Customer Therapy

November 14, 2009 at 11:39 am (By Amba)

For the most part, we roam the aisles of big-box stores alone, hunter-gatherers fending for ourselves.  At most, a multitasking cashier on the periphery might holler out an aisle number for us.  But have you noticed how in certain places, like phone stores and banks, customer service reps now lavish an inordinate amount of time and attention on each customer?  How they lay out every option available, elicit an autobiography on the spot, and dwell lovingly on every possible customizable feature that would suit that person’s “needs” (how I hate the cosseting use of that word for adults — so infantilizing!), lacing the presentation with a simulacrum of personal chat?  And that many people — especially women — and always, the person ahead of you — lingers gratefully in the warmth of this exclusive regard, body gathered close into the booth of commercial intimacy, shy shoulders rounded like a child’s receiving praise?

At first I thought this was just Southern manners.  Every transaction down here has to be embellished with a little faux-small-town, front-porch gossip, joking, and dissection of the weather.  There’s always time for this nostalgic and incongruous ritual.  It’s enough to drive a foot-stamping New Yorker nuts (especially since it’s hypocritical — all bets are off when the same people get behind the wheels of their cars.  They become killers).  But it’s happening in national-brand, franchise places where the reps are given standard training, like the AT&T store where, in a hurry as usual, I wasted twenty minutes waiting behind one of these therapy sessions before finally leaving with nothing accomplished.  (I had bought the cheapest, “candy bar” style cell phone, which probably cost $1 to make and $30 to buy, and punishes you with tiny, ugly, illegible graphics and the threat that they will not exchange it for credit if you break down and beg to trade up.  But mine really doesn’t work right; half the time the “Select” button scrolls instead of selecting.  I was told that I had to ask the manager if they would accept its return even though — the shame! — I may have thrown out the box.  The manager, however, was busy crafting every detail of an anorexic-looking woman’s “plan,” with an air of “However long it takes.”)

You could find this complaint of other customers’ narcissism ironic — and narcissistic — given that a big part of my problem is that it’s not my turn.  But when it is, I usually try to get the transaction over with quickly.  Cordially, but with a minimum of both confession and chit-chat.  (Though I’m not above using “My husband is disabled and I can’t leave him alone for long” to get faster service, which is admittedly sickening, though true.)

In what’s been called an “attention economy,” these encounters do mimic the validating and cherishing functions of therapy:  having another person’s attention focused solely on you.  Balm for one’s loneliness and ever-menacing sense of insignificance is the new soft sell.  Like the fetishistic way people build their one-in-six-billion Starbuck’s lattes, the customizing of our bank accounts, cell phone plans, and almost certainly our automobiles (though I’ve never bought a new one, so don’t know) seems designed to console us for, or distract us from, the erosion of real individuality, autonomy, and love.


  1. CGHill said,

    It’s not that contemporary customer-service types have suddenly been given a dose of Maslow; it’s simply that churn is growing, and companies are anxious to do anything – well, anything except give you a much-better deal – to keep you from migrating to The Competition. Obsequiousness is cheap.

  2. amba12 said,

    Probably what bugs me most is not so much that they offer it, but that so many people fall for it.

  3. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Annie, honey, the thing is that it’s not artificial. What’s you’re getting there is the fast version of Southern service. Get away from the Triangle, especially if you have even a hint of the local accent, as I do whenever i’m there for more than about a week, and you’ll get the real thing, which usually ends up with figuring out whether you and the clerk are kin somehow. (Through the efforts of a cousin who’s into genealogy, I know that my great great great grandfather Rieves was born somewhere between Siler City and Silk Hope. This was good for ten minutes’ conversation in itself. Drove my Yankee friends wild.)

    The driving thing I have more trouble explaining. But you know what a turn signal means in North Carolina?

    “Hey, y’all, watch this!”

  4. Donna B. said,

    That’s one reason I try to do all my phone stuff over the phone. I absolutely HATE going to a phone store.

    To be honest, I hate going into any store. Amazon loves people like me.

  5. Icepick said,

    The driving thing is easy to explain. It has two parts.

    The first part is that by living in the Triangle you are probably surrounded by people who aren’t from there originally. When you have people from many different parts of the country/world all drving in the same place, the results are inevitably bad. (Trust me. Not only do I live in Florida, and almost no one is FROM Florida, I live in Orlando. We’ve got toursits from everywhere in the world all the freakin’ time. The funny part is that the tourists don’t cause that much trouble themselves. Afterall, they stay in the touristy parts of town. Stay away from Plastic Land and you’re safe. But it gives every other damned fool an excuse to drive like they’ve never seen another car before, much less street signs, or streets signs in English. Of course, about 20% of the students in Orange County schools don’t actually know English when they enter the school system, so that last part is true a good deal of the time.*)

    And the second part is aggressive driving is part and parcel of Southern culture. You’re in NASCAR Country now, baby! We race everything from wooden crates to tractor trailers, sometimes blindfolded! (Gawd how I love sack races!)

