Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The customer is always wrong

At Duane Reade, a drug-store chain in New York City, you typically don't get what anyone would call good customer service. Chronically understaffed, the only person working the floor will typically be a security guard covering the front door while one or two clerks try to handle the chaos of customers trying to check out. No lines form, people just mill about and dart in when they see an opportunity. The clerks seem to take a perverse pride in working as slowly as possible, as if an award will be given to the cashier who rings out the fewest on a shift. They never greet you, they never look you in the eye, and they don't count your change out to you, and they don't say goodbye, and they certainly don't say "have a nice day." And for all this they should be applauded.

I'm against customer service, which is typically a bogus way of making a shopper fel more important than he really is for an activity that should in no way be thought to dignify him. You shouldn't expect to be treated like a grandee or a pasha simply because you are buying a few razor blades and a tube of toothpaste. Spending money shouldn't give you a sense of accomplishment or make you feel important, and that is the ideological function of customer service: to accustom people to receiving social recognition only when they buy something, and to make them accept that unless they have money to spend they are invisible in the public sphere. Self-worth becomes a matter of spending power, and can't be derived from any other activity, because these won't be publicly recognized and lauded the way a customer is at some chain restaurant where he is fawned over for eating his fajitas and enjoying his 2-for-1 light beers during happy hour.

Customer service takes the kind of easy-going, friendly exchange that should occur between strangers in free civic space and stages it as a commercial exchange, suggesting that pleasantry must be purchased along with the pack of gum or the bottled water. The consequence of so many people seeing friendliness as a kind of theatre, whether because their job prostitutes their inclination to be polite or because they have been pimped to so often as consumers that they have become jaded, is that they don't want to perform offstage, they don't believe in friendliness as a spontaneous reaction to those they share society with, and they tend toward surliness in non-shopping public space, preferring to isolate themselves from all but a few trusted intimates. This suits the commercial world well, isolation breeds vulnerability, and it reinforces the notion that the only place one can find civility is in the shopping mall, on the spending end of a dollar.

Customer service is like human resources departments -- they flow fom the same ideological fount, whose principal tenet is that people are functions to be managed, not people with diverse, particular qualities and needs. It breeds in chain stores, it erupts wherever management hierarchies are installed. Customer service comes in with wage slavery, when a personal investment in the businesss concern is lost, when a faceless corporation is what profits. It is bureaucratized civility, it is what happens when economies of scale affect basic human interactions, leading to mass-produced politeness.

Hence, the absence of customer service is a healthy jolt of reality, an almost subversive act of dymystification. You are forced to see the clerk not as an automaton dispensing friendliness but a real person in a shitty job. You are forced to see your purchase for what it is, a simple functional exchange, without glamour, imparting no special dignity. It knocks you out of the complacent, compliant role of customer, and thrusts you back into a more basic role, of responding to what's around you. And it undermines the self-centeredness of comsumerism, it affirms that in fact the customer is always wrong, always reifying the good things in life, always content to purchase rather than experience pleasure. The anger that many feel at bad customer service is a displaced anger; they are angry at themselves and how their expectations from life have been reduced to such squalid petty demands like a smile on the face of the person who pours their coffee.

And let's not forget that customer service is often surveillance with a smile. When I worked in a mall bookstore as a teenager, I was told to engage customers to make them know that they were being watched and discourage them from stealing. When I worked in a convenience store I was told to greet every customer, for the same reason, not because I was actually happy to see them, but to make them aware that they are being watched. That's how customer service is: it uses friendliness as an alibi, a mask for other functions, and reduced to a means, civility no longer can stand as an end in itself.

The end of craven customer service could return some dignity to the world of consumption, something you see hints of in those boutiques and bodegas that have the feeling of doing you a favor by being open at all. You walk in, you are left alone. If you are noticed at all, it will be on a human level, because you've been there enough to be recognized, or because you've made some real connection with the clerk. To interact with the clerk, you have to talk to him like a human being. I go to this taverne in my neighborhood that epitomizes this. It's privately owned, and it's character is specific to its place. When you earn respect by going there often enough, the waiters start to acknowledge you, welcome you to the community. It feels real because it's grounded in actual commitments. Until then, you get your food promptly and efficiently, with no fuss or frills. You remain conscious of the fact that you are an outsider, but at least you know that there is something really there, something to become part of after a while. Whereas when you go to the IHOP and you are given the suck-up service with a smile, you are made to feel like you belong, but you have to wonder what you belong to, and if that's a club you really want to be in.

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