There has been a recent return to stressing the importance of good customer service in supermarkets and department stores. Customer service is once again regarded as the integral part of the contemporary consumer experience. Witness a figure such as Mary Portas, the television celebrity and self-styled ‘Queen of Shops’, who states that she is ‘waging war on poor service in Great Britain’. Poor service, inattentive sales people and the supposed unfriendly attitude from shop-floor staff are viewed as the major issue to be overcome in the retail industry. There is now a website called that lets consumers in the London area ‘get angry’ about unacceptable customer service.
Customer service marks the crowning end-point of any consumer experience. The item to be bought is selected and carried by the soon-to-be consumer and is processed by the shop worker to whom the amount due for the product is given. The shop worker is placed at the end point in which the very purpose of the consumer experience – the exchange of money from consumer to company – occurs. The pleasant behaviour of the shop assistant, from the friendly smile to the seemingly spontaneous expression of thanks, is enmeshed in the end-point of consumerism; these procedures accompany and in some way make natural the transfer of money. Good customer service is the oil that lends the entire consumer experience the necessary lubricant it requires at the till. One does not just exchange money for goods: one also experiences good customer service. Or, in another formulation, one experiences good customer service in lieu of the exchange of money: the one stands in for (and replaces) the other.
Why the anger with bad customer service? Because bad customer service radically disrupts the seamlessness of the commodity experience: it marks the point at which the naturalness of consumerism and its apparent inevitability start to come undone. In his essay on the epic theatre of the German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin writes that ‘the task of epic theatre, according to Brecht, is not so much the development of action as the representation of conditions. This presentation does not mean reproduction as the theoreticians of Naturalism understood it. Rather, the truly important thing is to discover the conditions of life. (One might say just as well: to alienate [verfremden] them.) This discovery (alienation) of conditions takes place through the interruption of happenings’. In short, Epic Theatre, for Benjamin, makes no attempt to be realistic, but rather shows that these are actors acting, that they do not ‘mean’ what they say and do.
What Benjamin identifies at work in Brecht’s epic theatre is at work in experiences of bad customer service. Bad customer service, unlike the imagined good customer service that is supposed to accompany all transactions, disrupts the perfect and natural consumer experience. Instead of the transfer of money being covered by the naturalness implied by good service, bad service (which is the absence of good service) makes unfamiliar or alienates [verfremdt] the transaction. Better, it captures the alienation inherent in the structure of the transaction. Bad service reveals the ‘representation of conditions’ at the heart of consumerism: the mask is dropped, the veil is lifted. The ‘happening’ of the transaction is radically interrupted in which the awareness of the consumer is drawn away from the naturalness of the transaction to the actual reality of money (‘hard earned wages’, in another register) exchanged for a worthless commodity. Bad customer service shows the consumer that there is nothing genuine about their social and personal exchange; it is only the exchange-system at work.
All at once the complete artifice of the shop, the till, the reality of the minimum-wage position of the shop worker, the position of the consumer within the shop and the fetish of the item in the hands of the consumer, disintegrates. In the same manner that Benjamin argues that Brecht’s theatre explodes the conservative theatre of Naturalism at the end of the nineteenth-century, bad service explodes the hermetic seal of the department store: the fiction is at last present for all to see. And the anger directed towards the shop worker is the upsetting realisation of this state of affairs. It is for this reason that we should value bad customer service: it provides us with more than our money would ever be able to buy.