In Search of the Next Genius Bar
The first Apple Store, which opened in Tysons Corner, Virginia, in 2001, looked more like a gallery than a shop. Its spare layout recalled the company’s aesthetic, but that was a matter of necessity as much as design. The store couldn’t have been cluttered if it tried: Apple only had four product lines at the time, four types of computers arrayed for sampling on pale hardwood tables. Then there was a big chunk of the store that didn’t appear to sell anything at all, which Ron Johnson, Apple’s senior vice president, who developed the stores, called the Genius Bar.
“That’s so idiotic,” Johnson remembered a skeptical CEO Steve Jobs saying. “They’re all geeks! You can call it the geek bar.” Far from thinking different, Jobs was reiterating an old retail maxim. Repair, defects, problems: These were typically back-of-house, confined to a 1-800 number or folded in at the checkout counter. If it was presumptuous to hang a photo of Albert Einstein above employees fixing computers, it seemed downright silly to put customers troubleshooting your products at the center of sales.
You know how this turned out: The Apple Store became the world’s most lucrative per-square-foot retailer, an agent of downtown revitalization, and an anchor tenant so coveted by struggling malls that it pays just a fraction of its sales receipts in rent compared to neighboring stores. As brick-and-mortar retail is flogged by Amazon’s convenience, low prices, and easy delivery, stores and malls are looking to adopt the holistic, experiential attitude toward retail space that Apple helped pioneer, one that lures customers out of the house with an idea of service that goes far beyond sales. Sephora will put on your makeup. Sur la Table will teach you how to cook. After last week’s TaskRabbit acquisition, it looks like Ikea is about to start assembling your furniture.
Writing for Slate in 2012, Farhad Manjoo isolated this feature in a handful of successful, high-growth retail outfits as a way to “Amazon-proof” your business. “They’re all what retailers call ‘high touch’—they prize rich, personalized customer service … they bank on the fact that there’s a moneyed segment of the population that’s willing to pay for a qualitatively better experience.”
That ethos has slowly found its way into other companies too. “Everybody’s in the service business, they just don’t all know it yet.” says Robert Stephens, the founder of Geek Squad, a company (later purchased by Best Buy) that glamorized computer repair before Apple did. That meant abandoning the commission-based sales model that has long motivated retail employees. Stephens cited Miracle on 34th Street, in which a Macy’s Santa Claus sends a customer to a rival department store to get what she needs. That, he said, was the “atomic birth of the honest service principle.”
This sense—that company employees are trying to help you, not sell you something—is also the ethos at the Genius Bar, whose cultish, proscriptive training manual is legendary for its emphasis on empathy and vibes in the service of sales. When Johnson and I spoke on the phone this week, he imitated the Yogi-like ethic of a modern retail employee: “I’m not here to sell food or sell computers. I’m here to enrich your life.”
It’s enlightened consumer capitalism in a nutshell, and when Johnson left Apple for an ill-fated stint as J.C. Penney CEO in 2011, he took the strategy with him. One of his ideas for the department store chain was establishing a “town square” at every store, where customers could access free services as well as giveaways like hot dogs and ice cream. That didn’t work at J.C. Penney; Johnson now says they tried to change the chain too fast. But if it sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the concept that Apple retail head Angela Ahrendts unveiled at the company’s keynote last month in Cupertino, California. “We actually don’t call them stores anymore,” she said. “We call them town squares.” As a metaphor for the tech industry’s appropriation of the public sphere, it seemed a bit on the nose. But it’s a fitting culmination of Johnson’s initial strategy to cloak the exchange of cash in civitas. (Apple Stores never had cash registers.)
Town square–style malls have been around for decades, offering consumers a meticulously engineered, corny taste of the Main Streets they vanquished. The Grove in Los Angeles even has a streetcar. But regular malls and stores are now incorporating non-sales functions that expand the vision of “customer service” to include straight-up entertainment. Wegmans has food festivals and live bands in the grocery store. The Arnot Mall in Elmira, New York, turned a vacated AT&T store into a lounge with couches and flat-screen televisions. Retail is on the hunt for anything that separates it from the Internet.
“Amazon is just going to kill crappy retail, mediocre retail,” Stephens, the Geek Squad founder, predicted. The future has room for both digital commerce and brick-and-mortar, Johnson says. “There are times when you want convenience, and that’s what digital commerce is designed for. Amazon delivers convenience. And then there will be times you want more, and that’s when you go to a store.” The stores that find a way to offer something substantive that’s not on the internet are the ones that will survive. You could call it customer service, but at this point, what isn’t?
Have the Menu Options Really Changed? A Slate Investigation.
Think automated phone directories maintain a boring and rote existence? Allow their prerecorded operators to set you straight. Please listen carefully to the following prompts, their voices intone, as they have changed. Sometimes this ubiquitous notice is phrased as a warning that the menu options may have changed. This phone system is so wild and crazy, we’re told, that truly anything is possible.
Keep your head on a swivel, humble caller, lest you lose yourself in a touch-tone labyrinth.
We’ve all heard this story of telephonic entropy, about the mischievous, Loki-like forces who sneak around at night playing three-card monte with phone menus. That’s what these robot voices want us to believe. But is it the truth? Did the menu options really change?
“I have to be completely honest with you—I have no idea,” a Vonage representative told me (over the phone, naturally). While Vonage sells automated call systems, he explained, they don’t advise customers to include that admonition to please listen carefully. “It’s strictly up to them,” he said. “I don’t know why they say that.”
