As an off and on customer service worker in the past 7 years, I’ve struggled with the emotional roller coaster that is inherent in this type of labor. I wanted to take the time to unpack some of these emotions in a time where I’m leaving the field of “customer service.” In particular, I want to address the most poignant of these emotions—shame.
Shame is a manifestation of several emotions that occur simultaneously; depression, anger, trauma, apathy, etc. Shame is an extraordinarily powerful emotion that can pin us down when it has latched itself onto us. As such, it’s important to understand it and the way it manifests itself. In this series of posts, I hope to unravel some of the relationship between customer service and shame.
Here, I take customer service to include retail, food service, and the formal ‘customer service’ (I delve into this more in the next post). I am drawing primarily on experiences and thoughts rather than concrete data. I will add some statistics later, but this is more of a manifesto. In this first part I go into the frustration of customer service that brews up shame in workers.
As a customer service worker, the world is made up of those who are working (potential allies) and customers. While there are certainly customers who are pleasant who make the job pleasant or at least bearable. On the other hand, there are those who just don’t understand me. They can’t recognize me as another human. To them, I might as well have been programmed to serve their needs even if it exceeds my capacities. Failure looms heavy upon me.
I always feel tired. I get a doctor’s recommended amount of sleep each night (I think…). I go to sleep tired. Wake up tired. Work tired. If I just sleep, I miss work. I don’t want it—yet—I need it. When I get home I want to do nothing. Recuperate from the damages. Maybe I can recharge. But to others I seem lazy. Can I ever do anything right?
My friend gets a promotion to a better paying position that doesn’t work with customers each day. I’m a bit jealous of their wage difference. But mostly of their splendid isolation. I’m left behind. Happy in their advance, despaired on my stagnation. Only moving up means anything.
I didn’t want to be here. It was a last resort. I had dreams of a better career. I fantasize of my escape. It sustains me. It’s the the little I can have to keep me going.
These are a sample of some of the emotions I’ve had while working customer service. Such emotions are usually not recognized as legitimate by those around us-be it family, friends, and certainly not our employers. Even though we might share the same feelings we hardly allow the opportunity to understand and reconcile these frustrations with one another. Thus, often producing a stigma or shame with customer service work.
Obviously, there’s some reasoning to this failure to reconcile. Of which I will detail in the next post.
If you have anything you want to include to this—Please do! Only together can we possibly change the world.
This is the second part of my writing about customer service work. In the first part, I talked about frustrations and emotions in relation to being a customer service worker. That helped serve as a foundation for this discussion. In this part, I discuss the structural set-up that helps facilitate a sense of shame that becomes inherent in customer service work.
In my prior post, I didn’t give a specific definition of what customer service is. It is here that I wanted to tease out that. So—what is customer service? A literal explanation is those whose labor facilitates a service or support for customer needs. Such jobs often typically include call centers or help desks. Based on this, it can be assumed that customer service is a field of workers who work FOR customers. The notion of labor for customers poses a big question for workers in general—Aren’t we all customer service workers then?
Every type of labor is designed to support the needs of a potential consumer. A white collar worker, in advertising, health care, administration, etc., all work to produce ideas, designs, and directions for a potential consumer. Blue collar workers work to build and labor for products and places that will be used by someone else. Teachers teach for students. The list goes on and on. Even a farmer or another laborer who claims at self-sufficiency is destined to become a customer of some sort of product. As such, there really shouldn’t be a distinction of a customer service worker. What really exists are workers who interact more with a potential customer.
On that note, just as we use our labor to produce for a customer, so are always a customer-to-be. Everyone needs to buy or trade something they need to live or they desire. As customer service workers, we should be aware of this shifting of roles. Our hats of producer and consumer are both shifting and simultaneous.
Finally, why is customer service work seemed so bad? Especially considering the production of labor and the shifting of roles. Customer service work exists in this odd space where we we’re not white or blue collar. Workers that are meant to be temporary on a ladder to white collar-dom. Those who can’t escape this temporality are deemed failures and their distinction from less invisible productions of labor. We’re standing targets for the failure to recognize the labor productions and the mutual exchange of labor needs.
The leverage of customer service between laborers works to erase the similarities between workers of all types. The shame of the customer service worker works to create dis junctures between the relationships between labor and consumption.
To address the shame of the customer service worker is also to address the way we live our daily lives.
It’s been a while since I’ve written on this subject. Since then, I have left my customer service job and joined the Academy…only to face new labor issues. This time respect comes less from those I educate to those I educate with and the expectations of my labor. Because of this new drama, I wanted to return to thinking about Shame and Customer Service once more. Mainly how to address the shame and move past it.
Instead of doing a more narrative description, I want to focus on some quick points and ideas. It is my hope that those reading this can also brainstorm with me and create more alternatives. Here we go!
- Respect service workers. This requires empathizing with people who might’ve gone through the same situation as you. Maybe they’re also a peer. Or, maybe you’ve never done service work—even still—appreciate them as humans. It means so much.
- Understand the working conditions. Often times, the conditions of doing service work suck in one way or another. Tell people about them. Try and spread the word. Make a change.
- Blog/Write/Do Something. Share the experience of doing service work in some capacity. This will allow you to start unpacking your emotions. This also (potentially) allows for a space to build solidarity.
- Change the System. Oppression and the creation of shame in service work is systematic. In order to solve it, the system must be dismantled. Critique it.
I understand that several of these points are risky to service workers. Some employers may even try to bring action against those who resist or question. Do what you can that is safe for you. It is important and vital that we build healthy and supportive working conditions. Know your limits and of others. Support and respect is key!