From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 

“Is there anything else I can do to brighten your day and put a smile on your face,” said the Customer Service Representative to me last week, after he finished answering my question about his company’s vague policies. Millions of Americans deal with many helpful and friendly customer service representatives from different businesses nationwide and on daily basis. The work these representatives do is truly admirable and important. They are the backbone of most American businesses. Just imagine America without customer service representatives! I have rarely had negative experiences with customer service representatives as individuals trying to do their job. Instead, most of the negative experiences tend to be because of the misleading or ambiguous policies of the companies and corporations that employ them. Sadly, many people forget that when they call customer service departments for help. In many cases, the representatives find themselves at the receiving end of the customers’ rage or even verbal assaults. One of my Latino friends who has been working in the field for many years told me that, often, when some customers do not like the company’s practices—such as raising prices—they simply give him bad ratings, curse him, and hang up. In many situations, he added, “They scream at me and call me names like ‘faggot’ or other bad names and hang up.” I asked him what happens usually after such encounters, especially since most calls are recorded for “quality assurance” purposes. He said that usually the manager will talk to him to “coach” him about how he could have dealt with the situation differently to alleviate the customer’s rage. Shockingly, it is always the representative who is held accountable no matter how bad the situation gets. I asked him whether customers are held accountable for calling him names like “faggot” on the phone. He continued, “Of course not! The customer is always right! In cases when the recorded call clearly shows that there was nothing we could’ve done to make things better; the manager simply expects us to get over it and move on to the next call.”

I have heard many similar horror stories over the years about customer service representatives getting verbally abused by esteemed customers. I have also learned that most employees who work in this field are overworked and underpaid. These stories should make us ask whether businesses and corporations that allow their overworked and underpaid representatives to be verbally assaulted on the phone really care about their employees as they consistently claim. These horrific stories have taught me that whenever I am dissatisfied with my experience with any company, I make it clear on the phone that the representative was very kind and helpful, and my issue is with the company’s policies and practices rather the way the representative did his or her job. I do so to make sure that the business hears my message loud and clear, so they do not punish the weakest link in the chain—the representatives. Life has taught me not to shoot messengers, no matter how bad and discouraging the news. It is more important to pay attention to those crafting the message!

Because I happen to have many friends and acquaintances who work in the field of customer service at different businesses and from walks of life, I have been wanting to write about this critical issue for a long time, but I was waiting for the moment that will trigger it. The encounter with which I open this article was just that trigger. What caught my attention the most in this encounter is the over-the-top language some representatives are trained to use when dealing with customers. When the representative wrapping up the call asked me, “Is there anything else I can do to brighten your day and put a smile on your face?” He raised many questions and reactions within me. First, I wondered whether he really meant these words. If he did, how could he really “brighten” my day or “put a smile” on my face? Aside from resolving my issue with the company he is working for, why is it at all his job to brighten my day or put a smile on my face? For most customers, it takes a lot more than resolving a customer service issue to brighten their day or put a smile on their face. Moreover, if the representative did not mean his words, I felt sorry that any human being in this world is forced to repeat this script in an automated manner just because it is part of the job description. There is something pathetic about asking this question when both the representative and the customer know deep inside that it is not genuine, or, at best, it is just an unfortunate part of the job duties. Furthermore, as a customer, I really do not want nor expect any representative to feel obliged to use such a language with me. Resolving the issue to the best of their ability is more than enough. I am already grateful for that.

Second, looking at the bigger picture, this encounter brought to the surface a question I had always thought about: Do corporations and businesses imposing this culture and artificial language on their representatives really care about customers or about the employees themselves? If they do, then why there is no penalty for customers who verbally assault the representatives as demonstrated earlier? Why are representatives, who are vital and at the forefront of each business, in most cases underpaid and overworked? More importantly, these stories raise other questions way beyond the customer service representatives themselves. For example: What happens to a society and a culture where people are forced to behave in an obsequious or sycophantic way? What are the human, cultural, and social implications of turning almost every profession into a tool to cater to customers in ways that ensure profit for those at the top of the corporate chain rather than quality and transparency for both customers and the employees at these businesses? In the rest of this article, I would like to examine some cases that highlight the problems of the corporate customer service culture as we know it on our society at large. I do so by sharing and analyzing real-life situations and stories that I either experienced personally or heard about from other colleagues, acquaintances, and friends.