Following this conversation, I called a pharmacy that I knew featured a well-worn notice of potential menu chaos. I sat through seven options before I was advised to press 8 to speak with the “next available operator.” When she came on the line, I asked if she knew when the menu options had been changed, or if they'd changed at all. After a considerable pause, she answered, “I don’t know.” And so I pressed on. Later in the week, I called the same pharmacy and asked the same question to a different operator. Her reply: “No, ma’am, I don't know.” I’m a little unsure as to why she called me “ma’am,” but my adventure through the world of phone menus was already providing surprising twists and turns.
Prerecorded message systems date back to at least 1957, when Sheraton began testing automatic wake-up calls at their hotels. “[A] guest … is awakened by an operator’s soft voice on a recording,” the New York Times wrote of this new technology, “which breathes his name, tells him the time and weather, and suggests a breakfast menu at the hotel restaurant.” It would be decades before touch-tone phones were popular enough to make more complex routing systems a customer service norm. If their recordings are to be believed, menu items have been in flux ever since.
Cynics may think this is part of a calculated effort to keep callers on the line or to prevent them from mashing 0 until they get to speak to a live operator. It’s unlikely, though, that a conspiracy is afoot. Only one of the five communications companies I contacted told me they advise their customers to include a notice about changing menu items, and that firm suggests removing such an announcement after three weeks. The available evidence suggests they weren’t putting me on: None of these companies’ own prerecorded menus told me that menu items may have changed.
"We don’t specifically recommend that companies do this,” said Valerie Martin, a sales and service lead at AccessDirect, which sells virtual phone services for small businesses.* So why does everyone do it, disregarding the wisdom of the industry’s leading experts? Martin's theory: “I think the majority of companies do this because they have heard it before in a greeting.”
“I think it’s a hackneyed term,” Andrew Begnoche told me, referring to menu items may have changed. Begnoche is the director of operations for Holdcom, a New Jersey–based company that provides businesses with scripts and voice talent for prerecorded phone systems. “We try and stay away from any language that seems like it could be [insincere]. Like overusing the word please.”
Menu items do change, Begnoche says, especially at larger companies with vast employee directories and complex operational structures. However, these changes usually come deep within the routing tree, buried inside dendritic clusters most callers never reach. Alerting customers to this fact doesn’t do them much good, not least because they’ve learned to tune out this specific phrasing. According to Begnoche, “People don’t pay attention to it anymore.”
But how often do the menu options change? Someone give me an answer!
“There’s no real way to predict when [a company] will change their phone tree,” Adam Goldkamp told me. Goldkamp is the director of operations for GetHuman, a startup that helps people navigate customer service interactions. GetHuman, which has “a small team dedicated to checking the phone numbers to see when they change,” does track how often a particular set of menu options becomes an entirely different set of menu options, and Goldkamp says airlines and hotels tend to change their phone trees most often.* And about that menu items may have changed prompt: "That message appears in just about every phone tree and I’ve never actually found it to mean anything useful," he said. That makes two of us, sir.
The most baffling thing about these messages is their presumptuousness. Do companies really think we’ve memorized their phone options? Perhaps there are menu-heads out there who know these prompts by heart, storing them in their brains alongside the statistics of their favorite ballplayers. If so, I haven’t encountered such people in the wild.
It’s possible the listen carefully prompt will soon be a thing of the past, replaced by a prompt to speak clearly. Interactive voice response technology, known as IVR in the biz, relies on the Socratic method, in that menu sections are accessed via voice responses to specific questions. These systems are frustrating in their own right, given their robotic lack of candor and propensity to ask you to repeat yourself.
In search of answers, I called CVS, which uses IVR for its phone systems. “When was the last time you changed your menu?” I barked. I was then transferred to a message about store locations and flu shot information. CVS is clearly hiding something. If I keep listening carefully and/or shouting loudly, I’m sure I’ll get to the bottom of it.
*Correction, Oct. 9, 2017: This post originally misstated that GetHuman doesn't track how often menu options change. The company does track that information.
*Update, Oct. 10, 2017: This post has been updated to add the name of the AccessDirect representative the author spoke to.
TSA Pre-Check Your Privilege
For years I stood stewing in airport security lines, wishing there was a way to sidle past the inconvenience and stress. While I waited in line, sweated out the body scanner, fumbled with my shoes, endured being “randomly selected” for additional screening, the select few simply waltzed on by. I could never be Delta Premiere Supreme-o Black Gold Status or whatever, like them, I thought.
I was wrong. The day my TSA Pre-Check authorization arrived in my email was a glorious one. For a still-painful but not impossible $85, I could transform myself. My stress levels don’t spike until after I’ve passed through the gate and discover my flight has been delayed two hours. In fact, to a traveler of color, TSA Pre-Check opens up a brand new world of travel entitlement. As writer and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe so eloquently put it recently:
going thru the airport with tsa pre-check is like a 5-minute AOL free trial CD of white privilege— demi adejuyigbe (@electrolemon) September 3, 2017
No longer does the gentle whoosh of the automatic doors at the departure terminal inspire fear: How long is the line? Did I cut it too close? Is someone going to single me out and search my bag while I stand nervously awaiting his verdict? Instead, I show the attendant standing in front of the practically empty Pre-Check queue my ticket bearing the adorable little logo, and they wave me on through. As if I’m a white student at Harvard, no one second-guesses my presence in that line once I’m through—I don’t have to show my credentials over and over or respond to people wondering if the only reason I got there is because of reparations. Flats or sneakers? It doesn’t matter. Like a white kid traipsing around in a hoodie at night, I can wear whatever I want to get on my plane—I am devoid of all cares, and no TSA agent bothers me. An acquaintance of mine, who is Muslim, tells me that his brother enrolled in the program out of frustration with being subjected to frequent “random” searches every time he flew. As he put it, “It changed the game for him. Now, he just slides right in.” The icing on the cake, of course, is that subtle but very real feeling of pride and smugness as the bleary-eyed plebeians suffer in the “normal” line. It’s whiteness with all the perks, none of the guilt.
