to them, it’s not pettiness or meanness, it’s about honor and ideals, though some that must have gotten a little convoluted at some point
and three) it’s not about this thing at all.  that people are cussin’ and cryin’ and carryin’ on due to something completely different going on in their lives – they were just broken up with, their parents just got divorced, they were just fired, they in turn were yelled at and shit rolls downhill, whatever…

everyone likes this third reason and usually picks that one, because it’s the most empathetic, the most non-misanthropic – oh, they’re just having a bad day.  yeah, but I have bad days and I don’t scream at McDonalds’ clerks because I had one pickle instead of two on my burger…  and if this were really the case, then many customers are all having their bad days all the time…

Now, I could see this in certain situations.  For example, if you work at a hospital, I would venture to guess that it’s a safe assumption to say that most patients in a hospital are currently having the worst day of their life.  Or, if you’re in an airport, pretty stressful environment for many.  Major events are going on that involve stress and pain and so on.  But at a restaurant?  at a retail store?  Aren’t those things the general public engage in for work, for daily chores, and for “fun”?

Ok, so one main reason I think customers are rude, or feel like they have license to be, is the atmosphere created, and maintained by managers, that the customer is always right.  Followed by “principle” of the thing, and that they are upset by a personal situation and manifesting it at the store, which is akin to Freud’s concept of displacement.

And then, I further speculate that customers take everything out on low-level service employees because they, incorrectly, see those employees as standard bearers, as a representation and embodiment of, the corporation itself.  Thus they vent their problems with the company out to the lowly waiter or cashier or sales clerk – as if that employee has any say whatsoever in corporation decision, in pricing, in policy, in inventory, has any say in anything.  But these are the people the customers see, so they are the face of the company.

To an extreme, it doesn’t make sense; you have a problem with Walmart’s monopolization and anti-union policies, go yell at the greeter.  But there’s probably something to it.  Society likes to vilify DMV workers and taxmen and insurance agents and telemarketers and call center people who put you on hold…these are the people we interact (or don’t interact) with who are our experience with this, but, at the end of the day, those people are individuals holding jobs, and as customers, we should check ourselves to see if we have an actual complaint against this particular individual, or if we are taking out our frustrations with policy and bureaucracy and what not onto them.  I doubt these individuals have much say when it comes to driving record filing, bureaucratic policy, tax law or Kafkaesque phone center infrastructure or whatever… at the end of the day, most people work mundane jobs to pay the bills….

well, and then there’s just the ugly…

at this point, I suppose it’s a matter of statistics.  There are a percentage of violent people out there, a percentage of people on drugs that can make them violent and alcohol and so on…these statistics may be relatively tiny, such that, if you worked in some office job or what not, your odds of encountering a very aggressively disruptive person could be close to none.  But people who work with the general public – waiters, cashiers, sales clerks, fast food workers – they serve a very large swath of people, so the odds are that, eventually, you will run into those individuals.  Especially if you work near a bar.

 

As for dystopian speculations on where rampant consumerism, from the power of the corporation-government to the state of the people, is heading, how it may frame a society, how it could strip the independence of people, we already have a fairly clear sense of where we are and where we may be heading.  Whether it was Huxley’s notion of soma,  in Brave New World (1932), or Somni’s future of Honor Thy Consumer in Cloud Atlas (2004), or Idiocracy (2006), countless others… we, as a culture, seem to know the pitfalls of dependency on consumerism, and the juxtapositions of consumers controlling companies as companies control consumers.  When even a Disney film (Wall-E, 2008) depicts this, Disney itself a major monopolistic empire deeply integrated into American psyche, one shutters at how deep are self-awareness of this, and yet simultaneous nonchalant passing acceptance or blindness to it really is.

(or a lot of people are just dicks…)

Updates:

As of today, 4/24/15, it appears that Britt McHenry,  initially after her insults were broadcasted, posted a comment on Twitter defending her actions, which was later taken down.  She apparently has not apologized to the clerk in question, a Gina Michelle, even as the towing company in question, Advanced Towing in Arlington, VA, released a statement expressing that Britt McHenry not face work repercussions and that the video was only released to show a hint of what people in such service industries face from customers.  Britt McHenry was suspended for one week, and is now slated to return to the air with assignments waiting for her. (Daily Mail, dailymail.co.uk; Washington Post, washingtonpost.com)  I don’t want to stereotype, but unfortunately, I can’t help but wonder if this is a case where certain people, namely young women who happen to be white, fairly attractive, and perhaps also blonde, i.e. pretty women, are given somewhat of a cart blanche to live life by a different set of rules than others.

 

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