    * Not mere nativst bitching. A recent study by the local school system indicated that 19.6% or so of the students entering the school system here DON’T know English with any proificiency. Florida: the rules are different here.

  6. amba12 said,

    Charlie: the driving thing, I think, is a national pathology that, like the highway system, has overwhelmed regionalism.

    Add NASCAR on top of that . . . but NASCAR is good-natured mayhem. I’m talking about, slow down in the dark because you’re lost and confused (as I did while J was in hospice) and whoever’s behind you will be riding up on your tail, honking murderously and possibly yelling something with “BITCH!” in it out the window.

  7. chasrmartin said,

    I think I’m with Icepick on this: it’s not like that here, for example, but it was like that in the Triangle, even 26 years ago when I first moved there. The worst is driving 55 (the road not the speed) across RTP between Cary and CH. I dunno why.

    And Icepick, as far as I can tell, about 20 percent of the undergrads I meet don’t speak English with any proficiency; the foreign students, even fewer.

  8. PatHMV said,

    This is why I buy on the internet whenever I can. What ticks me off is the salespeople who act as if they know a lot of stuff about the products, but in fact know very little, and invariably much less than I know after doing 10 minutes of research before going shopping.

    About 10 years ago, though, I went to one of the old department stores in town, to buy a shirt. There was an old man working there. He could tell my size without measuring, and took me straight to 2 styles which were exactly what I was looking for. It was seriously old school service. For that, I would start buying in local stores again. But that kind of service is very rare these days. Nobody stays working in retail long enough to get that level of expertise.

  9. Ron said,

    The gentility thing has always left me queasy. They’re always showing me the velvet glove, but I’m the guy that smells the iron fist inside.

    Freudian retail would try to determine what type of cell plan your parents would have bought for you.

  10. reader_iam said,

    A bit of devil’s advocacy here: Why is it any weirder to seek a level of connection with strangers at the store than to do so with strangers over the internet?

  11. amba12 said,

    Laugh first, answer questions later:

    1) Store transactions are brief and usually don’t lead to sustained relationships.
    2) Store transactions are more one-way, usually focused exclusively on the customer, in exchange for money (something else they have in common with therapy).
    3) The clerk (though some salespeople really enjoy the job and even consider it a form of service) has an ulterior motive, to get you to spend your money, be satisfied and be a loyal/return customer. There may be ulterior motives (attempts to meet needs) between online friends, but generally they are more personal than commercial [it’s the violation of this separation of friendship and business that makes me hate MLM], and more mutual than one-sided.

    I am really not opposed to civility or friendliness between the partners in commercial transactions. I’m talking about something else, a form of cosseting attention that is quite calculated, probably not by the clerk but by whatever system he/she was trained in. There’s some marketing guru with a theory behind it all. That person or persons is the real target of my ire.

  12. chasrmartin said,

    Ah, now i’m getting it. “Hi, I’m Erin and I’ll be your server today.”

  13. Donna B. said,

    It’s not like this can’t be used sort of in reverse, especially on the phone. When I’m calling about a problem with a service, one of the first things I try to do is make the rep laugh. I’ve found if I can do this, I get better quicker service and we both hang up happy.

    This does not work with the overly-scripted.

  14. PatHMV said,

    I once bought a Republican-themed tie at a local department store. The sales clerk went out of his way to express his appreciation for the politics he presumed I have based on the tie selection. While he was correct in guessing my Republican nature, I still found it very off-putting. As a practical matter, he had no idea whether I was buying it for myself or as a gift for a friend, perhaps even as a practical joke. More importantly, I have no desire to discuss politics with strange store clerks (as opposed to strangers over the internet). I don’t care about my sales clerks’ politics, and I don’t want them intruding into mine. When I go on the internet to politically-oriented blogs or news sites, I’m prepared for it, I’m seeking it out. When I’m shopping, I’m often trying to get away from it all.

  15. Donna B. said,

    Pat – even worse are the clerks who have no clue about the customer’s politics but decide to share theirs. One such clerk may have learned her lesson when she spouted her opinion of Bush and the Iraq war a few years ago to my daughter and her Army husband.

    They were buying furniture and the sale was completed all but the credit card transaction when they walked out. They paid $100 more at a different store, and considered it money well-spent.

