Another 37, Day 26
You just got your bill in the mail, and the company screwed you. I mean, really screwed you. There are hundreds of dollars of charges here that you never made. The bill is complicated, but you’ve spent some time with it and you’re confident it’s the company’s fault. You are mad as hell, and you’re for damn sure going to get to the bottom of this. You call up customer service. A young woman with a pleasant voice answers the phone, and asks how she can help you. You are ready to yell. You don’t want to yell. You hate to yell. But this is a problem, and you’re ready to do it.
Except you don’t. Because she’s so nice. Because she’s doing her best to help you out, within her limited abilities. Because it isn’t her fault that the company screwed you. You shouldn’t be taking it out on her. You’ll feel terrible. It’s the damn company fat cats, the ones who designed the crappy system to screw customers like you. They’re the ones you should be yelling at. That would be fair. That would be just. You should call them up and yell at them directly. So…good luck with that.
I work in customer service myself, and I deal with a lot of what we call “escalated calls.” Plenty of customers call in angry, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for crazy reasons that only exist in their mind-bubble. If you listen to CS reps talk, it sounds like all of the customers are nuts and just calling in to whine in about invented problems. Some of them are, of course, but not most of them. CS reps talk like that because humans love to bitch in the break room; it’s one of the ways we bond. But there’s another reason. A subtler and more insidious reason: We are trained to think like that. It happens at every level, from initial training, to the company guidelines on how to deal with people, to the way our supervisors guide us to deal with escalations. It is all a way to teach us that, as much as possible, these problems are the customer’s responsibility.
One of the main things we like to bitch about is customers who get angry at us. “Why the hell is this vitriol directed at me?” we ask. Don’t these customers recognize that this is not my fault, that I just work here and I’m just trying to help? I used to feel that way. It’s hard not to, especially when you get the nastier callers who seem to blame you for ruining their lives, and are not afraid to use highly colorful language about your bodily orifices to make this point.
But eventually it hit me. Yes, it’s not fair for customers to the hourly working just trying to pay their bills on the other end of the line for an overcharge by a Fortune 500 megacorp. But on the other hand, we are their point of contact for the company. Who the hell else are they going to blame? The people actually responsible are never, ever going to talk to them. This is not a coincidence.
My particular Customer Service Superpower—and every good rep has one—is that people find it difficult to get or stay mad at me. Even when they are clearly upset or aggravated I can almost always calm them down. I think it’s because I never sound upset or frustrated with them. It stems back to this over-developed set of empathy that, like most things, is an advantage and a disadvantage. Even when a person is clearly in the wrong I’m almost certainly going to sympathize with them, and if comes across in my voice. So many times I’ve heard people say, “I’m angry, but I know this isn’t your fault. I’m not blaming you.”
The thing is, human brains don’t divide things up very well. If you are talking to someone about an issues that upsets you but the person makes you feel calm and comfortable, you can’t help but feel calmer and more comfortable about the issue. It’s a variant on the halo effect, and it’s the same reason attractive people are better at selling real estate. Objectively the 5 bedroom colonial doesn’t have fewer plumbing problems when presented by Sexy Rita than it does with Ugly Joe. But Sexy Rita puts you in a better mood, so the problems won’t seem so bad. This effect has been thoroughly tested both in laboratories and in the field, and is extraordinarily robust. It doesn’t mean that your free will is somehow stripped away. But there’s a measurable influence.
When it comes to customer service, it means that that friend representative who is discussing those nasty charges but whom you don’t want to take it out on is manipulating you. She probably doesn’t mean to. Honestly there’s a good chance she has your best interests at heart, to the extent that she can while also keeping her job and doing her best for her employers. But the very fact that she calms you down, that you recognize her as a human being with feelings who is just a small part of an unfeeling machine, makes you less likely to fight for what you deserve from the company.
Right now, if you consider yourself a good person who is nice to service people, the idea that you should be willing you yell at them might be making you uncomfortable. That’s a good sign as to your humanity. On behalf of customer service representatives everywhere, I assure you that we highly and sincerely appreciate it.
And our bosses? They appreciate it even more.