May 25, 2018

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Customer Service Staff

In The Support Economy Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin report that customer service representatives ranked fourth highest of all professions in "emotional exhaustion" behind infant-care workers, child-care workers, and lawyers. To understand the reason for this just think about the last time you received horrible service. You probably framed this as you, the customer, being the victim of lousy service. However, it is better understood as a failed transaction where both parties leave unhappy.

Zuboff rightly notes that businesses are by nature internally focused and interactions with customers fundamentally adversarial. Customer service staff are trained to keep calls short, sell high margin items that customers don't need and generally give the customers as little as possible. Staff, being humans, don't enjoy this kind of life. (If we could train cats to be customer service reps they would no doubt be entirely happy in the role.)

Companies are forever rediscovering the customer, but it's hard to make customer-focus stick because it's contrary to the fundamental way organizations work. Zuboff predicts the replacement of the familiar managerial capitalism with an new form of capitalism she calls "the support economy."

Now, as an HR manager you are probably as keen on the support economy as the next person. However, faced with an immediate need to recruit, train and motivate customer service staff saying you are "waiting for the revolution" may not win much applause from senior management.

The immediate lessons we can draw from Zuboff's work are:

  • Recognize that customer service reps are often put in systems that cause them to mistreat customers. We normally pretend this isn't happening. HR must have the courage to point out when policies put undue pressure on service reps, and the costs of that undue pressure in turnover, morale and hostile treatment of customers.

  • Recognize that maintaining a "customer-focus" is like swimming against the tide. That doesn't mean that it's not essential, just that it's going to be a lot more work to keep these programs going than you might expect.

  • Recognize the service-reps are under stress and work with their supervisors to manage that stress.

I hope Zuboff is right that we are heading for a better world. In the meantime HR has to make the best of the one we've got.

-David Creelman