Back in my Ragan days, I sat right next to a customer service guy, named Ed. A less suitable temperament for customer service, you couldn't have found. Ed hated customers. He hated them in advance of their call, he hated them in real time, he hated them in arears.
And after he got off the phone with a particularly annoying one, he would stare straight at my temple until I tore myself away from whatever deadline I was on and asked him to tell me just exactly how stupid the customer had been, word for word.
It has always amazed me how stupid customers seem to customer service people, even those better psychologically suited for the work than Ed. Why are customers so stupid, especially over the phone?
Lately though, I think I've begun to figure it out. I am becoming a stupid phone customer. And it's working for me.
Here's how it works: I get something in the mail that I don't understand. Most recently, it was an apparent bill from Triple-A that I thought I had already paid.
I try to figure it out, but if I can't do so in several seconds, I get on the phone. I let the emotions wash over me: confusion, anger at the confusion, slight panic at my inability to distinguish anger from confusion. As I go through the humiliating "push or say 'one'" phone directory nonsense, I allow my feelings to intensify, so that by the time I'm notified that this call may be monitored for quality assurance, I'm just about a basketcase.
(Writing the above paragraph is giving me slight heart palpitations.)
It has also been my experience that the more emotional I am, the closer attention is paid to my case, as the customer service rep doesn't want the thing to escalate.
"Hi, this is Michael, thanks for calling, and how may I help you today?"
"Yes. I got this thing in the mail, I don't know what it is, but I think it says I have to pay, and I know I've already paid."
"Sir, I'm sorry you're having trouble. Can you tell me what it says, exactly."
"No! I can't! I left it downstairs! Why can't you tell me what it says?! You guys were the ones who sent it to me! Don't you guys know what you're sending to people?"
It's important to say here: I don't lay this down in an abusive way, and the tactic is only semi-conscious (I've only just become aware of it, actually). I sound panic-stricken and incompetent and 40 years older than I am—but I don't sound enraged and the person on the other end has no reason to take it personally. But the person does have reason to figure out the problem quickly and get to the sentence that I want to hear, which of course is, "Everything is fine, Mr. Murray. You're all set."
Meanwhile, my incentive to sound intelligent and emotionally stable and dignified—well, I feel that if companies wanted me to behave that way, they would treat me differently as well.
So since they treat me like a mope—with their "your call is very important to us" mumbo and their "and is there anything else I can help you with this evening" jumbo—by God, I'm going to behave like one.
And you know what?
It's liberating. And, I'm starting to think, it's effective.
So, you customer service people out there: Maybe your customers aren't as dumb or as crazy as you think. Maybe they're just acting that way, because they have figured out it's the best way to beat the system.
Crazy, they are: like a fox.
I ran all of the above past a couple of friends of mine who have long experience in customer service, telephonic and otherwise. I've seen and respected their work for years.
One responded immediately:
I really think this is a larger problem in that now everyone acts like this—and not just a few—you can’t imagine how emotionally draining it is to deal with this kind of stuff all day.
I understand though because there are a lot of really BAD customer service people out there that I think people have had to resort to what you do, but it makes it horrible on those of us that really take pride in it and really do care.
But I have had to deal with people at Barnes & Noble who literally OPENED a Thomas the Train new toy that their kid wanted to play with while in the store and then just left it. Didn’t buy it. Or the people that came in with their dog and let the dog play with the stuffed animals in the kids section and then just left them. Again, didn’t buy them. And I won’t even go into the stuff we found in the men’s restroom.
And believe it or not, the corporate mentality is also that we are to just let them do that stuff because we are not allowed to EVER EVER tell the customer that it’s not ok. That anything they are doing is not ok.
There is this entitlement with American consumers that I don’t see anywhere else where we believe it’s ok to basically destroy merchandise and we should be able to return it. I have had many a fit thrown in retail where someone brings back a CD or something that is LITERALLY scratched beyond use and they have obviously used and they claim that they didn’t and they start yelling. And then we have to take it back.
Barnes & Noble was treated like a library—people would open papers or magazines and not buy them. (And now MY anger is coming out.) …
So, I think it’s a chicken/egg thing—did the customers I describe in part two drive us customer service people to automatically become jaded whenever someone calls in (because from our perspective, we get so few reasonable customers), OR did bad customer service people cause people to have to resort to the entitled behavior and now it’s just cycling?
My answer is that almost all of this—customers ranging from childish to narcissistic, and customer service agents ranging from callous to emotionally traumatized—is a consequence of the corporatization of retail.
Try to imagine treating your local barber or hairstylist this way, or your local hardware guy or your bartender or your baker or butcher. And try to imagine them condescending to you with that smooth customer service patter. These are people whose circumstances you understand, and they understand yours. You need each other. Neither of you is "always right," so you both give each other the benefit of the doubt.
I say this not to raise nostalgia for the good old days, but because I think it's important that we not blame "human nature" for the way people behave in this very un-human society we have built for our convenience.
Someday we may decide to surrender some of that convenience and some of those low-low prices for a little humanity, and this will be one area to start.
My other customer service pal took a few days to respond. She wrote:
Finally got around to reading this. Shame on you.
They have figured out how to beat the system, and the worst customers get the best customer service because they are crazy and enraged. I have been taken customer’s rage personally when they actually say our company/department is incompetent, yada yada yada. And though at the end of the day when I go home I could care less about our customers, I honestly carry that around all day at work and feel horrible.
Meanwhile customers who are less crazy and polite, have to wait for my service while I run around trying to please the one crazy customer.
You are better than the rest of em David, c’mon.
And of course she's right, too. On this, as much as any other front in the endless American social conflict, we all need to try to do better by one another.