Service with a Snarl

February 6, 2013

Timothy Noah has an odd piece at the New Republic that is highly critical of businesses worrying about the friendliness of their employees. Writes Noah:

Pret A Manger—a London-based chain that has spread over the past decade to the East Coast and Chicago—is at the cutting edge of what the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls "emotional labor." Emotional because the worker doesn't create or even necessarily sell a product or service so much as make the customer experience a positive feeling. …

Fast-food service is not one of the caring professions. The only imperatives typically addressed in a Pret shop are hunger and thirst. Why must the person who sells me a cheddar and tomato sandwich have "presence" and "create a sense of fun"? Why can't he or she be doing it "just for the money"? I don't expect the swiping of my credit card to be anybody's vocation. This is, after all, the economy's bottommost rung.

Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A "mystery shopper" visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does.

Emphasis mine. What Noah seems most perturbed by is not that customer service is on the upswing. Rather, he wants the predatory bourgeois class to see those who toil on the economy’s "bottommost rung" in their natural state: sorrow-filled and snarling, cursing their lowly lot in life. He might not necessarily want the worker to feel bad—but he certainly wants the customer to feel bad for the worker.

As I say, this strikes me as odd. And unprofitable! There is a reason that businesses employ secret shoppers (a practice that I, a one-time food service employee, can assure Noah is neither new nor remarkable nor reminiscent of the secret police) to make sure that service is given with a smile. Masochists aside, customers don’t particularly enjoy being treated with disdain when they’re forking over $7 for a sandwich (or $3 for a coffee or $10 for a salad).

We, the customer, are not an inconvenience or a hassle for the clerk. We are their reason for being. (Or, at least, their reason for being there and for getting paid.) For their part, Pret’s employees don’t seem to mind the management-mandated grins: the New York Times reports that turnover is less than 60 percent, annually, well below the industry standard of 300 to 400 percent.

No word yet if TNR Café will ask its staff to be pleasant to customers.