By Daniel A. Kaufman
Not too long ago, my wife and daughter headed to our regional airport to catch a flight to NY to visit my elderly mother, who readers may remember is recently widowed. Because our small city is off of the major routes, flights have to transfer at a hub, in this case Atlanta airport. They arrived in Atlanta on time, and all seemed good. Boarded their connection to NY, and it departed on time as well.
Twenty minutes outside of NY, and the pilot came on the intercom to tell everyone that “La Guardia is not allowing anyone to land right now” and that the flight would be returning to Atlanta. The weather was fine, and no reason was given for refusing to allow the plane to land. Neither was any reason given for why the plane needed to return to Atlanta, rather than divert to one of the many airports in the area: JFK; MacArthur; Newark; Philadelphia; or Bradley.
Back in Atlanta, the situation had disintegrated. Nancy and Victoria were booked on another flight, which was delayed considerably. Eventually, they boarded the plane only to then spend hours waiting for a pilot only then for the flight to be canceled and the passengers disgorged back into the terminal. By this point, my wife and daughter had been “traveling” for twelve hours, and the lines for customer service were reminiscent of the first night of ticket sales for a Michael Jackson concert, in the 1980’s. Wisely, they surrendered and booked a hotel in Atlanta, to which they fled. There were no flights to New York available the next day, they didn’t make it back home to Missouri until 11pm the next night – 36 hours to get nowhere – and their luggage wasn’t returned for two more days after that. On top of it all, the ordeal was expensive – the extra hotel costs and all the rest that came with the delay aside, my wife also had paid some $3,000 for the plane tickets – and because my mother is old and bereaved and alone, the non-financial cost was even greater.
I am hardly the first to observe that people seem very angry today and more so than they used to be, something for which I doubt there is any reliable data, but which rings true, in light of my fifty-four years on this earth. Some will want to say that this is illusory; that people are no angrier now than they were before, but social media and ubiquitous smart phones make it possible for everyone to tell everyone else how mad they are at any and every moment. Undoubtedly there is some truth to this, but I am skeptical that it can explain what’s going on right now [you didn’t see people punching stewardesses on the nightly news in 1974], especially given that the reasons for an increasingly angry populace are somewhat obvious. But first, another anecdote.
A few months ago, I needed to send something to a relative in Tel Aviv. I took the package to FedEx, and spent the next half hour watching the clerk trying to find the address. Now, Tel Aviv is not a small or obscure place – with a population of about a half-million people, it is the largest city and business center of Israel – and FedEx is not a small or obscure company [and there’s Google], so I found the clerk’s difficulties on this front hard to comprehend. Eventually, however, the address was found and the shipping paid for, and I departed the store.
The package never arrived at its destination, so after several weeks, I put together another package and this time sent it via DHL. It arrived a few days later without a hitch. Then, several weeks later, the original package sent via FedEx came back, followed not long after by a bill for returning it, to the tune of $300.
I called Customer Service, which started a week-long ordeal, in which I dealt with some half-dozen phone clerks, in a fruitless attempt to find a helpful one. Every person I got simply repeated that $300 was due for giving the wrong address and for return delivery. It made no difference that the address was correct or that I could demonstrate this, given that DHL had succeeded in delivering the package with the same address and I had photographic proof of it. No matter what I said, they told me the same thing over and over again: I owed $300 and if I didn’t pay, the “case” would be sent to collections.
Nothing improved when I was transferred to a supervisor. I explained that I could prove that the address was correct, as their competitor had successfully delivered the package, and that I would not pay for a package that they had failed to deliver, especially given that I had to pay to ship the damned thing again. The Supervisor just repeated what the customer service clerks had said, albeit less nicely, and I was threatened with collections several more times, as well as legal action. For $300, FedEx decided to threaten and bully a customer who would have spent many, many times that amount in FedEx business over the course of his life and now would not.
What these examples illustrate is a convergence of forces over the last twenty years or so that have made our daily [and even more frequent] interactions much less pleasant: an unprecedented dependence on and engagement with unresponsive and unaccountable systems and people; ubiquitous outsourcing and automation; and a significant swing from a customer-centered business model to an employee-centered one, especially in service and retail.
