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A Customer Service Worker’s Confession

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by Gabriel Conroy

Go and wear some wooden shoes

Dump the soup into the sink

Disconnect the phone they make you answer

And spit in a customer’s drink

Ignore the people at the counter

Make them repeat their order

And shave

A bit

Off the shareholders’ profits

 

If you’re under the boss’s eye

Stand up straight and smile

Say, “how do you do, sir!”

And make yourself worthwhile

But when he turns his back to you

Do whatever you have to

To try

To keep

A little bit of dignity

 

Lean against the sandwich table

Take an extra cigarette break

Follow every health and safety rule

Open the store a few minutes late

An hour’s wage is an hour gone

And you have to have some fun

For time

Will fly

Whether you do your job or not

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INTRODUCTION

I have never been poor and have probably had less, not more, than my “fair share” of low-waged customer service jobs.  But I have had some such jobs.  I was and am grateful for all of them, even the ones I hated.  Those jobs enabled me to earn a living and helped me pay for college.  They introduced me to a large number of people whom I might never have met and of whom in my snobbier moments I might have been afraid or dismissive.  Those jobs gave me valuable experience and skills that in some way probably helped me get better (for me) jobs and that continue to help me in the customer-service functions of my current library job.

Still, I engaged in passive aggression similar to what the poem above describes.  (Not in all ways. For instance, I have never and would never spit in someone’s food.)  I aggressed passively even in the best of those jobs.  What’s more, in most (I’m tempted to say all) cases, my bosses were decent people who may have had some faults (who doesn’t?), but wanted to do right by their employees.  And although the customers I targeted with my passive-aggression may have been in some way high maintenance, only a few of them met most persons’ standards for rudeness.

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LIST OF AGGRESSIONS

Here are some of the things I’ve done or, in one case, almost did:

1.  Be effusively, obsequiously polite to a customer who yells at me.  It’s a way of saying “go to h***” without actually saying it.  I don’t offer any specific examples here.  It’s sort of the modus operandi of anyone in customer service.

2.  Purposefully waste or damage the company’s property.  In a bagel shop I worked at, the store manager wanted to get a special bonus the corporate headquarters offered for keeping labor costs at a certain percentage of profits for the day.  He sent one or two employees home, leaving a smaller number of us than usual to handle the lunch rush.  That is, it was a “speedup.”  I “accidentally” tore up a lot of the small serving bags we put the bagels in and had to get a second or sometimes a third bag for any given bagel.

3.  When I worked at an inbound call center for a bank, customers often complained about some charge or other.  When the customer wouldn’t let up, I sometimes pointed out that the charge was disclosed in the deposit account agreement the customer would have received when he or she opened the account.  That may not seem like passive-aggression because I was just pointing out the rules.  But I knew that nobody really reads those agreements, which are printed in very small lettering, and it’s kind of a gotcha.

4.  At the same call center, we were assessed based on the number of calls we took, the amount of time each call on average lasted, and the amount of time we spent on paperwork and not taking calls.  I had discovered a way to rig the phones, so as to make the amount of time spent on paperwork seem less than it actually was.  On paper, this made me seem more efficient than I was and helped me get good performance reviews.

5.  In some jobs, my coworkers had code words for particularly attractive women.  When the women came into the line, someone would utter the words and we (the male employees) would all ogle.

6.  In some cases, I’d pursue the entire range of “let’s get the manager” procedure even though I might have been able to resolve the customer’s issues expeditiously.  To the extent this ploy works, it makes other customers angry at the complainer, often because it means the complainer is holding up the line.  (Of course, it could work the other way, where the customers are angry at the worker.  I suppose it depends on the situation and the customers.)  For example, at one fast food restaurant, which was in a mall, we had a very long line.  It was late—about 10pm or so—because it was the day before Christmas Eve and the mall was open extra hours.  And a customer was very upset for having waited and demanded free food.  I probably could have quietly given her some free fries or something.  But instead, I did the whole progression of getting the manager, and he sided with me, and then an exchange of names and numbers, with the contact for the district manager, took place.  After several minutes, the line got going again.

