An anecdote from the customer service department of [REDACTED], a department store. / by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: Molly Nilsson - 1995 >

Perhaps a year and a half ago in a cafe on the north side of Capitol Hill, Seattle, a friend recounted to me her experiences working at [REDACTED]. She commuted five days a week to a high rise that the firm had attempted to convert into a Google-style campus, but the high-rise lifestyle wasn’t really correspondent to the pseudo-collegiate atmosphere of Californian tech companies, and so [REDACTED] wasn’t really able to compete with them as a lifestyle business, even though it was still holding onto its niche as a real retail business, in competition with the nearby emergent Goliath of Amazon. It was solidly a workplace of the previous world, corporate in the sense that someone would have meant it in the 1980s, which is to say professionalist in the sense that each person is meant to suppress their nature so that they are indistinguishable from their role to the outside view, but not from their own inside view. This is, of course, contrary to the practice of the twenty-first century technology firm, where the worker is meant to be indistinguishable from their role from both the outside view and their own inside view.

My friend was supposed to be a manager in the customer service department, but the strange thing is that the managers of the customer service department outnumbered the non-managers. There were a relatively small number of customer service representatives, and then there were the managers who outnumbered their charges. The bulk of the customer service calls lasted only a short time before the customer service representative said something frictional, which then led to them passing the call up the chain of command after the customer spoke the magic words “speak to your manager.” Then, one of the “managers” would negotiate with the customer. And, slowly, as the customer was insistent, the manager would figure out a way to make the customer happy. Sometimes, if the customer was especially ornery, the call would be passed up to another run of managers, in this case fewer in number, and in this case actually managers.

What is the reason for this hierarchy of customer service, the chain of command shaped like a fat rhombus balanced on its point? It seems that the role of the first tier of pseudo-managers was a way for [REDACTED] to engage in a sort of method acting, in order to do a certain type of emotional labor for the customers. The kind of person who bought from [REDACTED] wanted to think that they were getting an experience as a customer that was above and beyond what the other people got. The experience of buying was a positional good, a validation of their status in comparison to other customers who they could imagine got a worse experience of buying from the same store. They were the sort of people who would say “do you have any idea who I am?” to the clerk at the counter of the hotel who says that all of the room are full. Such a person hopes that someone with a lower class standing than themselves would be thrown out of their bed and onto the street, for the clerk must dispossess them of their room out of fear of incurring their wrath. And so, the customer service department of [REDACTED] slowly changed to accommodate that demand. It wasn’t something like Zappos, where the norm was supposed to be that customer service was always good. It was not the company that was special—[REDACTED] is almost the definition of a pre-digital legacy business—it was that you were special, in comparison to the rest of the clientele who definitionally had to not be. The identity of these consumers was formulated negatively, against the hypothetical experience that they could have gotten if they were not who they believed themselves to be.

Thus, the structure of the company evolved to maintain the pretense of special treatment, when in fact everyone got special treatment. I remember first recognizing this sort of illusion as a young child at the end of the 90s, looking at a promotional advertisement in the back of an edutainment magazine that my parents considered permissible. There was a supposed “special offer” where you could get access to a great number of zoological themed trading cards if you peeled back a sticker on the advertisement to see the image of a shark tooth. I peeled it back, saw the shark tooth, and then ran to my mother, telling her that I’d won the special offer, I just had to send in ten bucks after cutting out the shark tooth and putting it in the provided envelope to get my special trading cards. She reminded me, sternly, that it was far more likely that every copy of this issue had a shark tooth printed there. I wonder, sometimes, if this was the event that inoculated me to these sorts of brazen uses of apparent positional advantage in marketing.

Still, the main question this conversation in Capitol Hill inspired in me was this: How much of the economy is emotional labor to inject the idea of positional specialness in the minds of a customer? How much activity on the market is fundamentally the lie that you could not buy the good available on a fair market, but only on a market that had been rigged in your favor? How much of the market is devoted to simulating the market breaking its own rules?