    This is notable for two reasons:
    1) My son-in-law was wearing his unit’s 4ID OIF t-shirt with a large graphic of a fully-armed Apache helicopter on the front.
    2) My son-in-law is so tight with his wallet that his eyelids squeak when he takes it out of his pocket.

  16. amba12 said,

    Trader Joe’s! A friend (New York-born and bred, moved to Arizona warned me about the false jocularity of the cashiers at Trader Joe’s, how part of the trademark Trader Joe “experience” is that they always make improvised but still canned conversation with you when you just want to pay and go. Sure enough, when I buy cat food there the cashier always asks me what my cat’s name is (like he could give a damn). For some reason this really pisses me off.

  17. Ron said,

    my trader joes cashier sang “Tonight” from West Side Story with me as a duet while she was ringing up my purchase!

  18. amba12 said,

    Now that might win me over.

  19. amba12 said,

    You do the harmony on that??

  20. Ron said,

    Maria and Tony switch off singing during “Tonight”…people stared at us, but we sang on!

  21. Ron said,

    I went to TJ’s the day after I came back from the hospital, and the cashier noticed I looked like I was going to faint…When I told her what happened she gave me some of their large bags (not paper or plastic…the better ones!) and some chocolate.

  22. amba12 said,

    You’re seriously softening my heart towards Trader Joe.

  23. Ron said,

    But let’s say what you’ve observed is true. Isn’t the animated, false bonhomie better than the quiet surliness we’ve historically gotten, if they keep it short? At some places I almost feel sorry for the person taking my cash!

  24. amba12 said,

    They don’t keep it short, that’s the problem. And I prefer real surliness to fake jocularity. Not to say you can’t have a good laugh with a supermarket cashier, etc., if you’re both in the mood.

  25. brunobaby said,

    Another Trader Joe’s story: The other day, after I’d braved the crowded aisles and the half-hour check-out line, the cashier asked, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

    I was going to automatically say “Yes, thank you,” figuring it was just part of the canned social agreement in this situation. But I was so tired and stressed that I actually told the truth: “No, I forgot the canned pumpkin.”

    She called a stock clerk over and a minute later, I was paying for a can of pumpkin.

  26. Donna B. said,

    If real surliness comes back in ‘fashion’ in the retail marketplace, I might be able to get a job after all :-)

  27. Donna B. said,

    From 1970 until 1983, I was in the restaurant business in one way or another. I was an owner, a waitress, a manager, a hostess/cashier, and a cook. As an owner, I was all the above, plus dishwasher and busboy.

    As an owner, I also had part interest in a country-western ballroom and a disco/DJ bar. Life was interesting :-)

    But one thing… perhaps because my very first job was as hostess/cashier – the person who fielded the most complaints — I learned early was how to handle upset customers. Most of the time, a sincere apology and a sincere inquiry as to how the situation could be “made right” sufficed.

    That didn’t mean I was a pushover. There are people who will complain simply to try to get something for free. I well remember one customer complaining that our french fries were as mediocre as McDonald’s… I thanked him for the compliment and rang up his ticket. (If he’d compared the hamburger to McDonald’s I might have listened…)

    As was popular back in those days, we had a Sunday buffet, similar to what you can still find at Golden Corral. There was one customer that made so many trips to refill her plate that we were absolutely sure she couldn’t have been eating it all at one time. Our waitresses told us that she brought squares of foil and sandwich bags with her and filled up her voluminous purse with enough to feed herself for a week… until the next Sunday buffet.

    This went on for weeks, and as we were located in a relatively small town, some investigation into her financial affairs were unofficially conducted. My husband chose to sit down with her at her table one Sunday, telling her how grateful he was for her loyalty — being there every single Sunday and how much he appreciated it. He BS’d her until she’d eaten all she could hold, and then took her ticket and said there’d be no charge…

    Who says passive-aggressiveness is not effective? She didn’t stop coming for the Sunday buffet and I’m sure she didn’t stop taking home some extras, but she did stop being obvious.

    We also engaged in performance theater where steaks were concerned. They were cooked in full view of the customer, and the customer could choose his steak from a wide variety of raw ones on display. The customer could discuss exactly how he/she wanted that steak cooked. Our star employee manned the grill and was paid equal amounts for his ability to relate to and entertain the customers as for his skill in grilling (which was considerable).

    I’m becoming rather nostalgic for those days as I’m typing this. We had a great business just off a busy interstate… but not good enough to survive the closing of that exit for “reconstruction” for a year.