Well, a little of the guilt. Eighty-five dollars isn’t nothing, and TSA Pre-Check is just another symptom of the class divide plaguing our nation. But don’t forget that class is and has always been entwined with race, and people of color get the short end of that stick all the time. (For black people especially, it’s only getting worse.) The experience of having a typically fraught situation made blessedly easy is not something often afforded to people of color, even if they do have money. But the process of Pre-Check allows an ephemeral, soothing walk in a white person’s shoes—the ability to be treated just like your other “elite” peers, which is to say, infinitely better than everyone else.
Also, while I’ve had my TSA Pre-Check number for almost a year now, it wasn’t until Adejuyigbe helpfully pointed out how this process mimics the fundamental state of whiteness in America that I began to consider my participation in that light. If that isn’t white privilege, I don’t know what is.
Should a Tattoo Artist Tell You the Tattoo You’re Asking for Is a Terrible Idea?
In December 2011, a young woman walked into a tattoo shop in Los Angeles and told an employee she wanted some ink on her forehead. More specifically, she wanted the word DRAKE, in all caps, big enough to cover the width of her face and the skin where she’d shaved off her eyebrows. Before long, photos of the woman’s permanently disfigured face had gone viral. Even Drake found it upsetting: “The guy who tatted [that] is a fucking asshole,” he said in an interview. “You should lose your job and should never do tattoos again.”
But the tattoo artist, Kevin Campbell, stuck to his guns. When a reporter from Vice asked him if he considered turning the customer away, he replied, “In the end, she paid me to do this to her, which really means she did this to herself.”
This grim story crystallizes a fundamental question about the service industry: What exactly are you paying for when you pay a person to do something for you? After all, when you interact with trained experts in customer service environments, you’re probably not just using them as conduits to deliver whatever things you desire—more likely, you’re hoping to benefit from their expertise. You go to a tailor, you trust the tailor to tell you your pants are too short; you go to a barber shop, you trust the barber to tell you that having too much hair on top while buzzing the sides makes you look like a fascist.
In the case of a customer service provider whose product will be on your body for the rest of your life, this part of the job would seem to be all the more important. An experienced tattoo artist knows all kinds of stuff that her customers won’t know: which kind of ink looks bad on which kind of skin, whether certain designs are doomed to quickly deteriorate, even how likely it is that someone will regret a given decision. In that light, the money one pays a tattoo artist should be buying, among other things, her honest and informed advice. A good tattoo artist ought to steer her customers away from a poor choice, even if that means dissuading them from spending their money.
Tattoo artists didn’t used to think this way. Matthew Marcus, one of the owners of Three Kings Tattoo, which has locations in New York’s East Village and Greenpoint, told me that in an earlier era, tattoo artists generally didn’t see it as their responsibility to steer people away from making bad decisions. This was in part because tattoos were much less common—tattooing wasn’t even legal in New York until 1997—meaning that customers who sought them out were more likely to be aficionados who understood and accepted the risks of ostentatious ink. In those days, Marcus said, the attitude of many in the tattoo business was, “Whatever comes in the door, I’m doing it.”
One tattoo artist I spoke to, who declined to be interviewed for attribution, told me that as recently as 15 years ago, he believed so strongly that “the customer is always right” that he wouldn’t even say no to swastikas or Nazi lightning bolts even though he himself is Jewish. He told me this excellent story:
I remember this guy came in late one night, and he wanted to get a swastika on his wrist. And you know, I wasn’t the first person to talk to him, and everybody else in the shop was like, “No, I’m not gonna do that.” So I went up to him and said, “Look, if you’re gonna wear it, if this is something you’re proud of, why don’t you really wear it?” And in my head I’m saying to myself, At least if we put it somewhere visible this’ll be a warning to everybody else to stay away from this guy.
So he ended up getting it real big on the top of his hand. He says to me, how much is it gonna cost? And I go, “500 bucks.” And he goes, “Whoa, why so expensive?” And I’m like, “'Cuz it’s a swastika, dude.”
But times have changed in the tattoo industry since the good ol’ days when you’d persuade a guy to get a bigger swastika. “Now you have kids who went to art school for college who become tattooers,” said Marcus, “and a lot of regular people who are coming in as their clients.” That creates situations where artists who see themselves as high-level professionals are confronted with a lot of customers who may not have thought their choices all the way through. Adam Suerte of Brooklyn Tattoo told me that he tries to persuade people not to get tattoos of their significant others’ names: “I’ll remind them that most marriages don’t work these days,” he said, “but if they insist and say they’ll just get it somewhere else, we’ll say, ‘OK, let’s do it in a color that’s easier to cover up.’ ”
Marcus, for his part, has an ironclad rule against doing any tattoos that involve hate, racism, or misogyny and makes a point of speaking up or refusing service if a client asks for something that gives him pause for either aesthetic or moral reasons. “If you don’t feel like it’s something you can sleep with at night, or if it’s something you think will look like crap a few years down the line, it’s your right to say no,” he said. If a woman comes in asking for writing across her chest, he continued, he makes sure she understands the risks: “I always say, ‘Listen, you know how many morons are gonna use that as an opportunity to talk to you, to ogle you, to be inappropriate?’ ”
No doubt that will strike some people as paternalistic or even insulting. One of the biggest controversies to strike the tattooing world in recent years involved a writer who wanted a neck tattoo of her daughter’s name and was told at a shop called New York Adorned that she’d have to go elsewhere. In a widely circulated post on Jezebel headlined “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Get a Fucking Neck Tattoo,” Jane Marie wrote that a tattoo artist at the shop named Dan informed her such a tattoo would look “tacky” and that he didn’t give neck tattoos to people who weren’t already covered with them.
