Customer Service Sucks By Design
Corporations benefit when customers and customer service agents are pitted against each other.
Hosted by Ethan is Online
Host: Remember around the holidays when thousands of Southwest flights were canceled and customers were sleeping(00:46) in airports and (00:12) screaming at attendants?
[Fox35 News Clip]: Uh, we’ve been waiting for at least 2 days.
[TikTok Clip]: I want a refund … I’ve been in line since 10am, I’ve been in the airport since 4am.
Host: Or what about the late-shift Waffle House waitress who caught a chair mid air? I’ve been watching hundreds of these kinds of videos and it makes me wonder: how exactly do these fights happen? We all know it’s certainly not the worker’s fault, but in a lot of cases, it’s not the customer’s either.
I mean, think about it: When’s the last time you spent 25 minutes on the phone with your bank to dispute a credit card fee? Everywhere you go, a worker is being replaced with a QR code.
I’ve come to a conclusion: we’re right to be angry but we’re wrong about who we’re angry at! We’re actually mad at the CEOs and executives of these corporations, but the problem is we can’t access them. They’ve barricaded themselves away from our reach, so we take out our aggression on the working class people we should be in solidarity with.
In this video we’ll talk about three ways companies have made life hell for both customers and workers–– rating and reviewing systems, automation, and deliberate understaffing. Big businesses use these things as tools to cut costs and also to shift our anger to the wrong people, all while protecting profits and the status quo.
This is the Class Room from More Perfect Union and today we’re going to be talking about the real reason customer service sucks. We were inspired to make this video because we read an article from Adam Johnson. You might know him from his podcast Citations Needed. First let’s talk about what Adam calls the Snitch economy.
Adam Johnson: So we use the term Snitch Economy because basically it turns the consumer into a free manager.
Host: The company is constantly worried that their workers will steal quote unquote steal time from them.
Adam Johnson: Like slack off, right? You’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean. We’ve all heard this.
[TikTok Clip]: Well I know it looks slow and I know it looks clean, but it’s not, there’s actually a lot of different things for you guys to be doing right now.
Adam Johnson: And so what they do is they build in mechanisms to the economics of their systems that basically turn the consumer into a snitch, into a manager.
Host: Customers are now provided with more and more apps, websites, and surveys to rate and review workers. This is supposed to be “empowering” to customers but what is make you do the job of management for them. Every time you choose how many stars to give your Uber driver or rate the service of a GrubHub delivery, you are effectively doing the management’s job for them. You’re spying on workers for the company. You’re deputized as a mini-boss, as a manager.
Host: We talked to Megan who worked call centers for 8 years, first at Bank of America and then at a large insurance company. We asked her: how often would customers call in already pissed?
Megan: Oh it was a daily occurrence. It was probably at least 10 times a day. You would have people verbally abusing you every single day, for things that were completely out of your control. And sometimes you could understand where they were coming from. But being the one on the other end of those corporate decisions getting screamed at is just very stressful.
Host: Megan worked 10-hour shifts with just three short breaks and the calls would come all day long.
Megan: Management would always be like, “try to go to the bathroom on your breaks,” but the human body unfortunately doesn’t work around breaks.
Host: She was subject to monthly reviews from her manager who reviewed her calls not just based on customer satisfaction but ALSO the length and efficiency of the call. So Megan had to be both polite and friendly but also get the customer off the phone in 5 minutes or less.
Host: This connects to our second example–automation.
[TikTok Clip]: Speak to a representative, speak to a representative
Host: These days, even getting to the bottom-rung employee at a company is difficult. So if you have a problem, it’s increasingly hard to talk to an actual human about it. Don’t go to the register, instead go to the app and order there. Scan the QR code. Don’t wait on hold, instead go to a random website that may or may not answer your question. More and more consumers are being pushed away from actual humans and onto automated services that we’re told will save us time. But they’re actually to save big businesses in labor costs. Customers don’t like dealing with automated prompts. And cost-cutting is turning them against the company. Just look at this article from management consultant sharks McKinsey and Company: companies they say, face “a perfect storm of increasing call volumes, talent shortages, and rising customer expectations.” Talent shortages? They say. Maybe it’s because the average call center worker only earns $34,000 a year. Customer satisfaction” is at a 17-year low, and the only human face people can take their aggression out on is the low-wage workers. Corporate executives very much want you to take your aggression out on their low-wage workers. This way, you get a vague feeling of agency and control in a system that is designed to keep you very far from it.
Host: Now we’re gonna talk about deliberate understaffing. As you may know, the last two years have been a watershed moment for worker organizing. And American approval of labor unions is the highest it’s been since 1965. It’s very convenient, then, that just as workers have gotten more leverage, companies are using every tool at their disposal to gut staffing to its bare bones. These last few years, companies blamed staff shortages on LABOR shortages: No one wants to work anymore. But businesses are now seeing this as an opportunity to automate or cut costs.
[AppleBees and IHop Owner, interview]: Over the long term, we’re trying to make bold choices about technology, not to replace our workers, but to make them more productive, since we assume we’ll have fewer workers going forward.
Host: Restaurants like IHOP, Applebees, and Popeye’s are running at 10-12% smaller staffs than before the pandemic and they’re still finding ways to double up worker’s duties. In a recent earnings call, the CEO of Chili’s Grill & Bar, Kevin Hochman proposed removing an hour of prep time every day by not rationing and packaging shrimp for each dish before a shift. Labor, he reasoned, is now more expensive than an extra shrimp in the fettuccine.
[Kevin Hochman, Earnings Call]: Why don’t we get rid of that and save millions of dollars in terms of labor that can either be redeployed into the restaurant or potentially to the bottom line, if we can change the amount of hours we deploy in the business.
Host: Let’s go back to the Waffle House waitress –her name is Halie.
[Facetime with Haley]: You touch my floor, it’s on.
The night of the fight, Halie was the ONLY cook serving 30 to 40 customers in the restaurant. The place was badly understaffed and that’s not uncommon. Chronic understaffing is exactly why we see those “feel-good” viral videos of workers staffing the restaurant by themselves and manning multiple grills at once or even customers helping Waffle House staff cook and clean the place! After the fight, Waffle House said Halie handled the violent customer appropriately but they STILL wrote her up. And for what? Breaking a sugar shaker.
Halie: About 6 months later when I went to apply at another Waffle House in North Carolina, I found out I was blacklisted and was on a Do Not Hire list.
Host: Now, Waffle house might not be famous for its care for workers. This is the place, afterall, that FEMA uses as an unofficial indicator of how deadly a hurricane was. Several employees actually live-reported Hurricane Ian in Florida.
[TikTok Clip]: Coming to you live from Waffle HOuse right now. My name is Chelsey and I will be your weather forecast person.
Host: Do you think any of these employees got hazard pay or a bonus? Absolutely not. Joe Rogers, Jr., the chairman of Waffle House, became a billionaire during the pandemic, while actually working to cut pay to workers who worked through the early weeks of the pandemic. Most Waffle House employees make less than $26,000 a year no matter what the circumstances.
Joe Rogers, Jr. Clip: We’re going to do our best to protect their income… and you have to save the business.
Host: All of this boils down to increasing profits and shielding the real wrongdoer. These companies are trying to get away with as much as they can, because they’re betting you’ll direct your anger at the low-wage worker behind the counter or on the phone. Those who actually make the decisions are guarded behind layers of bureaucratic red tape and lawyers, impossible to reach by design. The truth is that we all have way more in common with each other than the billionaires who want to keep us mad at one another. Instead of being mad at low wage workers, we need to have solidarity with them. Let’s redirect our anger to the people who are in charge instead.