Me: Hi there! Hope your day is going awesome! So, I placed an order for a widget two weeks ago, and I was hoping you could give me an update on when it will ship. Thanks so much for all your help!!!
Them: Hi Windbag Miles! My day is rocking and rolling, hope yours is too! Our warehouse rockstars are SUPER busy with holiday orders, so I know they totally want to get to your shipment, but they just can’t right now! I’m so sorry for this, but the absolute soonest we’ll be able to ship your order is in three weeks! Thanks so much for your support, you’re amazing!!!
Me: Oh no! That’s such a shame, since I bought the widget as a holiday present for my Mom, and I made sure to order a week before your holiday shipping deadline! Would it be possible, and I hate to even ask this, but can you please cancel my order and give me a refund? Thanks again, you’re my world and my everything!!!
Them: Aww thanks! I’m blushing because you’re such a sweetie… I really hate to tell you this (trust me, I swear that I’m just sick over it), but once the ninja rockstar superstars in our warehouse get an order in their queue, it’s impossible to cancel it!! That means that you’ll have to wait until you receive it, although at that point we’ll be so excited and happy for you to be able to return it to us! Just keep in mind that (and this is something our lawyers make us say), all returns are subject to a 40% restocking fee, a return shipping charge, and we can only process your refund in the form of a gift card that will expire in 30 days. I’m so sorry!!! But you rock and I love you dearly, so thanks again for all your support!!!!!!!!
Me: That policy is absurd. Please process my refund.
Them: Hi Windbag Miles!!! Thanks so much for your email!!! We’ve passed it along to the relevant department, and they’re going to have a pow-wow and then they will tell me if they can help get that refund over to you. Thanks again for your support!!!!
Their boss: Hey, wtf is this asshole on Twitter saying about not being able to get a refund? Send him the fucking refund, i don’t want to deal w/this piece of shit any more. Also tell him to go fuck himself.”
Them: Hey there Windbag Miles! So I have some AMAZING NEWS for you! The higher-ups took a look at your email like I promised, and they felt so bad that you had to wait so long for your refund! Like, REALLY bad!!!! So they told me to go ahead and process your refund right away, and also to give you a $20 credit to our store for your trouble. Thanks again!!
Me: OMG! Thanks so much for all your help! You’re truly like Mother Theresa and Gandhi rolled into one. You’ve made my day… and my year!! Thanks again!!!!!!
One uniquely soul-destroying aspect of our beloved late-capitalist economy is the concept of “customer service.” I hate it, and I’m speaking not only as a customer, but also as someone who occasionally provides customer service as well. It creates a funhouse mirror of human interaction where two people (assuming they’re both people) try to smile through gritted teeth and bury the actual content of the interaction under jocular nothingisms, and it benefits no one. Of course, all this forced chipperness eats away at everyone involved, which means that inevitably one or both sides will drop the act and take out their frustrations with all customer service interactions against one unlucky person.
The culprit here is an ouroboros of new-economy wisdom, where the main thing that can sink a company that primarily does business online is bad word of mouth, so they have to act like ultra-positive Christian youth group teens at all times so as to never make anyone angry. However, the companies themselves are hyper conscious of the bottom line because after years of not making any money because they spend their entire annual budget and all their revenue running ads to acquire customers, they’re always on the brink of bankruptcy despite doing millions in annual sales. So, in an effort to establish some basic loss prevention, they institute profoundly customer-unfriendly policies that are buried in legalese under customer-friendly sounding titles like “100% no-hassle money back guarantee anytime anywhere WE’RE SERIOUS just try us and see for yourself!!”
This inevitably puts the poor customer service reps in the position of not only having to defend policies that make no sense, but also to have to do it using a vernacular that, if it were ever discovered by aliens, would convince them that humans had some sort of radiation-induced brain damage. It also pisses off the customer to no end, since — get a load of this — it’s not that difficult to parse that you’re getting fucked even if it’s slathered with a healthy dollop of exclamation points and ostentatious compliments.
And of course, the final indignity for both parties is that you have to RATE THEM at the end. This is the other reason why customer service reps have to act like you’re a sultan and they’re your concubine — because if you give them a 1-star rating (even if you’re actually rating the stupid policy that someone many levels above them on the org chart created), they have a whole new headache to deal with. Not to mention that being asked to rate how much you enjoyed a company fucking you over is a ridiculous slap in the face (and the customer service person knows this and has to ask anyway).
At this point, all customer service issues can be boiled down to one of two outcomes: either the agent is empowered (or is able to get approval) to deviate from the normal policy in order to enact a completely rational resolution to the problem, or they aren’t. If they are, after some back and forth, you’ll usually get what you want, and while the outcome will satisfy you, the necessity of play-acting customer service theater for the millionth time will chip away at what’s left of your soul. If not, you’ll go back and forth in a war of attrition that you will surely lose, you’ll be angry at the company for fucking you over, AND you’ll have to deal with the shame of either having lost your temper at the poor customer service person, or smiling while you receive your beating.