7.  At the call center job mentioned above, I once hung up on a customer simply because he was rude.  (There had been a few times when I accidentally—and it truly was an accident—had hung up on someone.)  In that particular instance, that customer was by most persons’ standards rude, and in that sense, he was unusual.

8.  Something I didn’t do but was strongly tempted to:  When I was a teller, there was one customer who got irate whenever we asked for her I.D.  She didn’t just grumble as a lot of customers do, she’d yell and get upset, almost to the point of tears.  Apparently she thought she was so important that we should just remember who she was.  There was one time I was helping her (this was after I had committed the “offense” of asking her for her I.D. when she made a withdrawal and so learned my lesson), and I almost just asked her for her I.D. to set her going.  I didn’t do it, but I was tempted.

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OBSERVATIONS

A few observations about the above.

All the examples, except numbers 2 and 4, were directed at customers and not management.

For numbers 1, 3, 5, and 6, the customer was almost never really “rude” even by my hypersensitive standards.

Number 4 was a way to slow down the pace of work and make it easier for me.  And for the record, I still took a pretty large number of calls.  Depending on how busy we were, the number could range from 100 (very slow days) to over 200.  I should point out, however, that this wasn’t just a way to “steal time” from management.  It hurt my coworkers, who (I presume) didn’t know how to rig their phones and who were assessed based on the more difficult standards.

Number 5 was sexist and I shouldn’t have participated.  I should have spoken out against it and didn’t.  It wasn’t the only such sin I witnessed and took part in.  Once, a coworker joked about some “rednecks” in line.  I smiled.  I recall another instance, where a (white) employee whispered to me a racist joke about some black customers.  I don’t remember if I laughed, but I certainly didn’t call him out.  In yet another situation, some coworkers were loudly making some blatantly antisemitic statements in front of an obviously Jewish customer (he was wearing a yarmulke).  I didn’t laugh, but I didn’t call them out on it.

For number 7, the customer was indeed rude and made it impossible for me or any of the others at the call center (he called multiple times one Sunday morning).  That example, in fact, might have been more an instance of “active” aggression, considering I told him that if he kept swearing at me I would hang up.  In that case, I’ll say that I felt and feel no regret about my actions.  But my point is that he was an outlier.

For number 8, it would have been “fun” to make the customer explode in anger and embarrass herself.  But I think it would have been wrong, too.  I say that not just because she was a customer and it’s a bad idea to make your customers feel uncomfortable, but alsobecause it’s just wrong to bait people.  I knew nothing about her personal life, but she probably was a very lonely, frustrated, and unhappy person.  Stoking the flames would have been cruel.  Not that I can honestly say to have considered all that.  Maybe I just didn’t want the hassle.  But in my view, it would have been wrong to bait her.

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TAKEAWAYS

In my experience, trying to do one’s job well—and not engaging in passive aggressive warfare—is often the best way to approach a customer service job.  When I did my job in the spirit of sincerely helping people, the day went by faster, there was less tension, and at the end of the day, there was a certain satisfaction in having done my best.  And there can be something truly satisfying in helping others, even if that just involves making a sandwich.

Also, it’s true that customers are the purpose for the job.  Without them, there’d be no job.  At my current job, which involves some light customer service duties but is not low-waged, I try to remember that library patrons (as well as the taxpayers who fund a significant portion of my library’s income) are a big part of the reason why I can have such a good job in the first place.  And I do my best to help them or otherwise serve them when they need it.

Others’ mileage varies, I’m sure.  I believe people engage in passive aggression largely because they feel powerless.  Or, which is almost the same thing, they want to keep a bit of self-respect that they feel their current position denies them.  Sometimes striking back or striking out seems like the best option.  There is a power imbalance and inherent antagonism built into service work between employee and boss and between employee and customer.  I think that antagonism is greater the lower one gets on the pay scale, but it never completely recedes from view.  And while a generous paycheck goes a certain distance toward helping someone cope, it doesn’t do everything.