The first problem the corporate culture of customer service creates is humans who are like time bombs ready to explode at any moment. It creates people with double or multiple standards, who say what they do not mean and mean what they do not say. People who hate having to act “nice” eight hours a day, when they really do not want to. When I was a graduate student, I remember a vivid conversation with another colleague who shared with me that he was from the LGBTQIA community, but emphasized, “I am not out to my parents.” When I asked why he wasn’t out, despite the considerable rights won by the LGBTQIA communities and the significant rise of acceptance in the society. He told me that his father was totally against it and there is no way he would accept him if he came out. He then went on, “my father is a well-known general doctor and he makes a lot of money. I worry about him knowing because his punishment would cripple me financially at this stage of my life.” I asked why a doctor would be against LGBTQIA rights, when doctors not only deal with people and patients of various sexual orientations, but also people who are diverse socially, culturally, and politically. It is here when the most shocking revelation in this conversation came, “That’s true, but my father consistently repeats that he can’t stand all this diversity and sexuality crap. At home, he often curses all these minority groups and calls them the most insulting names you could imagine. There’s no way I’d feel safe to tell him about my sexual orientation.”

I was disturbed but not surprised by this story. Many people feel and act like this doctor privately. Still, I could not stop imagining this doctor at the hospital or at the clinic where he works putting the mask of acceptance just to ensure the flow of his paychecks, but as soon as he leaves work, all that acceptance is nothing but an abomination. He obviously would be fired if he openly declared his convictions at his work. This story is just one out of many. It should make us take seriously the consequences of a culture in which openness and acceptance are nothing more than part of the job description that some people despise and leave behind like a worn-out shirt once they leave work. The story reveals that people, like this doctor, may even feel vindictive and revengeful outside of work, because they feel that they are forced to be “nice”, to “accept”, or to “tolerate” people whom they otherwise hate with a passion. I, obviously, do not in any way condone or accept such hatred or behaviors. However, such stories should make us have serious dialogues and ask some difficult questions. For example, wouldn’t it be healthier and more meaningful if we lived in communities in which openness and acceptance of difference are instilled in the society in organic and genuine ways rather than imposed on people at a later stage in their lives as job descriptions?

There is a huge difference between the two approaches. To generate a genuine acceptance and understanding for difference means that the entire system must change its systematic and structural racism, sexism, xenophobia and all other forms of hatred. It means that the entire system (especially our dishonest media) should show and tell real stories that affirm the humanity and the beauty of every group in our society and the world at large. If that is done, there will not be any need to impose acceptance of difference and “tolerance” on employees as part of their job description in the way it is done currently. In fact, even the word “tolerance”, which is commonly used as a positive word when it comes to “tolerating” difference, is extremely problematic if we think about it.  If you simply Google the linguistic meaning of the word, the first definition you will get is (tolerance: noun): “to allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.” In this sense, using this word is disturbing because it suggests two things: first, the person who is doing the tolerating has the upper hand in everything, and therefore, they are kind enough to “tolerate” others. Second, it gives those doing to “tolerating” the right to change their mind and stop “tolerating” others any time they please, which could perhaps lead them to commit violence against the “intolerable”. I never understand how any native English speaker could thoughtlessly use “tolerate” as a positive word in such situations. How could they use the same word to tell us that they “tolerate a medication” and they “tolerate an immigrant or another religion.” We need a culture that teaches us to appreciate, to love, and to affirm others not to “tolerate” them. If anything, those doing the “tolerating” should be grateful for all the marginalized and disempowered groups in the society for tolerating the use of this demeaning language against them all this time!