The systems with which people used to engage in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s were relatively few and uncomplicated and almost always operated by real people to whom one had access, if there was cause for complaint. But for a few relatively rudimentary appliances, one’s house was lo-tech, and cars were mechanical devices with little by way of computing technology involved in their operation. [I can recall when all telephones were landlines and would work, even if the power was out.] Television consisted of three networks and some local stations and UHF – if you could get it – and the device itself was a simple affair with an on/off switch, channel dial, and a handful of other functional dials and switches, the uses of which were obvious. You might also have had a remote control – often called a “clicker” back then – which was nothing more than a metal or plastic box with a few push-buttons on it that allowed you to turn the tv on and off and to change channels, without getting up.
But for the odd mail-order catalogue, one bought things in stores, and if there was a problem with them, one brought them back and dealt with customer service in person. If you needed to send or ship something, you used the post office or UPS and again, if something went wrong, you went back to the office or store and engaged with a real person, in person. When your car misbehaved, you’d drive it or have it towed to a local garage where a mechanic would work on it. If the TV or any other of the appliances in the house stopped working, you called an appliance repairman, and if the phone stopped working, you called the phone company and talked to – you guessed it – a person who would very likely send another person to your house to fix whatever it was. Air travel was not yet a mass transit system and was rarer and more genteel. You bought your ticket either from a travel agent or from the airline’s travel office, and if there was any trouble with the flight, you dealt with customer service personnel in the airport. Terminals were often luxurious, as were the flights, when compared with today, and people would actually dress up for air travel.
Today, one engages in virtually all of one’s daily business through layers of mediating technologies. Our “smart” TVs are connected to the cable by way of our computer’s Wi-Fi, with functionalities and remote controls so complicated, they might as well be coordinating satellites. If something goes wrong, it very likely is not mechanical and will not be solved by a repairman coming to your house. Instead, you’ll first have to employ the device’s “troubleshooting” software [which mostly leads nowhere], after which you’ll embark upon a lengthy online or telephone expedition, in which you navigate complex menus and phone trees and speak with “virtual” – i.e., non-human; robotic – assistance. Eventually, your journey may bring you to a real person in “tech support,” who usually is very far away, if not in another country entirely, and as often as not, will not be of any help either. My elderly parents actually ceased watching TV entirely at a certain point in their lives, as the televisions had become too complicated for them to use. My wife and I are not far behind.
Most of one’s shopping today is done online, rather than in stores, and as a result, people experience more problems with their purchases, as one is more likely to mis-purchase something if one hasn’t seen it, tried it on, etc. This means even more engagements with online and telephone robots and unhelpful clerks, as well as with shipping outfits, as one typically cannot obtain customer service or return something ordered online to the relevant store, in person [if there even is a physical store].
Phones now are essentially small personal computers that we carry around with us, which means not just that we are “always available,” whether we want to be or not [try turning your phone off for a few hours or for a day, and see how many people are angry because they couldn’t reach you] but that problems are no longer simple, mechanical affairs that a repairman comes to your house and fixes. One must suffer even more “service” from robots, phone trees, and useless clerks [who might as well be robots or phone trees], and the like. One no longer discovers car trouble when one’s car actually breaks down or runs poorly, but by way of Warnings! and Alerts! that pop up on the dashboard along with an array of colored and flashing lights. Sometimes these are things that require immediate attention, but mostly they are notifications of upcoming routine service needs or indicators that a tire is a single pound of air pressure off or even just that a car is passing you on one side or the other. Designed with the intention of improving safety and the driving experience, what these systems actually do is create a slew of new distractions while driving that on a number of occasions almost got me into accidents, rather than out of them.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, I waited tables in a number of restaurants, and dealing with angry customers was part of the job. Diners do not have access to the cooks, expediters, dishwashers, and the like, all of whom are in the “back of the house,” so the only people to whom they can complain about bad food or service are the front-of-the-house staff, meaning the waiters and waitresses, hosts and hostesses. If things were really bad – and they could very well be, on any day, in every restaurant I’ve worked in – a really angry customer might ask to speak with management.
