Phone Monkey: A Liar’s Dilemma

PhoneMonkeyPNGI’ve touched on part of what follows in a previous post, so rather than rehash much of what was said there, let’s just pretend that this is a continuation of that thought. If you haven’t read it, and want to, feel free to pause now. I’ll put some white space here.

The Internet, as a means of doing business is a Devil’s Bargain. You can reach farther than you might otherwise, but with the extra coverage you dredge up more scum. This “scum” isn’t people, necessarily, but the kind of human interaction that takes place. As anyone who has ever browsed reviews of Yelp!, skimmed through YouTube comments, or read a random cross-section of tweets will know, anonymity on the Internet allows people to forego the social contract and sink into a weird Hobbesian “state of nature.” When it comes to business, I have seen kind, rational people lose their sense of perspective at the slightest inconvenience.

Below are three complaints that have completely lost their meaning to me:

  1. “Unacceptable” adj.: a bummer; not what was expected; arrived later than expected. Generally, if you give the verbal equivalent of a hug, these issues become acceptable.
  2. “This is the worst experience I’ve ever had!”/”I’ve never been treated so poorly!”: No it isn’t. Yes you have. If it is or if you haven’t, you’ve been a very sheltered person. Did you even go to high school? Maybe take the bus occasionally, or stand in a TSA line at the airport.
  3. “Ice cold”: It’s July. Knock it off.

Why? Maybe it’s the hyperbole, but the wizard behind that particular curtain is the pathos. I’ve worked a dozen different jobs, some customer service, some not, and each had its own set of lies and liars. Apologies, as discussed in an earlier post, are one kind of lie, designed to smooth ruffled feathers. Hyperbole, on the other hand, cranks the energy level up, and it works; drill sergeants use it to motivate recruits, and pundits use it to churn up outrage. But there are diminishing returns. Like any other drug (probably because of a chemical reaction in the brain), with frequent use it has less effect over time. After a while, the response to even a serious complaint like, “The delivery driver called me a whore!” (an actual complaint and a legitimate use of “unacceptable”) is a resounding shrug. Yes, we will do what we can to get that business to reprimand/fire that person, and we will try and get your money back. But it all just starts to feel a little too automated.

As your lowly phone monkey, it’s my job to try and make sure you are happy, and failing that, that you don’t go away angry, and failing even that, that you don’t go on a crusade. We don’t get paid a lot, and we don’t get sick days, vacation days, or health coverage. Like working in the food service industry, if you want a shift off because you’re getting married, or because you’re sick and throwing up, you have to find someone to cover for you. The point is, we spend a lot of time interacting with a diverse, multicultural, multilingual customer base, and yet, the homogeneity of not just complaints, but the wording of them and the level of hostility behind them becomes numbing after a while. In a way, the Customer becomes an interchangeable part. Some are more durable than others, but viewed in the same unfiltered light of the Internet, they begin to look pretty much the same at their core. Disturbing is the moment when I’ve found myself being an interchangeable Customer.

The real trouble comes when we have to deal with the real liars. Far from the angry customers spewing righteous hyperbole, these are the seasoned professionals who have spent a lifetime making an art out of lying. As Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski might say, these people are a “worthy fucking adversary.” Typically, they’re the people committing credit card fraud, or just trying to weasel a free meal out of us, and just as typically, they’re super obvious about it. Threats of lawsuits, never using our service again, and Twitter campaigns are generally met with an eye roll and a “meh.” Lawsuits are never filed, they place an order the very next day, and Twitter action is met with a tidal wave of derision. But we occasionally get someone special.

Recently, I was contacted by a pair of guys, who after losing a battle with a restaurant’s management over a refund, decided to try and pull rank with me, claiming they work in their state’s Attorney General’s office. This is hyperbole of a different sort. It says that I am the pawn and they are queens, and that what they do to earn money gives them power over me. What a lot of people forget when entering into a customer service situation is that, for a moment, there is no social rank. I am obligated to do what I can to help you, and to go above an beyond when I can, but one of the liberating parts (well, maybe the only liberating part) of being a pawn is limited liability. My hands are tied by company policy, contracts, and my job description. This is essentially like having bulletproof glass between you and a gun-toting psychopath. If you continue doing your job and following the guidelines set out for you, the scary monster on the other side of the glass can’t hurt you. The instant you engage, though, and come out from behind that glass–madness.

So that’s where we seem to be in the world of customer service now. Everyone’s lawyered-up and looking at each other through that bulletproof glass. We expect to give and receive lies all day long, and that makes us immune to the ones that keep our personal lives running. In real life, at a party or some other social gathering, holding down a real conversation with another person is a monumental feat. You have to accept the lie (assumed or real) that the person you’re chitchatting with is actually interested in what you’re saying, and you have to not let on that when they’re talking, all you’re trying to do is figure out what they want from you and how to give it to them with the least amount of conflict, because that’s what you do for eight hours a day.


One comment

  1. This was one of the most fun reads I’ve enjoyed in many years. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Absolutely delightful and honest. You are fantastic.

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