ITEM: "Tickets for the next installment of Next (Tour of Thailand) were slated to go on sale today at 4pm, an event that—surprise!—garnered a lot of interest. All that interest turned out to work against the restaurant, however, as Next’s site was quickly overwhelmed and slowed to a crawl…. This should have shocked nobody. And yet Next’s Facebook page has exploded with bourgeois anger and first-world vitriol." —David Tamarkin, Time Out Chicago
I read through the blowup on the Facebook page of Next—temporarily ironically named—and got a bit depressed, thinking that the person who suggested a dinner from Versailles during the Sun King era* was hitting closer to the target than perhaps he or she intended.
Then I thought back to my time working the sales and customer service phones for a Major Upscale Catalog Retailer during the Christmas rush, and felt a little better. If you’re surprised at the things people will say about customer service on Facebook, it pales in comparison to what they’ll tell you—a human being with a voice, directly—over the phone. I got bawled out for being an uneducated yokel, once quite memorably during a long, multipart order with items going on a virtual tour of America’s wealthy enclaves. One customer got pissed at me when his plane was on approach and it looked like I would not be able to locate the item he was only vaguely able to describe in time to sell it to him.
When this happened I made sure to talk real slow and extra Southern. Sometimes I engaged them in conversation about my educational history. But I had the luxury of not really having to take my job all that seriously. Which is not to say I didn’t—I masterfully talked down the mournful anger of a customer who was storing her dog in the freezer until her delayed pet gravestone arrived.
I’m more of a cat person, but I understood where she was coming from, and thought she had a right to be upset, or at least a very good reason. I also considered the possibility she was lying to me, in which case I had to respect the creativity of her negotiating position.
All in all, I have to concur with Andrew Marantz’s account of working for an Indian call center:
My coworkers were happy to give me a rundown of the different nationalities they’d encountered. "Britishers get angry," said Nidhi. "Still, they are subtle—they’ll say something sarcastic under the breath."
"Americans will just shout at you," Sube said. Mittu agreed: "I have only been cursed by Americans. They are sharp-witted and very articulated and yet very free with their anger."
I much preferred the overnight shift, during which the lonely, crazy people who called just to chat were a breath of fresh air, even if they brought my call time-to-sales ratio down.
On the other hand, I had a very different experience working for a disorganized coffee shop in college. Periodically we would run out of vitals like "coffee" or "cups." When this happened, I’d just stare blankly at the customers. What can you say, when you are a barista with no coffee, or no cups to put it in? What I wanted to say was I understand how stupid it seems that you cannot buy coffee, but think of how stupid I feel not being able to serve you coffee.
But, thanks to the soft bigotry of low expectations, my interactions there were much healthier, or at least more calm in their ambivalence, than I’ve had at places with obsessively devout customer service.
Not that I am innocent of misbehavior in customer service purgatory. One forlorn night, during a low point of my adult existence, I just wanted a vanilla milkshake, so I pulled into a fast food drive-thru, and received a strawberry milkshake, since they were out of vanilla. Mostly angry that I wasn’t given fair warning—actually, mostly just angry at the world—I demanded my money back. I know it’s not much of a Travis Bickle moment, but I felt like a jerk.
Food writer Michael Nagrant called out Tamarkin: "Seriously, you’re mocking people who don’t get paid to get reservations like you do? James Beard award for douchery to you."
In sum: Next screws up. People are snide to Next. Other people are snide to those people. And so forth, all about what we, as consumers, have the right to expect from producers. But from personal experience, this row seems fairly minor in the scheme of consumer agita. It’s turtles all the way down, including myself, for acting like I’m above it.
And it’s really best understood as a clash of cultures—that of elite restaurants, in which perfection is considered the norm, and information technology, in which "beta" is an expected, if only barely tolerated, part of the process.
Being personally familiar with the latter and almost completely ignorant of the former, my sympathies lie with Next, and that meshes with my general attitude towards the marketplace, which is to not expect nice things and to not feel deserving of them when I get them.
Not that I would recommend that; it’s no healthier, and no less anxiety-inducing. I do, however, recommend David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon, which is about all of the above:
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop.
It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
It may seem as preposterous and difficult as a Zen koan, but at least it’s something to do while you’re clicking "refresh."
* My suggestions:
Berwyn, 1950. So people think Achatz is all that for making French and Thai food delicious. I want to see a real challenge. I’ll bring the Jell-O.
Charlie Trotter’s, circa whenever Achatz worked for him. One thing remains. Vader. You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be. And confront him you will.