In brief, the difference between having an organic approach for accepting difference versus an imposed one produce two different cultures and types of people. In the former, it leads to a long-lasting understanding with a solid foundation between people; whereas in the latter, it could turn many people into revengeful volcanoes ready to erupt at any time. As such, it is worth asking: Is the second approach precisely what convinced millions of Americans to vote for Donald Trump, thinking (mistakenly, of course) that he is the ultimate solution for protecting their purity, race, and values from being contaminated by anything “foreign”, and therefore “dirty” (in their eyes), in America? Were their votes a way to tell us that they have decided to stop “tolerating” anyone who does not look like them or who does not see the world in the same way they do? If so, it is naïve to think that the solution for this problem lies in imposing “tolerance” and “acceptance” of difference as phony corporate job descriptions. We need serious systematic and structural changes to achieve this goal. It takes a lifelong to learn how to love and lifelong to learn how to hate others. Having a healthy society that knows how to value and appreciate difference should not be a job responsibility, but a way of life.

The second serious problem the culture of customer service as we know it creates is exhausted workers and employees who are increasingly alienated from their work and from each other. Nothing is more difficult in life than acting as someone you are not for eight hours every single working day of your life. Such pressures can alienate even people who consciously chose careers where they can serve others; be it patients, students, customers, and others. Nurses, for example, generally love helping others. Otherwise, they would not choose such a career. Anyone who has worked in a hospital knows that nurses tend to be some of the most dedicated employees, and therefore the most precious asset of any hospital. One of my friends, who worked as a nurse at one of the nation’s top hospitals for 25 years, shared with me that she was so tired of the increased pressure from hospital administration attempting to turn them from nurses into, using her exact words, “customer servants”. I asked what her comment meant, since nurses provide service to patients anyway. She said that hospital administrations are putting so much pressure on nurses by interfering in the way they do their jobs just to please the patient, even if the patient is wrong or hinders how nurses do their job. In one case, she was reprimanded because the patient refused to follow her instructions, but she still had to do her job as a nurse. The patient complained about her and the administration sided with the “customer”. She went on, “mind you, this was one of those patients who paid the hospital in cash, so you can imagine why they defended him like that. The administration loves cash cows when it comes to patients! We are basically expected to see patients as paying customers. We have to ensure that they keep paying for as long as possible.” My friend felt the pressure amounting by the day. She had to leave her work at that hospital after nearly 25 years of service. She found a job at another hospital that she described as “a smaller place with fewer patients. I hope to have less of this drama to deal with over there.”

Another acquaintance of mine, a gastroenterologist (GI), who also works at one of the nation’s top hospitals told me a couple years ago that doctors, too, are turning into no more than customer service providers. Their job has become to ensure not only pleasing and attracting patients at all costs, but also to keep money flowing into hospitals. “We are expected to see one patient every 15 minutes! How can we get any quality time with the patient in such a brief time? How can we really show genuine care about patients? Ironically, hospital administrations always preach about providing ‘customized and personalized service’ for each patient.” He said with a discouraged voice. “Even prostitutes probably have more time with each customer than we have with each patient,” he continued jokingly. The average time doctors spend with patients by specialty, according to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2017 looks even grimmer, if we consider the outrageously high costs of our healthcare system. Both of these stories capture feelings of exhaustion and disappointment experienced by two health care providers who I know genuinely care about the well-being of their patients, yet they feel alienated when their patients are turned into customers whose primary purpose is to generate more profits for hospital administrations. Furthermore, both stories show that the corporate customer service culture we currently have in place is neither about customers nor about those serving them. It is primarily geared to serve the pockets of those at the top of the corporate ladder.

