Customer Service or Corporate Prostitution?

According to The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, "customer" was first meant to describe someone who owned a house after having rented it for a long time, deriving from the Latin word custodia, which means "guarding or keeping."

By the end of the 15th century, the word came to mean "one who frequents any place for the sake of purchasing." But in the early 17th century the meaning of the word "customer" took on another meaning, used as a synonym for a common prostitute. In fact, Shakespeare used the word to refer to prostitution twice in his work.

Though marketing minions, corporate executives, and "free-market" ideologues use the word in its technical sense -- "one who frequents any place for the sake of purchasing" -- as a longtime customer of many businesses, I feel more like a Shakespearean prostitute than I do a "valued customer."

I'm not alone. The other day a reader called me to report an incident he had at one of America's big box bookstores. He went to the hip coffee/snack bar that's a staple feature of this store and ordered a "small" soda (10 oz).

Undoubtedly trained according to the "customer service" book that just about every corporation seems to be reading, the clerk behind the counter said he couldn't sell this older chap a small soda.

The clerk then pointed out the small print on the menu. "Small sodas" can only be sold to kids 10 and under. He was incredulous and asked to speak to the store manager. The manager regurgitated what the counter clerk said and then offered the quintessential corporate cop-out: "It's company policy." Talk about the death of common sense.

My most recent brush with "customer service" was over the Christmas holidays when a loved one saw one of those "this (music) CD is not available in stores" commercials.

Only $14.99 for the CD, which included shipping and handling. No commitment to purchase another CD. And a 30-day money-back guarantee! You can't beat that with a stick, right?

As I was in the process of ordering the CD using a Visa debit card, I was assured numerous times that I would only be billed for this one CD, having declined, three times, a year-long, monthly subscription.

Of course, I got three other CDs in the mail along with a notice that they were "conveniently" billed to my debit card (the door to my entire checking account). The price was no longer $14.99. It was $26 bucks a pop.

I called the 800 number on the letter and informed the customer service rep of my little dilemma. I was told to send the other CDs back and they would send the money back. I was assured: no more CDs would be coming.

A week later, another CD came. I called the 800 number again. Again, the customer service rep read from the same script. This time I mentioned that I felt like I was being robbed.

"I'm sorry you feel that way, sir," he said. "It's not theft. It was a misunderstanding." He also told me that his company "outsources" the commercial orders.

Then, before I got off the phone he actually asked me, as I'm sure he was trained: "Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

Help? You haven't helped me at all today. Since when did it become "help" when someone corrects a mistake that they made in the first place? I'm a patron, but do you have to patronize me?

Take a look at the "customer service" literature. It's all about how to train employees to have a good attitude or about how rude and uncivil customers have become, which is true.

But attitude isn't the problem. The problem is institutional; not individual. The problem is the policies, not the spin. The customer experience has become so impersonal and yet intrusive.

No, I don't want to give you my home number and address in order to receive special mailings. No, I don't want an apple pie with my number 5 purchase. You've had the same menu for 50 years. If I wanted an apple pie, I would have asked.

One unsolicited bit of advice deserves another. Note to corporate execs and investors: maybe if you paid service employees a living wage, you wouldn't need to spend so much money "training" underpaid servants how the customer is always right, unless they happen to depart from company policy.

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