    Burger King and McDonald’s are there now, and frankly, had they not been willing to pay a premium for the land, we’d have been in bankruptcy. Or… if we could have held out, we’d be wealthy :-)

    We moved to the big city and both my husband and I took jobs with chain restaurants as managers. He worked for Lums and Showbiz Pizza and I worked for Denny’s. Maybe that was a good thing because between the two of us, we had the best health insurance available in the mid-80s when my daughter had meningitis and my son suffered a severe closed head injury.

    Or… perhaps, it’s as my father lamented after my brother graduated from law school: I’ve never been sued before and I’m glad you didn’t go to medical school.

    Life is what it is and whatever it hands us we manage to deal with. Mostly… I do think those with a good sense of humor have the best chance of managing well.

  28. amba12 said,

    Melinda — where IS the Trader Joe’s in the Village? I think it was rumored to be about to open when we left.

    Cashiers at our supermarket chain, Harris Teeter, also have that “Did you find everything you were looking for?” script. Another part of it is, “Is plastic okay?”

  29. amba12 said,

    Donna: you have the best stories. Go on, just write your autobiography. It’ll be made into a movie with a country score.

    Without a sense of humor, I’d be dead several times over. Life without a sense of humor is a closed head injury.

  30. Randy said,

    Are you guyz ready to order? How are you guyz doing? Do you guyz want anything else?

    Frosts me. Hate it.

    Whenever they ask me, “Paper or plastic?” I say, “Either/either: I’m bi-sacks-ual.”

  31. Ron said,

    We’re becoming a closed head injury nation!

  32. Donna B. said,


    You just woke my husband because I burst out laughing!!!

  33. Donna B. said,

    A closed head injury is one of the most bizarre things one can experience.

    So… maybe — since our politics have certainly become bizarre, maybe our society has suffered a closed head injury — that being defined as an injury that does not allow the inflammation and excess blood to escape, thus it kills vital cells.

    Perhaps we might learn from the emblematic symptoms of closed head injuries: first is a skewing of personality. When one *awakens* from a head injury, things do not align the way they once did.

    This — emphatically — does not mean they do not align in a logical manner, just that they do not align with what society (there should be a TM trademark thingie after that, but I don’t know how to make it) deems proper.

    Perhaps what I fear the most is a rigid society. Democracy seems the least rigid in its ideal form, but it has its deformities when put in practice. Republicanism can, in its ideal form overcome some of Democracy’s failures.

    It takes a considered and thoughtful hybrid to best allow humans to live peacefully with one another.

    We’ve never quite had that, but I’m optimistic enough to think… that if we can overcome selfishness — we might finally obtain something humanly dignified.

    Cleaning out cabinets and shelves of old things I’ve saved and written, I found one missive about “light and dark” personalities. Though it’s 30 years old, it’s still meaningful to me today.

    Most of the people I know are “light” personalities… they not only believe in the best of human nature, they actively work to personify it. They may not be well-known historical figures, but I suspect each of us has known at least one person who fits this description.

    And… just to take this post as far off-track as I can — I believe that 90%+ of human beings have more light to them than dark — with dark being described by humans.

    If you’re wondering about that last phrase — dark being described by humans — it’s human morality thing. I doubt that chimpanzees have it. I’d be more likely to believe dogs have it. Whatever it is… it’s good.

  34. Donna B. said,

    Dammit I really hate when something I’m trying to say doesn’t make sense. Darkness of a human soul is a morality thing, and chimps don’t understand it, but dogs probably do. Yet chimps don’t have a darkness because it’s not within their realm of understanding.

    And… an understanding of the darkness of a soul — that’s the possible goodness.

    Oh please, let me just open another bottle of wine to better explain the inexplicable.

  35. amba12 said,

    I’ll raise a glass to you, since it’s almost my bedtime.

    Maybe you mean that we are able to see selfish and aggressive impulses as “dark.” But/and they are really “dark” only in us, because having disapproved of them we (or some of us) are also attracted to them. Rather than being just the involuntary enactment of a survival-oriented instinct, it becomes a choice. And that makes it worse.

  36. Ron said,

    The cosmos gave us wine to be able to explain the inexplicable.

  37. brunobaby said,

    Annie, the Trader Joe’s is on 14th Street near Third Avenue. There’s another one that opened last year in Downtown Brooklyn in an old bank building and sometimes I’ll go there instead: Wider aisles and less crowding.

    Donna, I second Annie’s suggestion about the autobiography. I’d see that movie.

  38. » Reboot to the head said,

    […] B. finds a painfully-apt metaphor for the politics of today: A closed head injury is one of the most bizarre things one can […]

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