Marie was incensed, detecting sexism in Dan’s unsolicited advice, and took her business elsewhere. In a statement responding to Marie’s blog post—which was praised by David French of the National Review—the tattoo artist referred to hand and neck tattoos as “job stoppers” that could keep a client from “that next job or promotion” and unethical to perform upon clients who were not “already committed to living as a heavily tattooed person.”
But in an economy that prizes customer service, tattoo shops are facing a new breed of customer—one who demands a tattoo he saw on reality TV or on Instagram and will become indignant if the tattoo artist tries to talk him out of it. “One of the big conflicts that we’ve seen over the past few years,” said Marcus, “is this attitude of, ‘It’s my body, my idea, it doesn’t affect you, let me just pay the money to do it.’ But for a good tattoo-er who works in a good shop, who considers themselves an artist, there’s such a thing as artistic integrity.”
It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I wish, for her sake, that the Drake girl had gone in to see Matt Marcus instead of the guy who bent to her will. On the other hand, part of what’s special about tattoos—as opposed to other, less permanent physical adornments one can use to project an image—is that they’re inherently risky and even a bit reckless. The prospect of getting a tattoo is meaningful, at least in part, because it very well might be a bad idea. Maybe you don’t want a tattoo artist to remind you of that.
Hello, Men! Welcome to Your Mandatory Year of Customer Service!
Gentlemen, welcome to Customer Service 101, the course that teaches men the traits they need to survive in customer service: courtesy, deference, humility, helpfulness, empathy, and forced cheerfulness. In other words, skills we women already know.
We’re so glad that President Oprah has finally decided to introduce a mandatory (customer) service year for men. They say everyone should work customer service at least once in his or her life, but it’s fantastic that we’re finally recognizing that there’s one gender in particular that stands to benefit from a few months helping ingrates with their everyday needs. This training is compulsory for male newcomers only. After all, we ladies are already experts at customer service—we’ve been honing these skills since long before we donned the badge. From an early age, we’ve been conditioned to inquire after and be attuned to the feelings of others. We’re experts in the art of filling awkward silences, at smoothing edges and soothing tempers, and we just want to make your lives as easy as possible.
As you men are the minority in this field, we decided it was necessary to give you a leg up! According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, back before the EMPATHY (Enlisting Men to be Polite, Acquiescent, Tolerant Humans for a Year) Act, men made up only 18.3 percent of tellers, 19.2 percent of restaurants/café hosts, 24.2 percent of flight attendants, 26.8 percent of cashiers, and 33.9 percent of hotel concierges.
Many of the skills you learn today and in your work will be wholly transferable to the rest of your life: focusing on the needs of others, responding calmly and courteously to concerns, and not being an asshole. With such experience behind you, you’ll be well equipped to become a gracious, helpful, high-functioning member of society in no time—like a woman, but with a little extra something, am I right? (Wink!)
Lesson No. 1: The customer comes first (which means you come second).
You may be used to putting yourself first. You may have some vague notion that you are the hero of your own narrative. Here in customer service land, the world doesn’t revolve around you—you are but a gate through which the real hero must pass on her stressful errand journey. And there must be nothing in the world more important to you than the needs of the customer at hand. Nothing. Your dog just died? Grandma in hospital? The pilot has turned on the fasten seat belt sign because of extreme turbulence? Fuggedaboutit! The customer’s needs far outweigh your own.
Lesson No. 2: Be friendly and personable at all times.
Gentlemen, the ABCs of great customer service sound easy in theory, but it’s not always so simple in the practice. Whether you are being yelled at for running out of a particular flavor of baby food (even though you don’t have a baby and have contributed nothing to the split pea shortage) or hearing the same old joke you’ve heard a dozen times today alone (no, not knowing the price does not make it free)—just remember to be Apologetic, Bubbly, and Compliant, even when you feel like doing the exact opposite. In fact, especially then!
Lesson No. 3: Listen.
Women are and always will be better at listening than you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try your best!
Lesson No. 4: The customer is always right, even when he is wrong.
It doesn’t matter if you are an expert in the type of service you provide. I don’t care if you’ve done this 1 million times before. You are wrong—please accept this now, and be prepared for the minimal expertise of the customer to overrule yours.
Lesson No. 5: Suppress your own emotions while focusing on those of others.
We women often give this one away for free, but did you know you can actually sell your empathy for minimum wage? It’s simple! All you need to do is inquire after a person’s well-being with warmth and sincerity and respond understandingly to whatever he or she has to say. Voilà! You’ll be marginally improving people’s days in no time. Who knows, maybe you can even apply your newfound therapy skills to your interpersonal relationships!
Lesson No. 6: Do multiple things at the same time.
