The Customer Isn't Right

Ed Zitron 9 min read

When I get mad at something, I do my best to try and focus on who the right person to be mad at is. For example, suppose something goes wrong at a hotel. In that case, you are likely not going to be able to speak to anyone directly responsible, because the reason that the thing went wrong is a multitude of different things that didn’t quite click. As a result, the best call is to be firm and transparent with your problems (and not go over the top about how bad you feel), but not to raise your voice, insult anyone, or say anything other than X thing is bad, and you’d like Y to be done to make up for it.

The same goes for stores, where even the manager you talk to is removed from the problem you’re facing and doesn’t deserve your ire. You can be angry at the company and use the manager as a conduit to seeing a resolution to the problem, but it’s all but certain that the people you see the most in the store are both the most vulnerable to customer complaints and the least empowered to resolve them.

I’m writing this because of the New York Times’ A Nation on Hold Wants to Speak With a Manager. The piece sort of has its heart in the right place - people are acting like out-of-control babies, treating workers like crap, and generally embarrassing themselves. The core problem with this article is that it shifts the blame away from personal responsibility - a constant theme in the pandemic - and onto a vague sense of “things are bad, and that’s why people are acting badly”:

Nerves at the grocery store were already frayed, in the way of these things as the pandemic slouches toward its third year, when the customer arrived. He wanted Cambozola, a type of blue cheese. He had been cooped up for a long time. He scoured the dairy area; nothing. He flagged down an employee who also did not see the cheese. He demanded that she hunt in the back and look it up on the store computer. No luck.

And then he lost it, just another out-of-control member of the great chorus of American consumer outrage, 2021 style.

“You’re looking at someone and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese.’”

I get what this anecdote is trying to say, but I hate it because I’ve never, and I quote, “lost it.” I am sure I’ve been a dick to customer support at some point (and I am deeply sorry), but I do not yell, I do not personally attack them, and I am also not the most emotionally strong or intelligent person. It does not take much effort to speak to someone normally - you can be upset, you can be firm about how upset you are, but you can also make it clear that the person in question is not a bad person.

Take this quote:

Perhaps you have felt it yourself, your emotions at war with your better nature. A surge of anger when you enter your local pharmacy, suffering from Covid-y symptoms, only to find that it is out of thermometers, never mind antigen tests. A burst of annoyance at the elaborate rules around vaccine cards and IDs at restaurants — rules you yourself agree with! — because you have to wait outside, and it is cold, and you left your wallet in the car.

A feeling of nearly homicidal rage at the credit card company representative who has just informed you that, having failed to correctly answer the security questions, you have been locked out of your own account. (Note to self: Adopting a tone of haughty sarcasm is not a good way to solve this problem.)

Alright, let’s take a pause here. I appreciate that they’re trying to set up the “things are frustrating and they reach a point where you get mad,” but this piece fails to interrogate the customers themselves. It even tries to cover for them:

At the same time, many consumers are rightly aggrieved at what they view as poor service at companies that conduct much of their business online — retailers, cable operators, rental car companies and the like — and that seem almost gleefully interested in preventing customers from talking to actual people.

“The pandemic has given many companies license to reduce their focus on the quality of the experience they’re delivering to the customer,” said Jon Picoult, founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer service advisory firm.

One of the most frustrating parts of any New York Times article is watching exactly where they’ve intentionally removed the name of a company - something that would have been deeply illustrative of the problem here. The writer treats this phenomena as something that’s been created by bad circumstances or mistakes by the company, versus a cultural issue that America has with the idea of “service.”

While I don’t personally feel this way, I think there are a large amount of people that believe that some in a store works personally for them, making every problem with the company a personal offense caused by the worker. What we are seeing today is exacerbated by the circumstances of the pandemic, but is absolutely a result of treating the average worker like a disposable slave that must attend to the every whim of the person in question. This becomes even worse when it comes to outright service jobs - restaurant workers, airline stewards, and so on - because the nature of the job is “serving” someone which, in the mind of a selfish asshole, means they’re a "servant.”

None of this analysis is in the piece, because it fails to interrogate a single reason that any of this stuff is happening.

“Customers have been superaggressive and impatient lately,” said Annabelle Cardona, who works in a Lowell, Mass., branch of a national chain of home-improvement stores. Recently, she found herself in a straight-up screaming match with a customer who called her lazy and incompetent after she told him that he needed to measure his windows before she could provide the right size shades.

Such interactions used to make her weep. “But I’ve been calloused by it,” she said. “Now, instead of crying, I’m just really pessimistic and judgmental against the people around me.”

If I were writing this article, my next question would be “what is the company doing to help you with this?” so that I could hear the person say “nothing” and write about how bad that is. If customers are getting worse, these customers should be banned - they should face real consequences for being crazed and selfish, such as being banned from the store and even arrested. Humiliate them! Make them feel bad for being nasty little freaks!

This article categorically fails to state that these actions are morally wrong, and that they’re likely a big part of the great resignation. On top of that, it fails - utterly and completely - to place the blame at the fault of the customer and the company. It does not talk to psychologists about the long-term effects of “building a callous” to being screamed at by an irate customer. It does not discuss how these things deeply hurt and scar workers that are likely not making much as it is, potentially risking their lives to be around an increasingly more deranged customer base. It doesn’t even acknowledge people are quitting their jobs because of these awful conditions.