The third serious problem the culture of customer service as we know it creates is turning every profession into a customer service tool to generate profits. In doing so, we risk the loss of creativity, quality, and critical thinking in many walks of life. Nowhere is this risk clearer and more damaging than viewing students at different educational institutions as customers, and nowhere this trend has been happening more rapidly than at schools, colleges, and universities, especially at private institutions. There is severe damage done to creativity and critical thinking when all students want is an A, and in fact feel entitled to get it since they (or their parents) are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend elite schools. Many educators are under enormous pressure to give students grades they do not deserve in order to avoid receiving bad student evaluations (or to ensure getting good ones). This pressure is intensifying as academic jobs become increasingly contingent and precarious, where teaching staff are hired under short contracts only renewed based on so-called “performance,” which is often measured by student evaluations and enrollment. When this happens, academic and intellectual compromises and corruption increase. Colleagues at elite American universities have been pressured to give students grades no lower than a B, with the explanation that this is what is “expected.” Rampant grade inflation is unethical and unacceptable. Unfortunately, when graduate instructors resist professors’ instructions to fix grades by grading according to independent criteria of intellectual merit, they may be verbally chastised or worse, fired. This humiliation not only reinforces the norm of inflating grades, it also bolsters the power of the tenured professors who instruct their teaching assistants to do it.

With such draconian measures in academic settings, we must ask some serious questions. First, how can an educator give students the right tools of critical thinking, and encourage them to work hard if most students expect to receive high grades simply because they are paying customers? Second, can we say in good faith that academics living under such precarious conditions and contingent employment are free to teach, write, and think? More importantly, can we trust the competency and the critical thinking abilities of students graduating from elite private universities knowing that many of them expect to and do get inflated grades because they are paying customers? It is perhaps no wonder why we have so many disqualified, incompetent, and corrupt people at the top of every American institution. Some students no longer see the professor or the instructor with high respect. They see them as service providers whose role is to help pave their way into their next step, be it getting into a graduate school, getting a highly paid job, and so on. Likewise, many educators start acting almost like celebrities who are more concerned about their ratings, reviews, and student evaluations (their public image) than they are in delivering knowledge and critical tools for students take home. After all, what should we expect from a customer-service provider relationship that is primarily for profit?

The last and most serious problem the culture of customer service as we know it creates is  turning us slowly but surely from citizens into customers. For many observers this is not news. Researchers have written about how we have been slowly turning from citizens to consumers, and what that entails. This is precisely what is happening in the American society. It is also being exported and imposed—often by force—on other countries around the world. When we put all the pieces together, there is no conclusion to reach other than the current system in place evaluates us less as citizens and more as customers or consumers. This is applicable even in foreign policies in the sense that the US foreign policy supports or attacks other countries not based on their values and methods of governance, but based on whether these nations allow or block America’s corporate interests on their territories. This perhaps explains why the US supports some of the most undemocratic regimes (customers) and destroys and bombs other secular and diverse nations that do not allow mega malls, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Amazon, you name it, to plunder their lands and populations. This issue is too serious to be ignored and for us not to resist what is happening.

Some readers may wonder what is exactly meant when we are treated and evaluated as customers not as citizens. In short, it means that as customers, we are evaluated based on our income and spending power not on based on our value as humans. In fact, referring to people as “customers” or “consumers” in most settings becomes precisely a way to deny those who cannot afford to pay for this or that service any basic human or citizenship rights. If we pay attention, it becomes clear that many people have already internalized seeing themselves as “customers”. For example, when some express their discontent with any government or corporate policies or services, they often demand changes as “taxpayers” rather than as citizens. Is it implied in this language that those who do not (or cannot) pay taxes, albeit temporarily, have no rights to object as citizens? Is this why poor neighborhoods in America are usually run down and unsafe? If so, we must be careful about accepting this reality, because each one of us at any given point in our lives may be in a place where we may not be deemed as worthy consumers or taxpayers by the system. Seeing oneself as a customer is more about one’s income and payment to exist in the system than it is about their basic human rights or even their real value. Perhaps for this reason I always had a problem with the worn-out saying “beggars can’t be choosers.” The saying is not only harsh, but it lacks depth. It does not consider that many people become poor precisely because of making courageous choices for which they pay a high price—poverty. Indeed, many people are not poor but impoverished precisely because they refuse to play the game and participate in the unjust and unhealthy system we have in place. The point is not about being able or unable to choose. It is about what kind of choices one makes.

