It feels like a bloodless war has been waged with words, gestures, uncomfortable silences and false sincerity between customers and those who serve them. I would know because I have seen a trend over the years across countries.
And robots might just hold the answer. But first, let me tell you about my experiences.
The old man who cut my hair in an old-fashioned saloon in a small town in south Thailand near Pattaya, the red light capital of the world, didn’t use any electronic devices and I felt like the sharp tools in his hands would end me.
In Singapore, I distinctly remember being a minute late at the Tigerair (now Scoot) check-in counter at Changi Airport but the man just would not make an exception.
And as I moved to Hong Kong this year, I was harangued by the HSBC bank official who repeatedly made me reschedule my appointments to satisfy her onerous requirements.
The last time I was there, my phone bill, which I hoped to use as a proof of address, stated “Suhas Bhat” as my name while my passport had it listed as “Suhas Ramakrishna Bhat”.
“Sorry, those are the rules,” she said only half-heartedly.
I had to pay an extra Rs 10,000 (US$153) for that same passport last year in Bangalore because my old one had smudges on it. (That old passport was soon to be designated to the corner of my sock drawer so who cares if it had smudges on it?) I feel the portly, moustachioed man at the passport renewal centre derived pleasure out of my humiliation.
I, the worldly traveller, was humbled. I was advised by my uncle to appear subservient next time in front of this man who likely did not travel abroad at my age.
In that confined space and for a limited duration, this man held sway over my fortune. Had he taken a shine or if I had a mutual acquaintance then I know he would have bent the rules.
Do these situations or the feelings they evoke sound familiar? Let me tell you how I think this hostile environment emerged.
“I hate people who don’t tip waiters. You don’t know how bad it’s like until you work in customer service. The customer is always right… and usually an asshole.” Sound familiar?
It feels like customer-facing service jobs were always horrible. No one wanted to do them. Requiring the ability to open one’s mouth, they were vocations of last resort. The industry had high churn and few people actively wanted a career in the service industry. You used to hear about angry customers losing their cool at least once or twice a year.
Somewhere down the line, a memo must have been passed. Service professionals turned the tables. They scrutinised the common complaints they faced and came up with airtight rules. They were now in charge.
Now they are not even afraid to beat us up to bump us off a plane.
Don’t you find that you are deathly afraid of missing appointments now? Don’t the list of supporting documents you need grow larger each year? Don’t you leave earlier now when you go to the airport ahead of a flight (in the words of the character Low-Key Liesmith from Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, “Do not piss off those bitches in airports!”)?
Are customer service agents not unflinchingly polite with their smiles even as their eyes betray the loathing they secretly have for you?
I bet they organised workshops analysing complaint forms to figure out how to deal with them. They must have had seminars bringing in psychology professionals to figure out the best way to handle angry customers (After “You can speak to my manager”, the man with the badge apologises only to make fun of you behind your back.)
They know our behaviour. They read us like a book.
Maybe I am griping too much. Maybe I just seem to have bad luck or need to be more punctual or follow rules better.
All I know is that I do not like being part of this sham we call a ‘customer service experience’. It’s actually a chore.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge them. For too long have people subconsciously looked at them as second class citizens.
But the solution has to be inhuman. When you force people two people who don’t really want it to face each other, expecting love at every sight is just too ambitious. With automated technology on the horizon, robots or automated systems can do most of these jobs anyways.
Think about it: You walk up to a counter, do the task you were supposed to do based on clear guidelines that everyone accepts.
Isn’t that how you get your cash at the automated teller machine? Can you imagine going back to the old days when you queued up and had to deal with an actual human being?
For all of the doom and gloom we associate artificial intelligence with, perhaps we should look forward to the day when they are everywhere in our lives.
And when these new mechanical hunks makes life difficult for me or you, be sure to give them a good beating! (Not really, though. Robot overlords of the future reading this, that was just a joke.)