And it doesn’t mention that companies aren’t taking it seriously and are confused that people are quitting. In all of these cases, the answer is that these workers should be getting hazard pay, have security on hand that can bounce these people (metaphorically and literally), and should be getting access to mental health services to help with all-but-certain Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

As a person, I find it horrifying that someone working in a Lowes or Home Depot has got to a point where they accept and “take” someone screaming at them. It is neither a normal nor humane thing to subject someone to screaming in general, and it certainly isn’t in a professional space. The writer in question seemed to lack any real empathy:

From across the country, workers responded with similar stories: of customers flying off the handle when the products they wanted were unavailable; of customers blaming the store, rather than supply-chain disruptions, for delays; of customers demanding refunds on nonrefundable items; of customers so wound up with worry and anxiety that the smallest thing sends them into a tailspin of hysteria.

Wow, that’s crazy! Did you talk to any companies about how they’re dealing with this? When you wrote out six or seven anecdotes of worker assault, did you think to talk to a lawyer about it, or perhaps try and get the CEO’s office of the person you talked to, or maybe speak a little truth to power? No?

I won’t get into the reasons why, because I am tired of trying to guess why New York Times writers do the things they do, but I am going to be blunt about the problems here:

  1. Customers are acting more insane because the pandemic has taken some people away from something they clearly enjoyed - feeling superior to other people and ordering them around. They believe a part of the product that a store sells is the ability to control other people.
  2. Consumers have an exaggerated sense of importance, and have taken the “customer is always right” idea to mean “the customer is God.”
  3. America generally treats lower-paid workers - which are overwhelmingly working in stores and at restaurants - as “beneath” them, which means that they do not treat them as if they’re humans.
  4. Because these workers have been classically easy to replace, companies don’t put much effort into making sure their lives are good or, indeed, stopping them from quitting due to awful working conditions.

And, most importantly, people are generally fucking awful to customer-facing workers and need to learn to be human beings and not animals.

“I’m not expecting people to be nice,” she said. “They don’t have to wish me a good day. They can say, ‘Hi, I’d like to buy this,’ and then ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye.’ I’d be very happy with that.”

Perhaps it’s a stretch, but this reminds me of the entire argument I’ve been having around how we have societally forgotten that work is an exchange of money for labor. When you go to a store, you are there to buy something or some things, and if someone helps you, it’s because you needed something you couldn’t find. If there’s a problem, they’re there to help, but they are limited in what they can do. You do not pay them, they are there to make buying something easier or quicker, but you do not own their time or energy or life - and yet for years we’ve heard this garbage about “the customer is always right.”

To put it simply, we have raised millions of people to see workers as objects to be used and are surprised when people act as such. Corporations have treated these people as disposable because they have previously have been, but now it’s harder to hire people because they’re either quitting due to bad working conditions or killed by an invisible virus that they were forced to face.

It is a cop-out to blame this phenomenon on the pandemic or on the “frictionless economy” - it continually fails to hold consumers and companies responsible. Companies have failed to support and protect their workers, and customers are being ghoulish psychopaths. I do not have any empathy for someone that yells at a worker in a store. While there are always reasons that people act specific ways, these situations seem never to have any empathy available for the worker being screamed at for not having Uncle Pleasure’s Leisure Treasure Double IPA.

There is no amount of money that makes it okay to scream in someone’s face, but I can assure you whatever pittance the grocery store worker is paid for being flayed by a red-faced goon is insufficient. And it doesn’t even need to be screaming - having someone tell you you’re incompetent, or stupid, or lying, or mean, or “bad” for not doing your job is hurtful. And these workers are dealing with it every day.

Companies need to start treating these customers like criminals. We have endless propaganda about the potentially made-up shoplifting epidemic, yet a distinct lack of high-profile news stories about the continuing years-long growth of violence against workers. We demonize shoplifters as violent thugs destroying society while ignoring vulnerable, underpaid workers being abused on a daily basis, sharing the occasional over-the-top example and laughing at it as if it’s the exception to the norm.

I’m not convinced that the pandemic created this phenomenon based on the number of people acting as if their civil rights are being taken away when asked to wear a mask or get a vaccine. People do not feel responsible for others, and as far as they’re concerned, any restrictions on their ability to do whatever they want or get whatever they want is a crime. This has naturally been extended to stores and those that work in them - when something goes wrong, it’s a personal thing that was done to them versus something going wrong in a large chain of other things going wrong, and the person who is responsible should be screamed at as much as possible because they’re morally wrong for the thing in question.

As with much of the pandemic, all of this has been happening for years, it’s just been sped up thanks to a combination of societal problems all happening at once. The problem - and indeed, the problem itself - is that people are angry at the wrong people. They see the front-line workers as a representative of the company, in part because company cultures have pushed this line of thinking to distance themselves from their responsibility to the customer. This further increases the mania that many customers have, making them believe that the person that “won’t help them” is doing so out of a personal grievance or ignorance, and must not understand the gravity of the situation.

They believe that they are the most important angel in all the world, wronged by a terrible, mean corporation, which they will now use to justify berating someone that likely didn’t do anything who is paid minimum wage.

And even if the person in question did mess up…you still don’t yell at them. You don’t need to. It won’t make you feel better (and if it did, that’s a shitty reason to do it), and it will make their lives worse, and it won’t get you what you want any faster. Being sympathetic to their conditions and situation while also transparent with what’s happened and what you need will work significantly more often, and won’t trample on someone who’s already spent their day being trampled on.

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