Multitasking is difficult. Working in customer service, you will soon learn by necessity how to walk and chew gum at the same time. Although you won’t be allowed to chew gum at work. Or walk anywhere without permission.
Lesson No. 7: Fight fire with not fire.
Here’s another skill we perfected earlier: Speak courteously, even to those who disrespect or harass you. Repeat after us:
“I understand how difficult that must be for you.”
“I understand how infuriating that must be for you.”
“I understand how painful that must be for you.”
“I understand how sad that must be for you.”
Deploy these phrases even to someone who is straight-up treating you like shit. Be polite as if your life depends on it! After all, you can be fired and deprived of a paycheck for any reason, or no reason at all, so it sort of does.
Lesson No. 8: Smile!
You just never know when the ability to smile unflinchingly in the face of difficulty is going to come up in other professional situations, such being talked over in meetings or being punished for asking for a promotion. Plus, you look so much prettier when you smile. So, smile!
Annotating the Greatest Customer Service Voicemail of All Time
I once received an unbelievable voicemail. It’s called the “Grazie! Voicemail.” Until now, it has only been privately shared with a small group of friends and co-workers who’ve intimately come to know its sound, its meaning, its contours, its hermeneutics. This was our own bootlegged comedy masterpiece, born of a kind of vituperative rage that only exists at the customer end of customer service. The Grazie! Voicemail is carved into my brain; I could and will sing it to you on my deathbed if you’ll join me on that day.
At the risk of explaining an inside joke, or gilding the lily, or putting a hat on a very angry and frustrated hat, I’ve attempted to annotate the voicemail below so we can be one with its majesty. It is called the Grazie! Voicemail for reasons I hope will become clear. You can listen along to my annotations here.
Groupon was once the darling of Chicago’s startup community; it is now a place from which everyone I once worked with has been laid off, a clearinghouse for overstocked items and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of local massages. In its early years, customers could leave our customer service team voicemails with their problems, and we would call them back. Most people are as taken aback by the beep of a voicemail as they would be by a mic shoved in their face from behind, but Bob, the man who left this message in 2010, was not: He enters the digital space with gusto, much like the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
“I keep buying from you, and you keep screwing up my account. Now I’m not even getting the daily Groupon coming to my email. Has anybody ever thought of running this like a business?”
Bob withdraws a bit from his spectacular opening volley to lay out his problem in his New York baritone: He’s not getting the daily email. This was, by far, the most common issue we had in customer service. Groupon was then the largest of the “daily deal” e-commerce websites, which sold a kind of thrill: You have 24 hours to buy this deal or it’s gone. Let’s say it’s a $20 Groupon for tapas at Gregs’ Tapas (there are two Gregs who co-own a tapas restaurant in this scenario). The customer would pay $10 and get a Groupon for $20 worth of tapas. Groupon would give the Gregs $5 and take the other $5 as a fee. (The fee was usually 50 percent.) This meant the Gregs had to offer $20 worth of tapas for only $5 of revenue, with the promise that the customer would be so smitten by their discount tapas they would come back many times and buy tapas at full price. This was Groupon’s business model. Communism works in theory, too.
“You should’ve sold to, er, Google or whoever for $6 billion …”
Yes! It was Google. In 2010, Google offered to buy Groupon for a staggering $6 billion and was rebuffed in a move that was widely seen at the time as really dumb but has since grown to be viewed as staggeringly dumb now that Groupon is trading at about $4.75 a share. But we were growing very fast at that point, the plucky startup that couldn’t see the bubble for the trees, which in turn led to a spike in unanswered voicemails and a lapse in good customer service. Our man here caught wind of this, a seer and a sage who just wasn’t getting his daily email.
“... because the whole thing is starting to falter. It’s run like CRAP! It’s a CRAP HOUSE!”
Without question, this is my favorite part of the voicemail. Improvised human anger caught through audio vérité—in the proud American tradition of Buddy Rich cursing out his band or the two alcoholics tearing into each other in the documentary Shut Up, Little Man! or Bill O'Reilly's infamous tirade that coined the phrase “Fuck it, we’ll do it live”—has this kind of extra-linguistic quality to it. You could call it poetic, but it’s more heroic, since it involves those same impulses that make people run into a burning building. No time to think! Just do something insane and hope you come out alive! Was he ever going to get “crap house” unless he first made “it’s run like crap”?
“Call me back, Bob ______, (___) ___-1989 and tell my why my account is all screwed up and the place runs like a junkyard.”
Essentially Bob, like all of us, was just trying to get through his day without his account being all screwed up.
The paradox of customer service: The customer has one problem, but the service rep has 100 problems. You take 100 calls a day from people who hated Gregs’ Tapas, or who were told by one of the Gregs that the Groupon expired even though it says on the Groupon it didn’t expire, or who visited Greg’s Tapas in Schaumburg instead of Gregs’ Tapas in Naperville, or who didn’t read the fine print of the Groupon that said it’s not valid on Fridays and Saturdays and excludes the grilled octopus. Bob has every right to be upset, because this is consumerism and you should get what you paid for. Which was the problem of Groupon and the rest of the almost extinct “daily deals” sites that tried to use the power of socialized consumerism to boost business but were always thwarted by capitalism or the fact that Bob forgot he changed his password to “password2” four months ago. Bob paid $10 for $20 worth of tapas, which means everyone’s angry and getting hosed, except for Groupon, which takes its cut and sends a bunch of young Chicago kids to the phones to try not to screw up people’s accounts. But in the end, Groupon’s hosed, too.