In my better moments, I do try to remember this when I’m a customer and the employees helping me seem moody or otherwise unhelpful or passive-aggressive.  I don’t know them (usually), don’t know what he or she going through and usually don’t know the demands of their jobs.  In fact, one of the aphorisms by which I try to live is that “most jobs are harder than they seem to the one who doesn’t do them, and all jobs have challenges that are invisible to the one who hasn’t done them.”  I can’t say I’m always successful.  My “better moments” are rarer than I’m comfortable with.

There’s a lot I omit in this post.  Customer service work can be enjoyable, and it certainly beats the health hazards one encounters by working in, say, a textile mill or a coal mine or some construction jobs.  I’ve also not talked about my other employees and their situation to any great extent.  I don’t know what my female coworkers thought about the ogling of female customers, for example.  And I had pretty strong unearned privilege vis-a-vis many of my fellow employees.  I might not therefore be capturing the whole picture.  For example, many of my coworkers at the least rewarding jobs—probably not a majority, but still a substantial number—would have that type of job for the rest of their lives.  My cheerful view of doing one’s job well might ring differently to them.  Also, the types of on-the-job tensions I describe are not unique to low-waged customer service work, and they probably bear a family resemblance to the relations in almost any other workplace.

What are the policy implications one can draw from this post?  I don’t know.  I’m wary of going the (to some) obvious route of saying this is why we need policies to regulate wages and hours or to promote unionization, on the assumption that such policies help workers gain respect in the workplace that they otherwise might seek through passive aggression.  There’s something to be said for (and probably against) that view.

But my main admonition, from a policy perspective, is to just remind my readers that work environments have a certain element of “thickness” to them. They’re a site of day-to-day practices of which the passive aggression I discuss in this post is one example.  There’s a lot that goes on that is either untouchable by policy or touched only indirectly or in an uncertain way by policy.  We can, and should, discuss a given policy’s effect on unemployment, or whether unions expand or restrict access to employment.  But we should also remember that there’s much we don’t see, and I hope the foregoing provides a check against rushes to judgment.

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CONCLUSION

I regret some of the things I’ve done.  I don’t regret others.  And I’m on the fence about the rest of them, in retrospect sometimes thinking that I was justified and sometimes thinking that I was not.  My current job pays generously, and I’m accorded the kind of respect for my supposed expertise that is not offered to most customer service workers.  Yet sometimes I am tempted to indulge the surly passive aggression I had resorted to when I was less advantaged.  And yet again, I am reminded that class warfare is not all, that I am there to help people and that there is something beyond the sabotage dreamt up by the anarcho-syndicalists who inspired my poem above.  This is a lifelong project, and I’m still working on it.

 

[Thanks to my spouse, who edited and made suggestions. – GC]

 

Image: Documentary poster, whose graphic is from an Industrial Workers of the World propaganda poster, circa 1918. 

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26 thoughts on “A Customer Service Worker’s Confession

  1. I’ve done my share of customer service jobs as well, and as much as I generally hated dealing with the public, it’s left me with an appreciation for the job. Just this evening I picked up a bag of ice at the gas station and had to wait a few minutes at the counter while the two clerks had a serious discussion about what had just happened with a customer before I came in. Somehow some confusion in the transaction had, they, thought, led to the one probably giving back too much change, and she thought her cash drawer was going to be about $8 short. There was nothing they could do to rectify the situation, with the customer gone, and no way to figure out the actual shortage until she closed out her shift and counted her drawer, so I guess they “ought” to have shut up and helped me. But I’ve been there, and it sucks, and I don’t know if the poor clerk will have to make up the difference or not. So when the other clerk turned to me and apologized for the delay, I smiled and said, no problem, I’ve been there, too.

    It doesn’t really cost a customer to be nice, and my experience–on both sides of the customer/customer service divide–is that you generally get a lot better service by being nice than being a blowhard.

