Friday, September 24, 2010

Customer service, part two of I hope three but who am I kidding?

Wow, part one was a long time ago. Oops.

So, in that part I wrote about how the nature of customer service jobs alienates the "customer" from the "service" provider, even when both parties should share class interests. Now to look at it from the other direction, the perspective of the worker.

There are several mechanisms at work here that work towards ensuring that the alienation is complete. The most obvious is the one I briefly mentioned in the previous essay: the customers hate the employees, so the employees naturally come to hate the customers.

Another mechanism is, basically, Stockholm syndrome: the employee comes to identify with the employer. I saw this in operation the other day when management called a meeting to unveil the new "attendance policy." It was essentially the same as the old one; my understanding is that it was intended more to standardize things across the entire company (whether this means US-only or if they're actually trying to standardize policy transnationally, I don't know). A bunch of my coworkers weren't happy with it, though. Why? By providing for a system of "warnings" before "termination" for "non-compliance," it was too lenient. "The attendance policy should just be 'You have to come to work,'" one of them said, to widespread agreement. "What else does it need to say?" Here, the workers have come to identify with the needs of their employer to such an extent that they don't even remember that they have their own needs, let alone that these needs should be more important to them.

This comes to be in exactly the same way that Stockholm syndrome occurs in a kidnapping or hostage situation (or an interrogation or abusive parenting or any number of other unbalanced, coercive relationships): the party with power mixes cruelty with an appearance of kindness in such a combination as to maximally disorient the party without power, to convince them that the cruelty and the kindness are directly related to their own behavior. (Reinforcing this is also the true purpose of most of the inspirational and self-help genres, which I'm sure I'll get to examine in more depth if I ever get back to the goddamn QBQ.) So, returning specifically to customer service, our employers take away enormous chunks of our lives, filling them with the degradation of telephonic (or face-to-face, depending on the type of customer service) abuse, insulting lectures on "attendance," wall-to-wall surveillance (at my job, they record our calls--and have a "mentor" system in place to remind you that they listen to them--they monitor what our computers are doing, and they have signs up everywhere saying that the "premises are under video surveillance" and that "security is everyone's job"), required daily groveling in the hopes of future advancement, and demands to perform to a level made essentially impossible by lack of staffing and by inadequate tools. But they pay us! And even give us (a little) paid time off! And (shitty, but better than no) health coverage! And if we're extra good, extra devoted, well, at some unspecified point far down the road, we might get more of all that! Or at least manage to hold on to what we have without losing too much of it! They're so good to us. They love us. And hey, we're lucky to have a job (my goal is to include that link in all three parts of this series).

At my job, at least, they make sure it's all working by holding quarterly meetings to tell us that yet another three months during which none of us has seen a raise has brought corporate profits above and beyond projections. This is supposed to make us feel happy and proud of our work, and for a good portion of us, it seems to do just that.

So the indoctrination goes, and so when faced on the telephone with unruly customers who have the nerve to object to something the company--now thought of as we--did to them, we view the customer as a personal enemy. Instead of thinking "I wish I could get the company I work for to give you a refund, but I'd put my job in jeopardy if I did that too often," or similar, we think "I can't believe these people want me to give them a refund." We might even think that clients demanding refunds are eating away at our raises, as I heard someone I work with say the other week. Never mind that new accounts for fiscal year whatever are trending higher than goal and that profits company wide are blah blah million dollars higher than projected, and still no raise is in sight. Or whatever--despite all the vagueness, that is of course just one specific example of how the thought process works. It's applicable to all sorts of different situations, though, in exactly the same way. The customer wants x from me, but I don't want to give it to them because the company doesn't want to give it to them--and I am the company.

Thusly, ergoly, and in conclusionly (TM the baronette), we in the underclasses begin to identify more with our overlords than with other members of our own class, and the exploitation continues.

Part three, should it ever swirl into existence, will cover the alienation of worker from worker within a customer service setting. I'll probably talk more about attendance.


Peter said...

I happen to work in a similar field: retail sales. At my company there is no question the customer is regarded as the enemy (sometimes justifiably sometimes not) but the company itself pretty universally despised by it's employees (below the level of managers). And wages and benefits there are better than average for the kind of work.

Time and attendance policies are particularly irksome and because they are frequently ignored the most common justification for firing. (I think why time and attendance are taken so seriously in corps and school is they give those in charge an illusion of power. They can easily be tracked the choice to ignore them can be regarded as symptomatic of general "insubordinance".)

Randal Graves said...

A good friend of mine's mother used a lot of sick time last year for extremely legit reasons, and when it came time to discuss a raise, they gave her crap because she used so much sick time. That was earned, according to company policy.

As long as you're gifted a set of numbers (sick, vacation), then their generosity is complete. Enjoy the pretty numbers on your pay stub, just leave them in their original packaging.

zencomix said...

The sick pay thing is funny. In the 90s,I used to work in a place where sick time accrued, and when you left the job, you were compensated for unused time. A woman who had worked there 20 years finally retired, and she had never called in sick. They had to cut her a fat check for unused time.

After that, they changed policy, placing a cap on time that could accrue, and you were no longer compensated for unused time when you left the company. And then they wondered why so many people were calling in sick every month.

Philip Jackson said...

I feel your pain. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, these things do happen. Especially in the field of customer service. There's a lot of strange company laws too. But what can we do? We need work, like you said, so there is no point in arguing. Just vent your frustrations somewhere, like in this blog.