In the previous segment, I began the story of a hapless bookseller as a frame to talk about the sad fate of those working in the service industry (1/3 of the economy), about how those behind the counters are perceived and treated. The first part can be found here. It includes the beginning of the bookseller’s story, along with ruminations on my former union organizing days, and the reigning corporate concept of service work as not being real work.
And so, the story continues:
The Customer is Always...
The bookseller behind the register doesn’t look up at the couple, just keeps ringing up the large stack of books. When he finally does look up to tell the couple their total, the Jokester’s eyes are wide – with hatred, rage? Just plain crazy? The bookseller doesn’t know. He tells them their total and Jokester throws his credit card at the bookseller.
This is not an unusual event. People do this all the time. Why? We’re back to the ubiquitous perception that those working in the service economy are just bottom-feeders who cannot – or simply will not – pull themselves up by their own bootstraps in this great land of ours, and so they deserve our contempt. But there is something else that has been added to the mix over the years, an insidious corporate concept that makes this obnoxious behavior okay: The customer is always right.* The one behind the counter is seen as someone who must do whatever the customer wants, no matter what.
What this does is make all "service" employees into servants. Not workers, but servants. If you look up the word servant online, these are the synonyms: “Domestic, cleaner, lackey, flunkey, minion, housemaid, valet, manservant, drudge, menial, and slave.” (I am not putting down labor as an actual domestic servant here. I'm trying to point out that there are unconscious associations that go with the word servant, and that those associations are different for the words worker or employee.)
Here in the US, it’s clear that the many synonyms for servant are what flicker unconsciously through many a customer mind whenever they address anyone employed in the service economy. The bookseller knows this, but right at that moment he is only concerned with getting through the sale. What the hell, he has two minutes left on the clock. He swipes the credit card and slides the receipt across the counter for Jokester to sign. Jokester signs and leaves, obviously disgruntled. The bookseller doesn’t give it another thought and clocks out.
Ah, but when the bookseller returns to the store two days later, he’s pulled into the back office by the boss. Apparently, disgruntled-jokester-guy chewed over his “humiliation” at the hands of a mere bookseller for about an hour, then came back into the store, and complained to the boss that the clerk was rude and unprofessional. His words: “He looked right through me.” Jokester had not been SEEN and he had come into the store to be SEEN. Jokester wanted satisfaction. He wanted the bookseller fired. If the bookseller was not fired, then he threatened to never return to the store.
Another typical day in the service industry.
To his credit, the boss did not fire the bookseller. But that was probably only because the place was seriously short-staffed. Instead, the boss played the chummy old game of “It’s us against them, I know, comrade...and I’m on your side, really...but....” He calmly explained that he told Jokester that the bookseller was a bit distant, yes, but not rude...and, oddly enough, many customers actually liked him…even praised him for his helpfulness and book knowledge. The boss then gave the bookseller a sympathetic smile. But there was something else in the eyes that didn’t quite fit with the smile: anger. The boss was angry that he had had to deal with a complaining customer. Someone was at fault for this inconvenience, someone’s to blame, and it certainly wasn’t the boss. In the service economy, there’s always someone to blame, and blame bumps down the chain of command, eventually landing on those at the bottom.
Now, as with many corporate managers or small business owners, this boss was rarely out on the floor and pretty much had no idea what went on out there. The extent of his participation was to make the rounds every once in a while to make sure that no two booksellers were standing together and talking. Sometimes the booksellers were talking about the weather, about books, about politics, about customers...but mostly they were talking about work – you know, passing actual information back and forth about what was going on in the store so that things went more smoothly. The boss was paranoid (from excess drink) and so interpreted every gathering of booksellers as either a conspiracy in the making (what kind, no one could say), or that they were simply slacking off. He was a firm believer in the motto: “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.” Of course, because the boss was never out on the floor, he had no idea what the booksellers or the baristas actually did all day.
Oddly enough, most of the time they were working. Remember, they were short-staffed, so they were busy all the time. The store functioned smoothly because of the dedication of the staff. They didn’t do this because they felt any allegiance to the boss (he’d lost that long ago with his periodic firings and drunkenness), but because they loved books and wanted to get the right book into the right hands, and – this is key – because they didn’t want to screw over their fellow workers. They had what Linda Tirado, in her recently published book, Hand to Mouth (an insightful, wonderfully angry, and much-needed book about being poor in America from the actual point of view of a working poor person), called siege mentality.
“I will kill myself for my co-workers,” Tirado says. “A lot of us do that. When we work through fevers and injuries and bone weariness, it’s for the money but also because if we don’t, we know that we’ll be leaving our co-workers holding the bag. However bad the shift is, with a man down, it’ll be that much worse on whoever’s left. There’s a siege mentality in the service industry in particular; you go through hell together. If you tap out and go home, you’re leaving your co-workers to deal with more customers with even fewer hands. And that means that they’re more likely to get fired themselves – because if customers start complaining about the service, the boss doesn’t really care that you’re covering for someone who’s out sick.” (pg 22 of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America)
The boss continued: “I know everyone has their off days, their off hours, but it’s important to look everyone in the eye and smile.” The boss then went into a small lecture about greeting customers when they first walk in the store and how that was the key to making people feel welcome. It was a lecture for someone who was sixteen. At the time, the bookseller was in his mid-forties.
The policy of the customer is always right always ends in humiliation for the worker. It means that all the psychically wounded, the nut-jobs, and the viciously cruel, can walk into a retail outlet and put someone down without any repercussions. So, in the end, abusive people get better service than the nice ones.
“So Why Do You Need Me to Pretend That I’m Happy to Serve You?”
*Apparently, the phrase "The customer is always right" was originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge's department store in London. His life has been dramatized on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre's Mr. Selfridge. The story of "how a young American upstart entrepreneur taught England how to shop." (PBS promo language, not mine) You betcha.