    My main aggression to customers came when I worked phone sales for a pool supply company. On weekends it was just a few of us customer service reps there, with no supervisor. So what to do when an unhappy customer wanted to talk to a supervisor? You can’t really tell them to call back Monday without making them more unhappy. So we each played supervisor for each other. When another rep muted his mic, turned to me and said, “she wants to talk to a supervisor, I’d ask what he or she told the customer, take the phone, claim to be the supervisor, listen politely, then almost always tell them the same thing the other rep had, and it almost always satisfied them to hear it from the supervisor. We weren’t ripping them off, and when they had a legitimate complaint we’d do what we could to make it right. I think sometimes they just needed to know a higher up had heard their complaint. A higher up never did, but they didn’t know that,mand they felt better for the conversation. And they wouldn’t have gotten anything more from the real supervisor. Still, it was a bit if dishonesty.

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  2. When I worked fast food, even $5 short was a serious thing. We weren’t theoretically allowed to make up for it, but we could be written up. (Being the weird person that I am, I usually snuck in a few dollars to the drawer because I preferred not to be short.) When I was a teller, I was surprised that we could be up to $10 short and just write it off, and $50 before it was a big deal, and even over $50, it wasn’t necessarily a write-up-able offense. Of course, if someone was $49.99 short for 10 days in a row, that would be cause for concern.

    I had a reference call a couple months ago in which the patron and I just didn’t understand each other. He or she didn’t seem to know how, for example, an archives operate and that the reference person didn’t just have a reservoir of facts at hand, and I failed to ask the appropriate questions to find out what he or she really wanted to know. It was a communication fail, probably more my fault because it’s my job to communicate. Anyway, she asked to speak with someone else, not a “supervisor,” but someone else, and I just had to transfer the call to a coworker. Not exactly what you’re describing, but in some ways related.

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      • I don’t know if this helps or not, but when I call (say) the phone company, and am greeted with something like “Thank you for calling AT&T, and how may I offer you excellent service today?” I always sympathize. “My gosh, do they really make you say that?”

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      • When I worked at the call center, we were always supposed to end with “thank you for calling [name of the bank].” The goal, probably, was 1) just to give us a script to make it easier, or 2) repeat the name of the company so that customers wouldn’t forget. Most of the time, that sounded so canned that I didn’t say it. (Also, if someone has an account at a bank, are they really going to forget it’s name?)

        It’s been a while since I’ve taken a Greyhound, but I recall when I used to call to buy tickets or get information, the first thing the rep said was something like “Greyhound, destination city please?” One time I asked the employee why, and she said they were required to start that way. To me, it seems a very abrasive way to begin a phone call. Even if one assumes that everyone calling is calling in order to buy tickets, sometimes it helps to make the conversation flow better to start with a “thank you for calling greyhound, how can I help you?”

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    • I worked as a cashier at a seafood restaurant, and while I don’t remember getting a specific range, my sense was that anything over a couple of bucks would be questioned (and of course any underages would be expected to be balanced out by overages in the long run).

      The person who trained me also taught me to feel free to pocket any significant overage (after all it would just end up in the boss’s pocket otherwise). One night I thought I was $60 over and took it home, but somehow I completely forgot to count a pile of money, and I got a call next day asking what happened. I professed ignorance and it was chalked up to some unscrupulous person swiping from the cash drawer when no one was looking. Not my proudest moment. Especially since the money I legimately earned from the job was windfall enough for teenage me and I hardly needed the extra.

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      • I was and probably still am much more of a goody-two-shoes stakhonovite than my OP suggests. Therefore, I’ve never taken cash from my employer. I’m not trying to sound all high and mighty, but that was something that I just never was really tempted to do.

        However, I did, sometimes, toy with the idea of what it would take to rob the bank and leave the country. Short answer: too hard to be worth what money I could get away with.

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  3. As a customer service manager for more than a decade, 1 and 7? Are just fine. Like, if I “caught” you doing them (mostly, with my students, I don’t catch them doing things, they come tell me and see what I think about it), I would see them as appropriate responses to inappropriate customer behavior. I have found that in most cases, the customers in #1 don’t even notice, or if they do, they feel satisfied that people are treating them right. (I have occasionally been embarrassed to be WITH someone being the butt of #1, and hissingly explained to them later that NO, you didn’t set that young lady straight, AT ALL, you were being a jerk and she was expressing it the only way she could, by treating you like a person-bomb instead of a real person.)