(Let’s not forget the malicious tumor that has grown out of modern customer service culture, which is the person who knows how averse companies are to bad publicity and tries to hold the company and the customer service person hostage over the threat of a devastating tweet storm (or, the last resort of every Karen, a Better Business Bureau complaint). This person almost always gets what they want, because they know that for all the misguided revenue management policies that the company higher-ups put in place, companies will almost always pay someone to go away.)
This post was inspired by a great article by Nomadic Matt about the rot within AirBNB (summary: the nice façade of connecting like minded travelers with hosts who have extra space is deliberately meant to obscure the company’s true purpose: to allow shady property management companies to run untaxed and unlicensed hotels). I agree with everything he says, and I really appreciate that he hasn’t let his positive interactions with CEO Brian Chesky disconnect him from the everyday experience that non-blue check non-influencer customers will have when AirBNB fucks them over too.
I haven’t had too much bad luck with AirBNB, although I did have a host cancel reservations for my boss and I immediately before a convention. This was the first and last time I ever used AirBNB to book business accommodations (and I only did it because the location of this convention was in possibly the worst location in the entire world for hotel availability). It was a clear case of the host realizing after the fact that they had let their properties go for way too cheap with the convention in town. AirBNB did fuck-all to help me (thanks for the $20 credit, that really helps out when my fucking job is on the line and my work is reimbursing me for the rental anyway).
On the other hand, I love what AirBNB has done for travel in the Faroe Islands, since it has enabled people to stay in some absolutely amazing villages around the islands, rather than most accommodation being concentrated in the two cities. (Quick aside: the question of overtourism is relevant here, and I honestly don’t know if AirBNB is a primary driver of this. The Faroe Islands have aggressively promoted tourism in recent years, and my impression is that the most touristed spots are still mostly occupied by people on day trips from the main cities. I haven’t studied this in detail, though.) I even became Facebook friends with the guy who owns the house that Justine and I stay in in Elduvík. On balance, despite that bad experience I had, for the most part, AirBNB has been a net positive in my travel history.
That doesn’t dull the problem that AirBNB was quickly taken over by corporations who found a way to use the site against its original purpose in order to operate a business that isn’t taxed or regulated the same way that it would be if they ran that business out in the open. It happens with every gig/sharing economy company. Etsy was overrun by resellers who basically operate a AliExpress storefronts. Meal delivery companies purported to connect local restaurants with their customers but then decided that it would be more efficient for the restaurants to all be in one giant warehouse, no longer have a storefront or host customers, and be 100% dependent on delivery revenue. I’ve been using Rover to hire dog sitters for my dog, and it’s probably only a matter of time before someone sets up a network of boarding facilities and an army of poorly paid independent contractors who lurk behind sunny profile photos, goading you into letting them dump your pet in a non-air conditioned warehouse full of battery cages while you’re on vacation.
However, the text and tone of the customer service emails Matt received from AirBNB stood out to me. One shift I have noticed from a lot of bigger tech companies is that they’re dropping the faux friendliness that they initially released into the world. As these companies’ commercial models become more varied, they’re no longer dependent for survival on simple transactions like “individual customer A buys single thing from company B.” When most of your revenue comes from big property managers who are using your platform to market their shadow hotels, the individual customer’s feeling about using that platform doesn’t really matter all that much. Using AirBNB isn’t a lifestyle choice that AirBNB needs to carefully market to people (by, among other things, immediately squashing all bad press) just like Marriott doesn’t seem to mind when someone doesn’t get their preferred treatment at a Sheraton Four Points near the airport.
I first noticed this change with Amazon (who I don’t think even uses real humans for most low-level customer service interactions anymore). Their original goal was to be the World’s Most Customer-Friendly Company, whereas now they’ve dropped the customer-friendly part and just want to be the World’s Most Company. They completely reshaped consumer expectations around how e-commerce works, to the point that people expect free two day shipping on everything, regardless of whether it’s coming from an Amazon fulfillment center or an individual craftsperson selling a custom made-to-order item. They expect 24/7 customer support and threaten to report a company to the BBB if the owner/sole proprietor doesn’t respond at 2AM on Christmas.
As a result, small businesses get left holding the bag, as they always do. While the giants have moved on from performative positivity and are slowly integrating AI, canned responses, and automation into their interactions with customers, small businesses are still forced to respond in the way people have come to expect (even though everyone absolutely hates it), since now everything else is rude… and only Amazon, AirBNB, et al can afford to be rude.
It’s not so bad, though. After a few more years, the new normal of unhelpful, opaque, and sometimes even non-sensical machine responses to customer service questions will have reframed people’s expectations once again, and we can all go back to acting like normal human beings when we communicate with customer service reps. Of course, by that point, Amazon will have put most companies out of business anyway, and person-to-person customer service will be a forgotten concept just like asking the operator to connect you to someone. So, maybe it’s not so bad… in hindsight, the current horrible state of customer service will have been just a stepping stone on our path to a future where the smallest number of people can make the most money, while the rest of us tweet helplessly into the blue void hoping for deliverance. Follow me at @windbagmiles!