Commodify me

Chris Young didn’t feel cared about. The food was good, the service was better than usual but it wasn’t enough — he wanted more from his waitress:

I didn’t feel like she really cared. Sure, she was attentive, but I didn’t feel cared about. And I didn’t feel like she was being authentic. I felt like it was an act. I think she cared about me until she got the check. Once she did, she didn’t refill anything. We never saw her again.

Chris is the founder and ‘difference maker’ of The Rainmaker Group, a North Dakota employee relations company. At Rainmaker they’re dying to "Breathe new life into your Customer Experience." They really are, they’d love to do it. They’ll show you how to put together a workforce that’s sincere, authentic and genuinely committed to making a difference in the lives of your customers.

From an employee’s perspective there’s something a little unnerving about a boss who wants to sell your feelings. Customers like Chris aren’t just buying a service — they’re buying you. It’s not enough to be polite and attentive, you actually have to care about the customer — even when the customer obviously doesn’t care about you. In her book The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochschild calls this ‘emotional labour‘. Rather than pretending to care, many workers develop techniques of ‘deep acting‘ where they learn how to control their own feelings by changing the way they think.

Hochschild describes how Delta flight attendants were trained to think of the passenger as if he were a guest in their own living room. As she explains in the book:

The analogy between home and cabin also joins the worker to her company; just as she naturally protects members of her own family, she will naturally defend the company. Impersonal relations are to be seen as if they were personal. Relations based on getting and giving money are to be seen as if they were relations free of money. The company brilliantly extends and uses its workers’ basic human empathy, all the while maintaining that it is not interfering in their "personal" lives (p 106).

Marketers have realised that restaurant patrons and airline passengers want more than food or transport. As a result, it’s no longer clear where the product begins and ends. Many businesses are now selling the customer a relationship rather than just a service. They see customers as touchy social animals that want to be cared for and respected — emotional creatures that don’t like to be pestered, laughed at or made to feel stupid. As comedian turned corporate consultant. Ross Shafer, tells his clients, "Your Customers Want to Be Loved…so they can stop ‘dating’ other companies."

Companies want their customers to be faithful. Many believe that customers have a deep need to be part of something larger than themselves. Douglas Atkins, author of The Culting of Brands, tells readers: "You are a priest, not a brand manager. You are in the business of building committed congregations. You must help create a sense of community around a unifying set of values and worldview."

But in Beyond Right and Left, David McKnight argues that capitalism is driving out non-market relationships based on caring and belonging. As ‘services’ once provided in the home are outsourced to the market, he worries that human relationships will begin to break down. According to McKnight it is impossible to be "ruthlessly self-interested in the market and sweetly caring in the family, greedy at work and selfless at home" (p 72). But for employers in customer service industries the real problem is how to keep greed and ruthless self-interest from intruding on the marketplace. Customers like Chris Young aren’t impressed if they think that their waitress only loves them for their Platinum Amex.

If you work in customer service, your boss probably wants you to bring your warm, caring home persona into the workplace — even if you have to fake it. Greed and selfishness should be carefully hidden from customers who demand genuine human concern — especially when they’re complaining. According to psychologist Sandi Mann, "There is no way you can feel sympathetic all the time, but customers need and want that sympathy." The solution? "To enable everyone to be happy, give staff acting lessons."

So after a hard day feigning interest in the complaints of customers and junior staff members, mum comes home to cook dinner, bathe the kids, and listen to her husband’s work problems. "That’s terrible," she says, "you deserve to be treated better than that."

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[…] post by Don Arthur and software by Elliott Back […]

Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

So why is this all the waitress’ fault? How might she write the encounter with Chris?

I didn’t feel like he really respected me. Sure, he was courteous, but I didn’t feel respected. And I didn’t feel like he was being authentic. I felt like it was an act. I think he respected me until he got the meal. Once he did, I was in the way. We never saw him again. Like I care.

Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

Um – “Like I should care.”

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Thanks Don,

A great post raising that central question of our time – how far the market should go, and how far it already has gone in wheedling its way into our lives and culture.

I’m not sure how far the movement that you cite can go. My feeling is not that far. There will be excesses of course, but I think it’s just so against the grain. People generally appreciate friendly professional service more than ‘caring’ service so I can’t see lots of consumer demand. And there will be plenty of employee push-back and subversion. You can’t really even detect infractions against what you’re after with video surveillance.

On the other hand I think that employers and employees know that employees enjoying in their job enhances their performance – at least in service industries. So Virgin Blue knows that it’s staff seems to be having more fun than Qantas staff – and my guess is that they are (even though Qantas pay and conditions are probably better in some respects.) So everyone’s a winner as Virgin is generally more pleasant than Qantas in my experience – unless you’re paying for business class which I never do.

The thing that I worry more about is the way in which the market distorts culture. Most people would – I think – believe that there was something a bit strange – perhaps wrong – in a piece of fiction (a movie) being the result of market research. But lots of Hollywood movies are just that – with different endings chosen by market research and intent on hitting various market researched cultural themes.

The rush to sell news and views – on TV and in print – has in my opinion gravely distorted political incentives making spin not just so much more possible, but basically obligatory. If you don’t spin your enemies will spin for you and if you try to let the commentators make up their own mind – without trying to make it up for them – they’ll accuse you of naivete and having had a ‘bad week’ (gasp).

14 years ago

Reads like the real Road to Serfdom.

14 years ago

I reckon Hochschild’s work on emotional labour is interesting. Chris Warhurst and his colleagues have taken it further and talk about ‘aesthetic labour’. In retail especially but also in other service industries, there’s an emphasis on aesthetic skills, manufactured styles of embodiment and bodily performance. They give the example of employees working in retail where shop assistants are told where to stand, how to approach customers and what to say. Such scripted performance is supplemented by the company ascribing and circumscribing the appearance of employees as regards, for example, hairstyle. The application of highly prescriptive aesthetic values in the wider job market also highlights the danger of social exclusion as employers increasingly choose staff who


[…] Commodify me, Don Arthur makes a disturbing discovery: Marketers have realised that restaurant patrons and […]

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago


It’s possible to agree with the problem identified by Young and Hochschild without buying their solution. I would rather have service with no smile than service with a fake smile, and I hate being called sir by bellboys who think formality is a substitute for respect. However, I would much rather be served with a sincere smile than none at all.

What most of us are after as customers is a bit of empathy, which is impossible to fake except for hardened conmen. It requires certain cultural knowledge, which can be acquired. But it also requires a basic appreciation of other people as ends in themselves rather than means to an end, and you either have this or you don’t.

In principle, people without empathy should find careers as watch repairers or vulture breeders rather than as waiters or loans officers. In practice, it depends on whether the business depends on regular customers and or recommendations, and on the degree of competition. A cafe in a tourist zone is or an all-night medical centre is likley to be managed by innately uncaring people. But such poeople are less liklely to survive as suburban physiotherapists or mortgage brokers. Competition, information and enlightened recruitment, rather then acting classes, are the answer.


[…] Thanks to Troppo commentor Anthony for telling me about the literature on aesthetic labour. This entry was posted on Sunday, June […]