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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The xpostfactoid service employee mandate

I confess to be swayed back and forth a bit by an online debate. I more or less assented to Timothy Noah's brief against Pret-a-Manger, a counter food chain that takes training its employees to be friendly and engaging to perhaps new extremes:
Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A "mystery shopper" visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does. This system turns peers into enthusiasm cops, further constricting any space for a reserved and private self. And these cops require literal stroking. In other workplaces, touching a co-worker may get you fired, but at Pret you have to worry about not touching co-workers enough. "The first thing I look at," Chief Executive Clive Schlee told The Telegraph last March, "is whether staff are touching each other . . . I can almost predict sales on body language alone...
The more the rich get used to fawning service, the more the rest of us—or rather, the rest of us who can afford to buy a sandwich rather than brown-bag it from home—find we rather like it, too. Eventually everybody will have to act like a goddamned concierge. I don't want to believe this, but I fear it may be true.
 But I thought Andrew Sullivan had at least a partial point in response:
Fear? Fear that consumers might get better service and that corporations actually try to encourage this? Fear that when you are in service jobs, your boss may keep tabs on how well you interact with customers and colleagues? It’s fascism, I tell you. Or some kind of false consciousness. Apparently, Noah wants service that in no way is encouraged to be cheerful. My advice? Visit France.

And this service ethic of fake cheeriness began in the US of A. It was one of those things I noticed and loved immediately arriving here, and over the last quarter century saw spread throughout my country of origin. The service culture – which is indeed a kind of performance – makes everything more pleasant to buy, blends consumerism with entertainment and enjoyment.
 If I may indulge a little point-counterpoint from my own experience: first, as a twenty-something waiter at a then-trendy Boston restaurant chain, I was repelled by a short coercive lesson (by a real dick of a manager) in "suggestive sell" -- customer orders "a coke"; you respond, "a large?" etc. etc. That's akin if different to more elaborate current moldings of employee behavior, e.g., in Noah's telling, to give each customer the impression that you're in love with him (probably more him than her).

On the other hand: I was not by a long shot the most mature or effective of twentysomething waiters, and I could have used a little corporate discipline, or plain old trattoria training, to serve customers better. On the other hand, I was subject to the most effective service employee discipline, dependence on tips -- the lack of which I guess the counter-service chains are compensating for with their elaborate scripting and policing. And I am American enough to like and expect friendly and attentive service. I've also adopted a service ethos in my own business: I do my utmost to serve clients' needs, and to respond quickly, and to give the impression that I'm poised to respond 24/7, which isn't far from true. I think, in a broad sense, international competition demands this kind of approach to business, and that we've collectively spoiled ourselves (in a good way) to demand it.

I think, too, that within reason, training employees to go the extra mile -- as when, for example, in Whole Foods, if you ask where anything is,  the employee will actually walk you to the item if at all possible -- is not only good business, but actually good for most of us that are subjected to it.  If you're trained as a young adult to be friendly and helpful, people will respond positively to you, and the quality of your interactions overall will improve, which is good for your future work prospects and maybe even your personal relationships.

While there are some large retail and restaurant companies that treat employees well and hold them to high standards of customer service, there are many that don't. Some corporate attempts to shape service employee behavior get into Truman Show territory, demanding transparently fake and scripted behavior -- and some are coercive, and do impinge on natural personality differences to an unacceptable degree. And it's one thing to be subject to typical restaurant expectations as a young college track adult, on and off for a few years, and quite another to be in the long-term grip of non-unionized low wage labor.  The counter-pressure of a stronger, broader-based organized labor sector might force a balance between training employees and coercing them.  It's true in a narrow sense, as Sullivan protests, that no one has to work at Pret.  But employer vs. employee power in this country is so lopsided, and in many places job opportunities in (for example) eateries is so limited, and so concentrated in national chains, that many people are de facto forced to work under forms of corporate coercion that we should do a better job curbing.

And of course, as Sarah Jaffe points out (h/t to the Dish), food service and other service jobs are "deeply gendered":
I spent years as a waitress—in high school, then college, then as a struggling freelance writer—in that time I received pats on the ass, scribbled phone numbers in lieu of tips, and many, many personal questions I'd have preferred not to answer. Requiring feigned intimacy on the part of the worker allows the customer to ignore normal boundaries and pretend that a smile is an invitation to cross. Like the Pret workers, one of my bosses hired secret shoppers to make sure that servers went the extra mile; we were downgraded for not thanking our customers by the names we mispronounced off their credit cards. Not only our tips—which were our livelihoods, seeing as we only made $2.13 an hour, the legal minimum for tipped restaurant workers that hasn't changed in 22 years—but our jobs were at stake if we didn't smile hard enough.
Well, I've rattled on far longer than I intended. Really, I just wanted to post the ultimate demand for the ultimate in emotional labor, which I coincidentally happened on while reading this stuff:

The Perfect Nanny Lyrics  

by
from Mary Poppins Soundtrack

If you want this choice position
Have a cheery disposition
Rosy cheeks, no warts!
Play games, all sort

You must be kind, you must be witty
Very sweet and fairly pretty
Take us on outings, give us treats
Sing songs, bring sweets

Never be cross or cruel
Never give us castor oil or gruel
Love us as a son and daughter
And never smell of barley water

If you won't scold and dominate us
We will never give you cause to hate us
We won't hide your spectacles
So you can't see
Put toads in your bed
Or pepper in your tea
Hurry, Nanny!
Many thanks
Sincerely,

Jane and Michael Banks:
Jane and Michael Banks.

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