I am not disclosing a secret when I write that the transition from citizens to customers is felt by many of us on daily basis. We feel it just based on the simple fact that we are asked to present or use our bank cards, gym cards, grocery store cards, work ID, and so on, a lot more than we use our state or government IDs. We rarely use our State IDs, unless we are in trouble or to prove that we are “legal” or entitled to some meager benefits. Our existence in the system is measured by many different cards issued by corporate America. As a result, as soon as any card expires, you are denied entrance into places. You are valid only for as long as the expiration date on your credit card, the money you have in your bank account, or the expiration date of your gym membership/card. You become invisible in the society once your cards expire. You are nobody when you can no longer afford to renew your memberships of all these expensive corporate cards.

I believe that whether we live in America or in any part of the world, we need to stand against turning ourselves into customers. We are first and foremost humans and citizens, and those attributes allow us to have a dialogue with each other, to fight injustice and violence together, to hold those in power accountable together, to protect the vulnerable and the disempowered members in our society together, and to help each other in times of need collectively. As customers, we are just lonely and isolated individuals measured by our paychecks, the expiration dates on our corporate cards, and the ability to afford or not afford this or that corporate service. It weakens our collective power. Being a customer or a consumer turns everything human, beautiful, and enjoyable into an unpleasant job responsibility. It robs us the pleasure of living. Here, I am reminded of a line from the novel, Americanah, by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, where one of the characters in the novel, Yagazie, says, “But the American customer service can be so annoying. Someone hovering around you and bothering you all the time. Are you still working on your food? Since when did eating become work?” It is a funny, yet profound question. We see many such linguistic expressions seeping into our culture and psyche on daily basis. For example, many people say things like “investing in a love relationship” as if they are talking about investing in stock market or in financial projects. That is a customer not a human or a citizen language. This type of language is filled with clues about how we have internalized ourselves as customers.

In the end, being customers in our society is dangerous. It alienates us from each other. People will prefer to spend long and lonely hours in front of the TV watching life but never really living. We must honestly ask ourselves this question: Why do we allow ourselves to become a society where neighbors or people in the same neighborhood will only find a reason to talk with each other when their dogs sniff each other by chance? Even then, the talk is just superficial and all about the weather or the pets! Why do we allow ourselves to live in a culture where many people believe that their pets are their best friends because they “don’t judge me” or “they love me unconditionally,” as many like to explain? If we live in a society where the only creature who can understand, love, or support us is our pet, then perhaps we have some serious problems to confront, with all respect to the dogs’ wonderful company and friendship (I have a pet also). Perhaps we need a serious change. Every time I see people who cannot take the initiative to greet each other in the street, unless their dogs sniff each other, I am reminded of Edward Abbey’s words who wrote, “When a man’s best friend is his dog, that dog has a problem.” If we reach a point where we cannot show affection to any creature other than our pets, then there is something seriously wrong with our humanity, and therefore, that poor dog is not in good company!

I am not opposed to good customer service in businesses. We are fortunate to have some of the best in America. I am concerned, however, about the bigger picture and the future of replacing our citizen and human rights with customer and consumer rights measured solely by how much we have in our bank accounts. I am concerned about creating a society of customers that cannot communicate with each other or work as a collective force to change reality. I am concerned about living in a lonely and isolating culture that cares only about profits under the guise of customer service. I often wonder whether readers, too, have turned into customers! If so, I apologize if this article has failed to brighten your day or put a smile on your faces.

Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.