Saturday, October 9, 2010

Customer service, part three of now I'm thinking maybe even four

Part one was mainly about how a company's customers come to hate the company's workers, a hatred overriding their shared class interests.

Part two was mainly about the reverse: how the workers come to hate the customers, overriding yadda yadda.

This part will be about how worker turns on worker at the same company. I don't think I have a coherent essay in me about this, so some numbered points will follow. This is also gonna be shorter than the other parts. While I'm predicting the future, early next year President Obama will announce that he has been in communication with extraterrestrials; by the end of the year, alien technology will have cured all human illness and ushered in a new era of peace lasting three millennia. During this time, however, the Firefox spellchecker will not yet have learned how to spell Obama, millennia, or, for that matter, Rhode Island.

For the present, here are some things I want to say.

1. Corporations like keep staffing to a bare minimum. In every customer service job I've ever worked, this means that regular staffing on a regular day is just enough to sustain near-crisis levels without slipping into actual-crisis. Of course, this means that when someone takes time off, you get crises. And since people tend to think in terms of immediate causes rather than underlying systems, you get workers resenting other workers for taking time off. This effect is even stronger when only certain people have the training or authorization to do certain required tasks.

2. There is a strong cultural taboo against telling anyone how much you make, or asking how much other people make. In many workplaces, there is official policy backing it up--in my job, discussing pay is a firing offense. Most people seem to think that this is good, that pay should be just as private as, say, masturbatory fantasies. This is weird. The fact that I make x amount per hour (and I won't be specific here because I'm a slave who's lucky to be owned) is not some sort of fact about me; it's a fact about where my employer's desire to retain employees rather than train new ones intersects with their desire to wring as much profit out of each employee as possible (and, of course, where each of these intersects with the availability of other employment).

Concealing this fact is of course useful to the company. If I don't know how much the people I work with make, I don't know if there is significant inequality between me and them: do different jobs make unreasonably different amounts? Do different people (say, men and women) doing the same job get different pay? Not knowing the extent of the inequality makes organizing to combat it more difficult, and keeps each of us isolated, focused on #3.

3. And #3 is the competition for raises and promotions that workplaces encourage. In an environment of peers who feel no solidarity, all working at pay scales that are typically near-sustenance level for the lifestyle we've been raised to think of as necessary (and which the constructed environments we live in to a large extent require), in which there are limited opportunities to improve those pay scales, this competition can easily become consuming. We all must strive constantly to be the best worker we can be (from the company's perspective), so that at those times when raises or promotions are available, we'll have a record that reflects well on us (from the company's perspective). Often this striving takes the form of monitoring our coworkers for our employer's benefit. And in the specific case--say, one higher paying job opens up, the company is hiring internally, and there are ten people who want the job--we will do anything we can to benefit ourselves, which typically includes something that is detrimental to others. Then, should one person be successful, the others who are unsuccessful will resent that person--he or she got something they deserved. This resentment is of course misplaced (it is not the worker but the employer that has created this situation), but it is easily understandable, and hard to avoid, especially for those not in a habit of examining systemic issues, as I mentioned in #1.

So the customer hates the worker, the worker hates the customer, and the workers hate each other. The company, above all of them, is relatively unscathed.

If there's a part four, it'll be examining all of this at work in a video of an incident at a Target store--it was the video that inspired all these essays. Fans of bloggy novelty will want to skip it, as the video was posted all the way back in July. Who could have predicted back then that I'd still be on about this?

PS Ha ha, I guess it wasn't shorter. Whoops! My other predictions are still accurate.


Peter said...

Huh. As I mentioned before, in my job as a sales minion the Company is pretty widely hated by employees. At the level of sales this does not lead to anything constructive. But a union action resulted in a $5 million back pay settlement for the warehouse workers, who were subject to pay discrimination on (mostly) religious grounds.

The company has also finally started hiring women (to do anything other than pick up garbage) after many law suits.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

I agree with all 3 points. Synchronicity bonus: I was just talking to someone on Thursday about what you described in point 2.

Ethan said...

Charles, thanks. Point #2, shockingly, only really occurred to me in the past year; before then, I took the taboo for granted.

Peter, sorry I didn't respond to your last comment--coincided with my internet break.

I'm glad to hear from someone whose workplace in general had a hatred for the company--and it sounds like it did some good in at least slightly breaking through the model I've been described, to beneficial effect. That's genuinely awesome, though judging from what you say it didn't go nearly far enough. (Though what, in this boa constrictor of a society, has any hope of going far enough?)

In my experience, the extent of "hate" that workers in general have for the company they work for is a sort of distaste for organizational incompetence--which they then will work extra hard to overcome. Like, a kind of "I have to save this company from itself!" Which is actually worse than just general good-feeling, if you ask me. Good for your workplace for fighting.

Ethan said...

(been describing, not been described, jeez.)

JRB said...

#1 hits home for me.

Working in an old school, command and control, unionized industry is 100x better than working in a "fun" and "self-empowered" retail setting -- and #1 has a lot to do with it.

At the risk of dispensing yet another compliment, love the series. Thanks!

zencomix said...

I used to work in a family owned restaurant. The woman who owned it kept the kitchen well staffed.

If you have three cooks cooking away, for the price of one or two more plates of food per hour, you could throw another cook on the line, and your ability to handle more volume in an efficient manner goes up dramatically. The lady knew what she was doing!

Sadly, she passed away, and her husband took over. He started cutting back, thinking he could save money by cutting back to 3 cooks. The ability to handle the volume sagged, people waited longer for food, so people started going elsewhere. So, since business dropped off, he cut back to 2 cooks, and business dropped off again. Finally he sold the place.

Randal Graves said...

Heh heh, this is fantastic and disturbing, but since I prefer to drown out the disturbing through power chords and booze, you're left with the former. Kudos.

#2 has even arrived here. They replaced the names next to the salaries with ID numbers in the university budget, which has provided much comedy for me when witnessing the steam coming out of profs' ears. #2, as in much of the private sector, isn't discussed in the open, but through the back door here, x makes more than y, blah blah blah.

We've managed to be defined, above all, by the loot we earn. Good times.

Bruce said...

All of these posts have been great. Thanks.

Rachel said...

These are excellent points, and ones I will crib from in getting my two coworkers (who are at my level, both male, and I have a sneaking suspicion are making twice my salary) drunk enough to blab.

Ethan said...

Thanks, everyone!

JR---I always wonder about "gradients" of shittiness like you bring up--I've never worked in a place like you say, so I can't really say for certain, but I'm always torn between imagining it'd be way easier to handle and thinking it would just be the same crap covered with more potpourri. Or maybe not more--a different kind, possibly a fresher scent.

zencomix--depressing, and a perfect illustration. Thank you.

Randal--see above re: potpourri. In many ways, an academic library job is probably way better than a corporate customer service job, but in other ways it's exactly the same bullshit. Also, We've managed to be defined, above all, by the loot we earn is a very valuable addendum to the narrative I've been spinning here.

Bruce--an extra special thanks to you.

Rachel--Good to hear from you! I was just saying earlier today that I've missed your comments. Glad you liked the post, and good luck--hope it's useful for you. If your suspicions are right, I hope you wreck shit.

Randal Graves said...

Unquestionably corporate customer service is a hell beyond here, I simply marvel at the power of those ideas to slip their tendrils everywhere. I'm just glad the self-checkout machine is nearly always on the fritz, heh.

Rachel said...

Thanks Ethan. I'm still reading, but the job has made it difficult to comment regularly.

Ethan said...

Aw, I was hoping it was better aspects of life than work that were keeping you off the internet.