A Customer Service Worker’s Confession
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
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
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
Whether you do your job or not
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.