    2 through 6 range from *major side-eye* to shrug, enh, well, if i were your manager, i hope I would realize I (or the company) was asking for that one, and change our processes / my own choices … but I’m sure a list of my transgressions would garner equally critical reactions.

    (This was an excellent post and you certainly don’t need my opinions! I just felt like sharing.)

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  4. Spitting in someone’s food (if it’s sent back) is “traditional” [generally before recooking.]
    This is why it’s not a good idea to send food back (unless there’s a serious forgetfulness issue — still frozen hamburger or something).

    Instead, buy another entree. This way you aren’t insulting the kitchen.
    If you think that the next entree is likely to be just as bad, stand up and leave.

    I went to a restaurant once with someone who decided that the “strawberry chicken” they had ordered looked “raw” and thus wouldn’t eat it — sent it back to be recooked, and then had the temerity to not only not eat it, but “share” with her neighbor rather than ordering something else. Never Again.

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  5. When I had a coffee shop, I did a bit of everything. Mostly, I ran the kitchen. But I also did shifts on the counter, cleaned the seating areas, the bathroom.

    Cooking was back-breaking labor; constant motion, often a hundred different tasks going on at once. But it was much less draining than the counter customer service. Most people are delightful, and a moment of banter sprinkled with some local knowledge of what was worth their time would bring them back again and again while they visited here. But there was always that small percentage bent on spreading misery, here to tell us how inferior we are because we didn’t have major franchises in town and there were a lot of house trailers sprinkled amongst the million-dollar second homes. And while the drain of constant giving-of-yourself to kind people is tiring, the energy suck of mean people is soul depleting. It’s healthy to find some way of recognizing how pitiful they are lest they turn you pitiful and surly.

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    • I agree on the “recognizing how pitiful they are” part. I occasionally think of that lady from example #8 above and realize how sad she must have been to be able to be triggered by so minor a thing.

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  6. There was a time that a simple start-up batch file pointing at a official looking executable could wipe all the system files of an operating system.

    The comical part is if the batch file and executable are not over written when the operating system is re-installed, it happens over and over….

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  7. On a recent business trip, I stayed at a hotel that only had valet parking. I came back there one night about 10:00 PM, and started chatting with the young guy that met me at the curb. He seemed to be enjoying the conversation, so we spoke for several minutes. When I got to my room, I realized I’d left my reading glasses in the car, so I went to the front desk, feeling a bit bad about asking him to retrieve the car I’d just dropped off to be parked, but having no real choice. Fortunately, the car was still where I’d left it.

    On the way back past the desk I said “I’m glad I didn’t cost you an extra trip”, and he smiled and said “Oh, that’s a good one, sir.” Which made no sense as a response, but did make me realize that he hadn’t enjoyed the previous conversation; he’d been listening with at most half an ear, humoring the old geezer. And no doubt thinking he’d been providing excellent customer service.

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  8. I used to wait tables at a country club. In the computer system we used to log orders, the daily specials didn’t have set prices; you had to enter the price manually when you keyed in the special on an order. So if you wanted the special to cost $5 more for a guy that was being obnoxious, you could, and nobody would catch you. My friend referred to this as the “asshole tax.”

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  9. God, I sympathize with anyone who’s done customer service, even though I do have customers, they are not “external”.

    The thing that gets me is this whole “excellence” movement. I got a call a while back from a car rental place who wanted me to rate my “car rental experience”. I’d gotten calls or emails asking the same from numerous places. When given the ranking, 1-5, 5 being highest and “excellent”, I gave a ranking of 3. The caller was quite taken aback, and asked how the experience could have been better. I told him that I had a short wait in line, got the car type I had reserved, been handled efficiently and quickly and had left the lot in about 20 minutes from start to finish. I told him that the service I got was exactly what was expected, and therefore, perfectly satisfactory, but had no answer to how it could have been “excellent” given my expectations. “Err maybe getting a BMW instead of a Nissan? Maybe a lower price” Nothing I could come up with that might have moved the experience to “excellent” seemed possible given the rental car process. Boy he was disappointed.

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