As I said, this was expected, and while none of us liked being yelled at or poorly tipped, we were neither surprised nor particularly ruffled by it. People are spending their hard-earned money, after all, and trying to enjoy what might be a rare opportunity to go out. The meal could be for a special occasion or even a once-in-a-lifetime one, like a significant birthday or graduation. Regardless, customers deserve a good experience and are rightfully pissed off if not given one, whatever the reason, and if a waiter had whinged about “mean customers” back then, the manager would have laughed in his face or perhaps even fired him for being too precious to work in the service industry. [Once, in response to a particularly irate customer, on whom I’d accidentally dropped a tray full of plates of saucy ribs, the manager sent me with him into the mall to buy him a new suit, for which the restaurant paid.] And no one was deranged enough to call a policeman over an angry customer, since you would have received a citation yourself for wasting his time.
This understanding and corresponding ethos has been almost entirely turned on its head and especially in the service and retail sectors. In many locales – and in our current social-justice moment – employers are more worried about upsetting their employees than they are about dissatisfied or pissed-off customers, as a few well-placed entries on social media accusing a coffee shop or store of being guilty of some “ism” or “phobia” can bring about torrents of online and in-person abuse. Teenagers and twenty-something no longer accept the idea that low-level, low-skilled, starter jobs are just that and are supposed to suck and pay poorly, so we find ourselves today confronted with bizarre efforts to unionize the kids making your coffee or fries or bagging your groceries. Paper Boys’ and Driveway Shovelers’ Unions can’t be far off.
The idea that customers, who are spending their money and thereby sustaining the livelihoods of those serving them, are owed satisfaction in return for their coin has almost entirely vanished. Instead, young employees commonly behave at work as if they are in their own homes and expect to be kept “safe” from any sort of negative interactions or discomfort, your custom just being an annoying distraction. Indeed, service and retail are seeing an almost anti-customer-service ethos take hold, and while videos like the one below are certainly amusing, they’re barely satirical anymore. [I’ve worked jobs far lower down the proverbial ladder than this young man — who really did used to work at Ikea — and can’t imagine any of us who did making something like this or finding it anything other than pathetic.]
The worst actors in this regard, however, have to be the commercial airlines, who have made traveling anywhere a wretched and expensive experience, due to a combination of incompetence, greed, and – since Covid – understaffing. If I own a candy store and have fifty candy bars in stock, I can’t sell seventy-five, without being guilty of fraud, but the airlines routinely sell seats they don’t have and book flights they know cannot fly. And then, after they’ve stranded their customers in hubs for hours and even days [after taking thousands of dollars from them], to the point that they are exhausted, frustrated, and enraged, they use law enforcement in lieu of customer service, taking advantage of the absurd airline/airport laws and regulations that followed 9/11. Show any anger towards or even just raise your voice to an airport clerk or steward, and you may very well be dragged off by the police. If you think this is hyperbole, I was threatened with this twice – once at a car rental desk, inside an airport, and once on a plane – and in neither case had I done anything more than verbally express my irritation at appalling customer service, after having spent an even more appalling sum of money.
I considered giving this essay the title, “What do you fucking expect?” and you do really have to wonder. I’ve offered the barest line-drawing of the kinds of aggravations, annoyances, obstacles, and indignities that every person today must endure again and again and again, as a result of having integrated our lives so utterly and completely with advanced technologies and sprawling, complex systems, implemented by robots and useless people. Simple returns and fixes and registrations and confirmations and complaints have metastasized into a Rococo nightmare of spiraling interactions with technologies and systems that are entirely unnecessary and designed to aggravate. The people are the worst of it though, as the new service and retail ethos is one in which employees are incentivized and emboldened not just to bait and mistreat customers, but to do so with a smug obstinacy that is one of the most basic and universal triggers of angry and violent sentiments. And adding “OK, Boomer” or “Karen” to the repertoire will just double them.
So, yes, people are really angry and often, and it will get worse. Clerks will continue to be screamed at, doors slammed, phones violently hung up on, stewards and stewardesses punched, accounts canceled, credit card payments blocked, nasty vulgarian politicians voted for, and all the rest. Barrage people with Warnings! and Messages! and Alerts! and flashing lights and annoying sounds and telephone calls and text messages and advertisements every minute of every day? Keep people online and on phones for hours and hours, navigating one phone tree after another, while forcing them to listen to recorded messages saying how much the company “values your time” over and over again? Make people engage with surly, smug, and unresponsive clerks and “Team Members” who offer miserable service day in and day out, while making them pay through the nose for it all, and then mocking them when they complain?
Where this all leads should be obvious to anyone.