Is Our Obsession with Customer Service Turning Us Into Robots? Kind of.
Tiffany is ringing up my dog food and she couldn’t be nicer.
“How is your day going?”
“Horribly, actually,” is what I want to say. “Can we talk? Now?”
But I don’t, because I know it’s not Tiffany’s fault. She’s just part of America’s Fake Nice Economy.
I first noticed something awry a few years ago at Safeway. Being the Impatient Chef that I am, I was too busy and important to waste time looking for what I needed, so I stopped in front of an apron-wearing young man on his knees, stocking shelves.
“Excuse me, any idea where I’d find bread crumbs?”
Rather than just telling me what aisle they were in, the man jumped to his feet.
“Oh here, let me show you!” he said with great enthusiasm, speeding off due west, chivalrously leading the way.
And I remember thinking, Wow, that was nice of him to get up and actually show me.
Except that when I asked another shelf-stocker where the next thing was, and he said with alarmingly cheerful and pressured speech, “Oh here, let me show you!” and jumped to his feet, I squinted as he walked in front of me, looking for a little chip in the back of his head.
After that day, I started noticing that more and more often, whenever I entered any kind of service establishment, instead of having a natural exchange with employees, I was met with a script, one that had clearly been memorized and required, presumably intended to manufacture for me a positive “customer service experience.”
Any of these phrases ring a bell?
“Hey there! Welcome to ___” (earpiece-wearing retail salesperson)
“How’s your food tasting?” (every waiter now, ever)
“How's your day going?" (Starbucks)
"Find everything okay?” (every check out person now, ever)
“Any fun plans for the weekend?” (purveyors of beauty services)
“Anything else I can get you today?” (everyone, everywhere)
So you may be asking yourself, what’s the problem?
Well, this: In a world where we are increasingly plugged in, tuned out, shopping from home and substituting live interactions with likes and comments, we Americans have precious little occasion for non-curated contact with other human beings — contact, by the way, that a recent study identified as a key factor in people’s happiness.
This reign of artifice is cemented and perpetuated by the almighty survey, upon which the sum total value of the employee is measured.
A few months ago, I was on a college trip with my son, Sam.
“Wait till you get a load of the people in the midwest,” I said as we landed in Minneapolis. “Just so genuinely nice and down to earth in such a different way than anywhere else.”
We jumped into our Uber and, immediately, Tony began to deliver.
“How you folks doin’?”
For the next twenty minutes, the three of us talked up a storm. We told Tony about our trip and he shared stories of his youth, his favorite restaurants and what he loved most about the area.
“We have a thing here,” he chuckled. “It’s called ‘Minneapolis nice. You’ll see.”
“Oh, Tony, we already have,” I said, as we pulled up to the hotel.
But as Tony handed me my bag, the energy between us abruptly shifted.
He looked at me sheepishly. “Well, I hope I’ve met your expectations today…”
"And if I have,” and he was looking at the street now, “I hope you’ll write me a good review.”
“Of course I will.”
My heart stung for Tony, living under the regime. But it stung for us, too. What was even real?
Look, I get it. The success of American industry is built on a culture of service, and standards are an essential tool of accountability.
But what good is it if that success strips us of our humanity? When employers hold so little faith in their workforce that people on both sides are robbed of authentic human connection?
But it is important to note that for centuries, industry managed to thrive without managing us all into a robotic theater with no end.
A few years ago around the holidays, I was checking out groceries at Whole Foods.
The woman who was ringing me up wore a big button on her lapel that said “Happy Holidays!” but her face said nothing of the kind.
She did not ask me how my day was going. She did not ask me if I found everything okay or if I had fun plans for the weekend. She just swiped my groceries.
I could barely take the silence.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
She looked up at me with actual eyes.
“Sucks, actually. I’ve got to cook for my in-laws tonight who are the worst, and I can’t wait till the last of you people are done and I can get out of here.”
My eyebrows shot up in surprise. Panic flashed across her face.
Then our eyes locked and we both burst out laughing at the absurdity, hilarity––at the realness––of the moment.
Attention, American managers: I could not wait to come back.
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