“Please call me back. Bob ______, (___) ___-1989. Make sure it’s a supervisor or someone who knows what they’re doing.”
It’s never a supervisor. It’s always just someone saying they’re a supervisor.
“Grazie!” Why does he say it like this? Graaaaazie! The coup de grazie! Is he actually mad? Wait, was he joking this whole time? One wonders where the locus of his anger resides—is it Groupon, or some unknowable, ancient pain Bob suffers daily?
There’s a part of me that thinks, even after all these years, this is an actor reading from a script, that none of this is real, the Grazie! Voicemail is like Tommy Wiseau’s unreal performance in The Roomwhose levels of awareness remain unknown, whose impulses remain inscrutable. Customer service is about transactions. You close a ticket and help someone out; they, in turn, give you something: more business for your company. I assume we eventually fixed Bob’s screwed-up account, and in return he gave us this towering 50-second epic about a man, a crap house, and $6 billion. No, thank you, Bob.
The Rise and Fall of the Customer Service Meltdown on Twitter
Always Right is Slate’s pop-up blog exploring customer service across industries, technologies, and human relationships.
In July, the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter did something that most people who actively use Twitter have been at least tempted to do, at some point in their tweeting careers: She lashed out at a company she felt had mistreated her. In Coulter’s case, it was Delta, which in the course of a last-minute reshuffling had evidently given someone else her assigned seat.
The lure of airing one’s customer service grievances to sympathetic followers can be hard to resist. An August survey by the social media management company Sprout Social found that nearly half of all respondents had used Twitter or another social platform to “call out” a business, and the rate was even higher among millennials. But Coulter’s tirade—which, by the way, did not go over well—raises the question: Is it ever really a good idea to use Twitter as a cudgel against a company?
The answer might depend on who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. But it also may be changing, as Twitter leans into its role in customer service disputes—and is even starting to use them as a selling point.
Before Twitter came along, your options for recourse when maltreated by a faceless corporation tended to be deeply unsatisfactory. You could unload in person on the nearest company representative, who likely had nothing to do with your problem and did nothing to deserve your wrath. You could write a letter, which would likely be handled coolly and impersonally by someone whose job it is to deal with crazy letter-writers like you. You could sit there silently and seethe.
By comparison, Twitter offers a form of redress that feels swift, public, and potent. It’s a chance to turn the tables on the big corporation by subjecting its actions to the court of social media opinion. More than one major airline has found itself in a full-on PR emergency after a customer’s outraged tweet went viral. (OK, mostly United Airlines—again and again and again.) As a result, major brands now employ social media rapid-response teams to handle disgruntled customers’ complaints in near-real time, which of course makes Twitter even more attractive as an outlet for your grievances. That same survey finds that social media kvetching is now the most popular channel for consumer complaints among millennials, surpassing in-person confrontations.
The risk, of course, is that you come out looking worse than the brand you’re trying to publicly humiliate. Few of us are at our best when our adrenaline is spiked by outrage; your grievance might feel to you like the equivalent of getting forcibly dragged off a plane for no good reason, but there’s no guarantee others will see it the same way. Even those not already inclined to loathe Ann Coulter found it hard to share her rage at the innocent fellow passenger whom Delta had re-assigned to Coulter’s spot. (Coulter posted a photo of the woman, calling her “dachshund-legged” and implying that she was an immigrant who takes American jobs.) Delta’s curt response to Coulter drew an outpouring of favorites and retweets that far exceeded those on her original complaints.
We’re not all Ann Coulter, obviously. Some of us can frame our complaints more gracefully, because we’re not solipsistic monsters who lack any sense of decency or proportion.
But can we really? That is, is it really possible to whine at a brand on Twitter without coming off as petty and entitled? The paradox of the platform, as a venue for customer service, is that your leverage over a company depends partly on how many followers you have. (When a normal person complains about a brand on Twitter, few are likely to see it; when a public figure does the same, it makes the news.) Yet the more followers you have, the more you have to lose by subjecting them to your feelings about an airline’s reseating practices, a disruption in your cable service, or your local department store’s return policy. And the more it can seem like you’re trying to leverage your online influence for special treatment, perhaps at the expense of other customers with inferior Klout scores. BuzzFeed gave voice to conventional wisdom when it implored celebrities way back in 2013 to “spare us your customer service complaint tweets.”
You don’t even have to be a household name to draw flak for your tweeting-at-brands habits: Gizmodo once ran a whole article about New York Times tech reporter Vindu Goel’s penchant for slagging Starbucks, dogging Delta, and criticizing Comcast. (Goel has about 18,000 followers.) Goel’s defense when questioned by the Gizmodo reporter was that his tweets weren’t simply selfish: “I pick broader problems that the company are having and amplify,” he said. In other words, he’s not mad at brands that cross him on his own behalf. He’s fighting for all of us!
Twitter itself has an interest in being perceived as a legitimate venue for customer service, because it makes the platform feel more essential both for average users and for companies (who are, in turn, potential Twitter advertisers). It offers guidelines for companies to respond more effectively to individual complaints, and last year it launched a series of new features intended to make the process more seamless—and, notably, less public. The features included a “deep link” option that allows brands to respond to complaints with a clickable invitation to take the conversation private, via direct message. The idea is to help brands quickly defuse the situation behind virtual closed doors, which ratchets down the stakes for both the company and the complainer. This year Twitter added more bells and whistles, such as the ability for customers to share their locations within direct messages and support for customer service bots.
