Communication Currents

Ethics of Customer Service Work

April 1, 2008
Communication Ethics, Organizational Communication

Communicating care for a customer or communicating to control a customer? For many people, good customer service means being cared for, not controlled. Yet, employees who perform customer service through customer service call centers should both care for and control customers. Balancing care and control is difficult, and this combination of care and control makes interactive service work rather distasteful to employees not accustomed to this type of work.

Growth in the U.S. services economy has been broad and deep. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that service-providing industries will account for approximately nearly all of the 18.9 million new wage and salary jobs generated by 2014. The label of service jobs is broad, but a thread running through the variety of services occupations is the close, direct interpersonal interaction between customers and service providers.

As manufacturing jobs evaporate from the U.S. economy, public policy often provides re-training to help those who have been laid off move into new occupations. For example, those who lost jobs in furniture manufacturing and tobacco processing in North Carolina were offered access to community college-based training for jobs in growing industries, such as customer service. Curriculum specialists developed the courses in consultation with industry representatives. The training learners received in this course presented a particular vision of communication--communication as caring, authentic, and reciprocal. Ideally, the wonderful and authentic relations that result from good customer service actually elevate the daily communication experiences of the customer and customer service representative. At its finest, authenticity and reciprocity in the customer service interaction improve the human condition.

Still, customer service interactions combine concerns of the corporation and the customer. Customer service representatives must span the boundary between the two and manage the contradiction that arises when the customer and customer service representative encounter one another. Much of the communication training focuses on caring for and achieving an authentic relationship with the customer. And yet, to put it bluntly, customer service representatives must ensure that customers follow their credit agreements and pay their bills.

Thus, in addition to authentically communicating with customers, good customer service representatives must retain control over customers and customer service calls at all times. Course participants were taught to "always stay in control of the call and customer. Never lose that control." At least from the perspective of the customer service call center industry, successful customer service representatives practice two kinds of communication simultaneously: They must communicate to care for another person, and, at the same time, their communication should ensure that that person acts in the manner desired by the service provider.

Course participants learned various techniques for controlling their calls and customers. Primary strategies sought to influence a customer by trading on the relational trust established in the call, as when a customer service rep acts as a friend or confidante and offers advice or suggests a product to solve a customer's problem. Another strategy called for maintaining distance from the customer, as when the course instructor advised trainees that, "It's personal for the customer, business for you." As a last resort a customer service rep could fall back on company policy to respond to a customer. However, the use of company policy was seen as the choice of an unskilled or immature rep. The course instructor explained: "As new reps you will use your policies a lot. But, as you improve, you'll need those a lot less, and your other skills much more."

The reactions of course participants, though, continually pointed to the problems of caring for and controlling customers. As one participant put it,

"You have a general distrust for the people on the other end of the line. They say, 'Oh, the check's in the mail,' or 'I haven't gotten the bill yet,' and you just distrust them as a general rule. The job involves a level of skepticism for the people on the other end of the line. It's a clash of wanting to help the guy and making sure he gets the money in."

Another said,

"I don't see it so much as being honest work, because what you are representing to your customer is just not necessarily your personality. It's a front. You are putting on a mask to present to the customers. And I believe when you're working honestly, you're working as yourself. Is it me that's making the money or just this person I'm pretending to be?"

In understanding customer service work in this way participants drew not only upon their general knowledge about good communication, but their work biographies, as well. Unemployment and underemployment drove most of the participants to enroll in the job-training course. Some had lost jobs in mass layoffs, some held jobs did they not like or that paid poorly. Some had suffered workplace injuries and saw customer service work as less demanding on the body. Though the paths into the customer service course varied, participants spoke of the contemporary world of work as having let them down. Thus, the communication work that allowed them to care for a customer held appeal. At the same time, communication work that objectified and controlled customers and focused on narrow economic concerns offended them.

What might we learn from the experience of these dislocated workers who are being trained for our new service economy? First, customer service work is moral work. Wariness about linking care to economic exchange led many of the job-training course participants to resist or reject customer service work. Participants embraced the communication exchanges that allowed them to create an authentic relationship with customers and rejected the communication exchanges that required them to objectify customers. Importantly, many of the objections to customer service work stemmed directly from participants' belief in and lessons about communication as a force for community. This link between communication and community inserted a moral criterion into customer service work. Course participants then used this criterion to judge as inappropriate parts of customer service work.

The responses of these participants to their customer service job-training course illustrate the ethical complexity of interactive service work. Beyond common concerns of wages and working conditions, interactive service work is also deeply cultural. As more and more people engage in services, whether as a service provider or consumer, we should reflect on how the communication of service work draws upon and remakes our culture.