Yesterday, in the span of no more than one hour, I had firsthand experience of both of these—of how an employer can sabotage both its own bottom line and its employees’ efforts to do their job and make a living, and then the reverse—with an employee at another company sabotaging both the corporate and personal bottom line.
Here’s how that hour began: For some time, I have been determined to replace my overpriced mobile phone service with something 1/3 as expensive. So, I revisited a new city-core franchise of one of the world’s largest discount mobile phone companies, where very friendly staff had previously explained their service packages. Once again, I liked what they had to offer and how they offered it, so I committed to signing up.
But there was a hurdle: Purely on the basis of my passport number and the single rock-solid credit card I used and despite very recent successful credit checks related to renting my new apartment, my application was instantly rejected by the company’s credit-checking software. Attempts to investigate the basis of the vexing rejection were fruitless, since all of the service rep’s attempted and repeated direct dealer calls to the company’s customer service department failed—after very long musical waits terminated by sudden and jarring automatic disconnects, something she said happens to the staff all the time.
That engaging young woman who recognized me as a regular customer of her mother’s neighborhood sundries shop said that the phone company’s instant credit-checking software routinely disqualifies new-service applicants who clearly seem to have no credit issues—including one man with four gold credit cards. Another, who arrived earlier in the morning and ready to fork over $300 to replace a lost Blackberry, was also among that morning’s four credit rejects.
She said that there have been numerous complaints about the screening service—from staff as well as rejected prospective customers—and that so far this day she had already lost four commissions, including the one from my planned subscription, a fiasco that she said occurs routinely, because of, she and her colleagues believe, a glitch in the credit-check software design or flaw in the company’s policies.
Frustrated by the disconnected calls and the company’s software that denied us the chance to give and get money, we commiserated with each other over lost service and commissions before I grudgingly headed off to visit an alternative company.
Clearly there was more than one disconnect in this situation: In addition to the atrocious service support available to the company’s own staff, the phone company’s software or credit policies disconnected the engaging employees from its bottom line and revenue generation: effective employee engagement + ineffective corporate administrative follow-through = business-model failure (hyphen optional).
Compounded Irony in the Rules of Engagement
The irony of this situation was not only not wasted on me, but was also, within minutes, to be replicated at a second mobile phone kiosk, in reverse form.
Like the first service center, this one was one I had previously scouted, but, in contrast, had doubts about because, unlike all the staff at the former franchise, the sole 20-something employee at this second one seemed clearly disengaged from me and his job. When I arrived and stood at the counter the first time, he remained seated, didn’t engage me at all, answered questions in a perfunctory monotone and did nothing to suggest that he or the company wanted my business and money. It was like trying to communicate with a teenager playing a video game.
Despite my reservations and because I had run out of nearby options, I went back and got the same treatment from the same guy, and then left, with as few words exchanged this time as the first, which had been some weeks before. However, frustrated twice in one hour and fed up with mobile phone company frustrations, I wheeled around after exiting the complex, went back and engaged him—on my terms.
An Authentic Chat
I politely recommended that he try to be at least a little engaging with prospective customers. His calm, candid response was that he doesn’t want to be a performer, forced to fake enthusiasm or to attempt a rah-rah hard-plastic sell. No emotional labor for him. No, instead, he said, he wanted to sit and interact as naturally as I would were I seated there.
As I speculated about whether he was a rank-and-file counter person working for only an hourly wage, rather than an owner-manager with a vested interest in generating more business, I prepared to get my conceptual ducks in a row. He told me that he is the manager and that, of course, he has to make money, if, as he put it, “my mother is going to eat”, as he suggested that this is a family business. He also described himself as very successful, averaging four contracts per day and earning $5,000 per month on that basis—something that I thought could be matched or surpassed only by the likes of aggressive door-to-door encyclopedia or Ferrari dealership salesmen.
At that point and puzzled why he would compare his sitting on the paying job with my sitting and having an FDR radio fireside kind of chat with him, I took on his arguments: First, I presented and explained the very germane distinction between what the sociologist Max Weber called “Gesellschaft” and “Gemeinschaft”—the difference between formal business relations and warm, personal “community” relationships. I then sharply noted that if he is going to occupy that seat, he has to fill it either as part of a business or as part of a community, i.e., it has to be businesslike and impersonal, or warmer and more personal. Either way, it has to be engaged, even if not especially engaging.
This means that he has to engage visitors professionally or personally, or, even more enjoyably for all concerned, in both ways—that’s why he was given the job. That’s how the job is done. Ask your barber. He knows.
A Job is Not a Date
Which way this mobile phone kiosk manager chooses is open; however, that he must choose is a given, given that he has chosen to be there in the first place. A job is not a date—appearing coy, aloof, passive, passive aggressive, indifferent or mysterious may be effective and appropriate in courtship, but it’s entirely wrong in the workplace, with the possible exception of Rolls Royce and Bentley salesmen whose job is to make most showroom visitors feel inferior to the cars and lucky to be served at all. However, since mobile phones ceased to be status symbols well before the second billion were sold, this manager can’t use the upscale-industry defense as an excuse for providing bad or almost no service.
Clown Performance—No, Job Performance—Yes
I made it clear that I sympathized with his reluctance to be a performing sales monkey—to have to risk succumbing to Sartrean “bad faith”, i.e., inauthentically defining himself as his prefabricated and artificial work role and becoming an existential stage actor, instead of a freely choosing agent. However, that reluctance to perform and whatever right he may believe he has to not perform like a clown do not exempt him from customer and owner expectations of satisfactory job performance. It’s a job, not a sit-in protest against workplace exploitation—at least as long as one’s job is not to protest one’s job.
The irony of this circumstance was as clear and peculiar as the ironic corporate self-sabotage at the first franchise, except that in this instance it was the employee, not the employer, who was sabotaging the company’s bottom line, while, like the company, sabotaging his own, in this instance in the form of lost hefty commissions.
Interpreting vs. Motivating Customers: a Lesson from Karl Marx
He did attempt a further rationalization of his low-key (or is it no-key?) approach: He said that he notes every visitor’s body language (including mine) and that if he decides (as he did with me) a visitor is not seriously interested, he won’t waste their time—and, by obvious implication, his—by engaging them, as though his job is only to accommodate real visitor interest, rather than also to create it.
You would think that spending so much time sitting instead of engaging, he would have had time for a leisurely and instructive read of Karl Marx, who famously said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Replace “philosophers” with “customer service staff” and “reality” with “potential customers” and you’ll get a pretty good job description for the job he should be doing but isn’t.