Brands have apparently been listening, and Twitter says that approach has been working. While outbursts like Coulter’s still make occasional headlines, the company tells me public spats between customers and brands are “rare” these days, even as people are using Twitter for customer service more than ever before. In fact, Twitter says its own research shows that people who complain about a business on Twitter end up feeling more favorable to it afterward and more willing to pay for its services—provided the company responds quickly and resolves the issue. “When an airline responded to a customer’s tweet in less than six minutes, the customer was willing to pay almost $20 more for that airline in the future,” Twitter wrote in a blog post.
Given all this context, Coulter vs. Delta starts to look less like a typical example of a customer bashing a brand on Twitter and more like an outlier. Provided you have a legitimate gripe, are not a celebrity, and are willing to work it out via DM, you probably don’t have to feel guilty about tweeting your displeasure at a company after all. In some cases, as when my colleague tweeted at a recalcitrant health insurance provider that continued to bill her dead mother, Twitter achieves results that no other medium can. (Not to mention, the umbrage in that case was fully justified.)
And if you are a celebrity? Marshalling your online army probably isn’t worth the damage to your reputation unless you really are championing a cause worthy enough for your followers to rally around. But if you do succumb to temptation, you can console yourself afterward with the knowledge that you’ve shown a human side that the rest of us can secretly relate to, even as we deride you for it. Celebrities who act like jerks on Twitter: They’re just like us!
The Delicate Art of the Amusement Park Caricature
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I was scheduled that day to draw caricatures in the Italian-themed section of Busch Gardens, an amusement park in my hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia. The caricature stand was sandwiched between the giant spinning teacups and the train that runs the perimeter of the park. A few hours after opening, a middle-aged woman approached the stand pushing a heavy-duty wheelchair occupied by a disabled teenager. She asked that I draw a $10 sketch of the boy’s face, black and white, no body.
I asked the boy if he would look straight at me, and he didn’t respond. The seat of the wheelchair was tilted back, and his head was cocked slightly to the side, so I saw it from a ¾ view rather than the usual straight-ahead perspective. He didn’t smile when I asked, but he had an expression that I read as contented. The drawing took longer than usual, as I was being extra careful. I drew what I saw. It was a pretty good likeness and a friendly representation of this teenager, neither exaggerating his disability nor “correcting” for it.
As I tore the sheet from the easel, I showed it to the boy, who didn’t respond. Then I showed it to his caretaker. Her breathing quickened.
The caricature artist, like every employee at a theme park, is in the business of customer service. But our relationship with the customer is more charged than that of the ride operator or the cotton candy vendor. A caricature is a symbolic representation of a person’s face. Through cartooning, a caricaturist reduces the features of a person to simplified shapes and reorders them to create an image that represents the person. It’s not a portrait of the person; it’s a portrait of the idea of the person. When you ask for a caricature, you are asking to be confronted by your own appearance or the appearance of your loved one. Drawing caricatures that were both good and benign is a somewhat unnavigable problem.
Caricaturing takes place on a battlefield between our physical appearance as observed by others, our often dysmorphic view of our own appearance, how we wish we appeared, and societal standards of what is “beautiful.” Theme park caricatures tend to smooth over the rough edges in the interest of pleasing the customer, but conflicts are unavoidable due to the nature of the form. Some people have big noses, long necks, and ears that stick out enough to threaten the likeness if removed. I also believe it’s condescending to assume people should automatically be ashamed of certain aspects of their face. Were a caricature artist to reduce the size of my strong nose, she wouldn’t be doing me any favors.
But not everyone feels the same way, and it’s the artist who must guess, based on the demeanor of the subject and his companions, how far to push. Pleasing children is easy; they aren’t very self-conscious, and kids look much more alike than people realize. But parents project their neuroses onto their children, so not only must you draw the child well, but you must also navigate the parent’s idealized idea of what that child looks like.
Adults are much more difficult. Adults have a lifetime of societal judgments drilled into their self-image, and their faces vary dramatically in proportion. Generally, more exaggerated caricatures are better caricatures, they look more like a person, but they are also dangerous. The more exaggerated, the more likely someone will find something to object to.
There is nothing inherently cruel about the process of caricaturing. There’s a misconception that caricaturists simply choose a feature to exaggerate arbitrarily (a big nose on this one!) and then draw around that exaggeration, but in reality it’s more complicated. Caricaturing is mostly a game of proportion, seeing what parts of a face exist in larger or smaller proportion to the rest of the face, and pushing those proportions via exaggeration. It’s not exactly objective, but the rules of resemblance are fairly reliable, and it’s very easy to ruin a likeness with a poorly placed hairline or set of cheekbones.
Sometimes clients would tell me outright, “Don’t draw me with freckles” or “Don’t exaggerate my chin.” Once the instructions I received were blessedly clear: As I sat down to draw a boy with Down syndrome, his mother leaned in and told me warmly, “It’s OK if you draw him like he has Down’s. We know what he looks like.” The implication was that they’d had a previous bad experience in which a caricaturist had changed his face to look more “typical.” The advice gave me confidence in my artistic choice; I breathed a little easier and drew the boy riding a choo-choo train.
That day by the spinning teacups was different. When I handed the boy’s caretaker his caricature, she refused to make eye contact, and yelled, “You’re a terrible artist and a horrible person!” She pulled the boy’s wheelchair from the stand and stormed away. I was still a junior artist, so getting rejected was a common occurrence, but this was especially bruising. I still don’t know what caused her to reject the sketch; I assume she believed I was belittling the boy somehow, but I’ll never know. Perhaps she thought the very act of exaggeration could be upsetting to a child whose differences might have been mocked by others.
