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The Customer Is Always Wrong

Rob Horning
Photo from Verboort.org

Among other things, customer service is little more than survelliance with a smile. The end of craven customer service could return some dignity to the world of consumption.

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 store often seems to have only one person working the floor � a security guard covering the front door � while one or two clerks try to handle the chaos at the checkout counter. No lines form; customers just mill about and dart in when they see an opportunity, like cabbies trying to circumvent a double-parked truck. The clerks seem to take a perverse pride in working as slowly as possible, as if they have a bet among themselves who'll ring out the fewest on a shift. And besides, they are paid the same no matter how few customers they help. The more efficient they are, the less they are effectively paid for their efforts. Why not go as slow as possible, especially if no manager is breathing down their necks to accelerate the pace? These clerks never greet you, they never look you in the eye, they don't count your change out to you, they don't say goodbye, and they certainly don't say "have a nice day." And for all this they should be applauded.

Generally I'm against customer service, which is typically a bogus way of making a shopper feel 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. But sometimes when I've been especially decisive in the bookstore or if I have chosen the fastest line at the grocery store after having picked out some really excellent apples from the produce section, I'll feel this soothing sense of accomplishment. And should the clerk step up with professional customer service � with the greeting and the chit-chat and the effortless smile � it meshes perfectly with my ersatz feeling of importance. I've spent my money well, with purpose, and thank God the clerk was there to recognize me for it.

America's personal savings rate has recently gone below zero percent, meaning we are now officially spending more than we save. Some feel this proves that healthcare and education costs have squeezed the middle class past the point of rationality,others dismiss it as a statistical illusion, arguing that consumers are borrowing against their rising home values, and their increased credit burden, if anything, demonstrates American faith in the future. Still, one can't avoid Robert Samuelson's conclusion that "a low savings rate reflects national character -- an addiction to immediate gratification."

Consumers and their frivolous desires, their insatiable appetites for goods, ultimately must bear some of the blame. But these appetites aren't simply endemic to the American gene pool; they don't emerge naturally and inevitably. Rather, they are scientifically stoked by the various tentacles of the media, through advertising and entertainment that sings the pleasures of novelty and consumption, and then reinforced by fiscal policy and interest rates that discourage saving. While savings is usually associated with miserliness and dangerous hoarding that could be economically harmful, spending is typically framed as an opportunity to demonstrate one's savvy. Paradoxically enough, money unspent is wasted potential, a squandering of one's opportunities. (Hence the notion of "opportunity costs", which transfigures unspent money into lost capital.) Spending provides the playing field on which one can rank oneself in terms of the criteria our society values: do you own the right things? have you spent wisely? No one will be impressed by my $2,000 in savings bonds, but I'll be envied at the practice space if I buy a black vintage Fender Telecaster like the one Dylan plays on the European tour in '66.

It's no accident that in literature, gamblers are usually rakish heroes and misers are often repugnant misanthropes. Likewise, we regard even reckless spending as a kind of daredevil courage, a laudable willingness to take chances, to forge ahead, to shake off the nebbishy timidity of thriftiness and make bold new purchases of consumer goods that have not yet proved their essentialness. Sure, anyone can buy an iPod now, but were you there five years ago? Every time we celebrate ourselves or envy someone else for having something or being aware of something before someone else, we play into this notion of heroic consumption, a notion that spending is a kind of doing that's equal if not superior to making things, and we condone the idea that we discover things about ourselves by discovering things in the store, things that have been left there in advance for us to find.

Customer service serves a related ideological function in promoting the myth of heroic spending. It accustoms us to the notion that we deserve social recognition only when we buy something, as well as make us accept the idea that unless we have money to spend, we are invisible in the public sphere. Self-worth becomes a matter of spending power, and the more this is reinforced by sycophants at our beck and call in Nordstrom, the more it begins to seem that self-worth can't be derived from any other activity. With a public sphere reduced to shopping malls, a citizen is far less likely to receive social recognition for any contributions to her community, but she sure as hell will be feted at a chain restaurant, fawned over for eating fajitas and enjoying 2-for-1 light beers during happy hour.

What the puppetry of customer service does is take the kind of easygoing, friendly exchange that should occur between strangers in public space and stage it as a commercial exchange, suggesting that pleasantry must be purchased along with the pack of gum or the bottled water. Because so many people see friendliness as a kind of theater, whether because their job prostitutes their inclination to be polite, as sociologist Arlie Hochschild details in The Managed Heart (University of California Press, 2003) or because they have been pimped to so often as consumers that they have become jaded, few are willing to perform offstage. Instead, they'll 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 and trust civility is in the shopping mall, on the spending end of a dollar. People have become skeptical toward spontaneous friendliness in public encounters. When someone starts talking to me on the subway, my first thought is, What do they really want from me? -- just as though they were a salesperson at a clothing store. But I don't resent or fear the salesperson doing his job.

But let's not forget that customer service is often merely 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, which would 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 and eager for their business, but to make them aware that I had my eye on them. (In fine disgruntled fashion, I devised my own counter-surveillance anti-service strategies, which involved cranking Slayer and keeping my nose buried in whatever tabloid was on the rack.) 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.

Customer service works like human-resources departments; it flows from the same ideological fount, whose principal tenet is that people are not less idiosyncratic individuals than functions to be managed. 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 business concern is lost, when only a faceless corporation profits. It is bureaucratized civility; it is what happens when economies of scale affect basic human interactions, when profit motives are leveraged into mass-produced politeness while obliterating the bona fide item.

Hence, the absence of customer service is a healthy jolt of reality, an almost subversive act of demystification. You are forced to see the clerk not as an automaton dispensing friendliness on demand but a real person in a shitty job. You must see your purchase for what it is, no feat of courage or heroism but a simple functional exchange without glamour, something that imparts no special dignity on you, regardless of what advertisements and retail flunkies elsewhere may have led us to believe. The clerk, in his refusal to defer to you, may be exemplifying that time-honored strategy of subversion that Michel de Certeau calls "la perruque" -- doing one's own work on the boss's time, staking out creative space within the stultification of the dead-end job (The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, 1984). A clerk's rudeness is really a gift that knocks you out of the complacent, compliant role of customer and thrusts you back into the more fundamental, sentient role of responding to what's really around you; it disrupts the narcotic haze of a shopper lost in their private fantasies of acquisition and self-aggrandizement. It undermines the self-centeredness of consumerism; it affirms that, in contemporary capitalism, 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 what they expect from life has been reduced to such squalid, petty demands as a smile on the face of the person who pours their coffee.

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 often 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. The restaurants where I live epitomize this. Often they are privately owned and have character specific to them. When you earn respect by going to one often enough, the waiters start to acknowledge you and welcome you in the community. This feels really 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 Outback Steakhouse and you are given the suck-up service with a smile, you are immediately 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.

* * *
For more celebrations of rude anti social behavior, visit the Marginal Utility blog.

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