Care Downwards

I apologize to those of you that subscribe for getting this twice.  I accidentally deleted and wanted to repost it.  

I was recently talking to someone that worked for a large company that was laying people off.  They told me those who had been with the company the longest were getting laid off first, because they made the most money.  You know, the people that had been loyal to the company?  Unfortunately, stories like this are all too common.

Today I am staying at a hotel where the woman at the front desk is kind as could be.  She is very helpful, and I realized how rare it is that someone takes pride in their job and leaves an impression through great customer service.

These large companies often do not give a fuck about you.  However, usually if you are in a business, you are dealing with people who have problems and needs that depend on you.

I worked in sales and customer service for years.  I think people should follow a policy of “caring downwards”.  People that are dealing with the general public are often dealing with working stiffs just like them.  One should try to be kind and help these people, because often these people are frustrated, they sometimes have little money, and quite frankly could use the help of someone that cares.

However, while you are doing that you should stick the company in anyway that you can, without getting fired of course. (Although sometimes getting fired is a blessing.)  These companies, again, do not care about you, and will get rid of you as soon as they see fit, especially now that so many unions have been neutered.

When I worked in those professions I would always side with the customer when possible.  When you work with the general public in a sales or customer service context you usually have a certain leeway in how you treat problems.  Management does not want you asking a manager every time a customer has a complaint.  Not only are managers often lazy, but this is a money saving practice.  Every time you call a company it costs them money, this is why most companies try to shake you with long automated prompts.  The longer the call and the more people you talk to, the more expensive the call is to the company.  When I worked at a wireless company I had a certain amount of money I could credit a customer before going to a manager.  When possible I would always credit the customer as I knew not only did the company not give a shit about me, but they were trying to nickel and dime good honest working people as much as possible.  And trust me when I say this is a fact and not an opinion.

I want to make it clear that I am mostly talking about large corporations and not small businesses where personal interaction with top management is a much more personalized affair.

So I would like to spread that thought, like fairy dust, throughout the land:  Care downwards and stick upwards…

The Worker’s Dilemma

I used to do Customer Service at Cingular Wireless, which was eventually bought out by AT&T.  I did a little bit of sales, but mostly just tried to help people with their problems.  I think at some point when I first started I signed some kind of nondisclosure agreement.  But if they think some kind of piece of paper is going to prevent me from telling the truth, they’re fucking crazy.

This was the sort of super controlled corporate work environment where everything you did was under scrutiny.  You couldn’t even go to the bathroom without punching some numbers into your computer.  Your phone calls were often listened to, your computer was monitored, and you were instructed very carefully about how to explain things to customers.  The kind of language that you used was very important.  You weren’t even allowed on the phones before you took six weeks of training classes.

Often people were angry when they called in.  This could be for any number of reasons.  Sometimes it was a legitimate grievance with the company, and sometimes the people just were angry for no good reason at all.

It’s normal in a company to have them want to put the best face on things as possible.  If you work in sales or customer service and you tell the truth all of the time, many companies would simply cease to exist.  Often the worker is put in the undesirable place of wanting to keep their job and at the same time wanting to help the customer with integrity as best they can.  That’s not to say there aren’t some malicious fools out there that buy lock, stock, and barrel into company policy.  Some people drink the Kool-aid with zest.

Let me give you an example from another company first.  I did sales in the moving industry.  One of the companies that I worked for, which no longer exists, told its customers when they called in, that they had given their employees background checks.  This company never did one background check that I am aware of.  It was our job on the phone to keep this myth alive.  If we didn’t we were out of the job.  It sounds like a complicated ethical dilemma.  It’s more complicated than you think actually.  If you are asked to do something unethical at work, you could just simply quit.  Or you could just decide to tell the truth and face the consequences if anyone finds out.  However, most of the people that worked at this company, which depended on it for a living, were decent people.  If suddenly sales stop coming through the door, and I was good at what I did, a lot more people’s livelihoods were going to be affected other than my own.  This was also at the height of the recession and I chose to stay on, and subvert the company as best I could from the inside.  I gave customers price breaks when I could.  I tried to be as honest and forthright with customers as I could given the framework that was allowed.  I told my bosses many times that they had better get their act together or they were going to end up in hot water.  Maybe I’m just trying to justify why I stayed on.  Perhaps I could have done more.  Perhaps I should have even quit.  I also, like many, faced the added dilemma of having financial responsibilities to loved ones.  I am betting that millions of workers across America are being put in this situation by corporations.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Texas is a right to work state and a state that has weak corporate regulations.  Hell, our genius governor even tried to use this as a selling point to bring businesses here recently.

The wireless company was even more slippery in how they tricked their customers.  They would use clean efficient corporate speak to whitewash certain business practices.  They might go to a new plan, that was less advantageous to their customers, and then teach us how to sell it to them in a way that made it seem more attractive.  That’s just one example.  Remember, they were always listening in to our phone calls.  Every word and explanation was carefully worded to keep the customer’s eye off of the ball.

I learned in my six years in customer service and sales that there is just immorality built into the world of business.  It almost can’t function without it.  There are companies that provide people with an honest service and try to do the best they can by their customers.  However, even the people at these companies have to bend the truth if not outright lie.  Let’s say you work for a perfectly legit company.  Let’s say it is the moving business.  Maybe the week before someone drove a truck into a house by complete accident.  It happens.  If the customer asks what problems have happened at your company, you would be a fool to tell them that that happened last week.  You might tell them some smaller problems and try to be as honest as possible, but you can’t tell them everything that goes on behind company doors.  In the free market this would drive someone to your competitor at light speed.

I don’t know exactly what point I’m trying to make, other than to make you think about the nature of doing business.  Most businesses are trying to get as much money as humanly possible out of you, while making you feel great about the decision that you have made.  In an era of economic downturn people are going to be less inclined to leave their jobs.  They have rent to pay and families to take care of.  If the management at the top is not completely ethical the workers below them are going to be under more pressure to bend to their will.

Most sales and customer service reps have some leeway in the way that they deal with you.  They have certain discounts and billing decisions that they can make.  I almost always sided with the customer and tried to give away as much money as I could.  I knew there was something crooked going on.  Remember that these people have this small amount of freedom.  They are under a lot of pressure.  If you are nice to them, most of them will work with you to bring your cost down.  Occasionally you will get one of the Kool-aid drinkers.  Keep calling back until you get someone that will work with you.  Take pleasure in knowing that every time you call into a company it costs that company money.  I think when I worked at Cingular it cost them between 10 and 15 dollars every time someone called in.  You may not get your money back if they have wronged you, but you can help make sure that they don’t have it either.

I hope to never work in this field again.  One must survive however.  Corporations are not our friends.  We need them to be watched and regulated by a strong outside regulatory body.  The government is really the only one that can do this.  This will ensure that not only are you treated more fairly, but that workers are put in better situations.  There is so much more to say on this topic, but as Morrissey says in a song, “You get the general idea.”