I caricatured for four summers as a teenager. It was a good job and paid well (when people liked my work). I wonder, though, if the moral responsibility of managing people’s self-image issues was the healthiest activity for a teenage artist who was already deeply insecure in his artwork. I wasn’t stung by being called a horrible person; I felt confident enough in my ethical approach to caricaturing to feel that wasn’t the case. But being called a terrible artist, the only time in my life someone has said that to my face, felt far more cruel.
After she left the stand that day, I spent a lot of time looking at the sketch they left behind. I can picture it more easily than any other caricature I’ve ever drawn. In truth, I believe my failure was a customer-service failure, not an artistic one. I certainly should have asked more questions, or she could have been more specific in her requests. Such communication might have helped me better understand what she was hoping for or undercut any unconscious bias I might have brought to the task. But I don’t think either of us were prepared for the ethical quandary at the heart of it, which was particularly thorny this time but fundamentally the same as the one every caricaturist faces when she puts pen to paper: People put faces in your hands, and your job is to make them more themselves than they are in real life. Can you bridge the gulf between what they dream of and what you see?
How Do You Create Attentive, Responsible Teens? Give ’Em Jobs!
Always Right is Slate’s pop-up blog exploring customer service across industries, technologies, and human relationships.
One of the things I love most about my small town is our grocery store. The prices are low and the selection is decent. But it’s the customer service at Market Basket that makes picking up milk and broccoli such an agreeable errand. As in many retail settings heavy on entry-level jobs, a fair proportion of Market Basket’s employees are teenagers. But these teens aren’t surly or inept or mumblingly awkward like the ones at Cinnabon. These bright young things make friendly eye contact, they dress neatly, and they make pleasantly professional small talk. When I was visibly pregnant a few years ago, baggers walked me out to my car, helped to load my bags, and whisked away the cart afterward. These days they greet my toddler by name in the store. This is Generation Z as if designed in a lab by Greatest Generation scientists.
Now, I’ve been to other stores with some perfectly adequate teenage employees, but how does Market Basket ensure that all their teens are so freshly scrubbed and gung-ho? When I asked the company’s operations supervisor, Joe Schmidt, about its training procedures, I half expected a secret formula: an intense indoctrination program, a complex mentoring system, military-style bagging drills. Instead, he described a one-day orientation, a detailed employee handbook, and corporate “core values” that put customer service first. It all sounded reasonable enough, but it didn’t quite explain why my unremarkable New England supermarket feels like the set of Pleasantville.
As it turns out, one secret to making a good teenage employee is simply employing a teenager. When I reported on teenage employment a few years ago, experts told me over and over how having a job is an invaluable tool for teaching young people “soft skills” like dependability and communication. Employers tend to be much less forgiving of attendance problems than schools are, and the workplace is often the first time teenagers are expected to interact as equals with adult supervisors and customers. Entry-level customer service jobs are where many teens first absorb the kind of basic life skills that make them employable in other fields later—and more pleasant to be around in the meantime. Hiring them is exactly what turns them into people you’d want to hire.
I was 14 when I got my first real job, working the counter at a snack bar on a college campus near my home. Yes, I learned how to operate a cash register and how to reheat the vat of old nacho cheese. But the real skills the job imparted were intangible: I had to learn how to respond to people who had special requests and obscure questions, reasonable and unreasonable. Some were grouchy for reasons that weren’t my fault, and sometimes for reasons that were my fault; they required cheerful on-the-spot solutions either way. In the next few years, those skills were honed further at a series of full-service restaurant jobs, which raised the stakes. Critics point out that tip-based systems end up privileging white men as customers and create a variety of other structural problems. All absolutely true, but I got a real charge out of hustling for tips. When you work for tips, you literally receive cash in proportion to your social expertise—the ability to quickly “read” a group of people and provide the exact style of service (chatty, speedy, flirty) that suits their needs. This was sometimes wildly satisfying, and other times stressful or humiliating. In other words, it was a lot like the rest of my working life would be.
If service-oriented jobs are where teenagers learn to be adults, it’s disturbing, then, that the teenage employment rate has dropped dramatically. In 2000, 46 percent of 16-to-19-year-olds had a job in any given month. Last year, just 30 percent were working. That slump is happening for several reasons, including the decline of entry-level jobs and the fact that more adult workers are resigning themselves to low-paying service work. Meanwhile, white teenagers and those from higher-income families are notably more likely to have jobs. In 2017, the after-school job is becoming a luxury experience.
There’s a risk to fetishizing teen employment as some kind of assembly line for producing cheerful, obedient capitalist drones. But for the teenagers who may not have their first real job until they’re in their 20s, the trend could have real consequences. “This is the first generation that will not have major work experience as part of their adolescent development,” Jeylan Mortimer, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, told me back in 2014. “This raises major concerns.”
Which brings me back to Market Basket. Schmidt, the company’s director of operations, started working for the company at 14 as a bagger at a store in Danvers, Massachusetts. He worked there throughout high school and college, and made it a career after he graduated. He has now worked for the company for 31 years, and he’s proud that it’s a place that tries to make every employee feel important. “It’s my first job and hopefully my last job,” he said. Schmidt was an amiable, knowledgeable, and helpful guy. Perhaps he learned it on the job.