Sunday, July 17, 2011

Capitalism for Customers

At the moment I'm in Prague for a conference. It's my first time back in almost two decades, since just after the Wall fell and the Czechs broke up with the Slovaks. I used to walk around this place with old Czechoslovak bills, still in circulation, which had been stamped in one corner with a "C" (or an "S") to indicate whether these were now Czech or Slovak crowns.

When I was last here, I was occasionally amused by the flamboyantly gruff and rude service you sometimes encountered here, which I took to be largely about the previous decades of dysfunctional command economy. I remember showing up at movie theater on a deserted street one night, with no other customers in sight and only a handful inside, only to have the old woman behind the counter refuse to serve us until she had very very deliberately (indeed, increasingly slowly and deliberately) finished tacking up some flyer inside the ticket booth. My education had provided me with a handy explanation beforehand: in a non-market economy, where there's no profit, there's no reason to try to be more profitable, and no reason to please the customer. If they want a movie ticket, they can wait, and show you a little respect.

I expected that two decades would make the Czech Republic more like the United States in this regard, with certain minimal standards of polite and reasonably efficient service when you're dealing with businesses. But over the last ten years, I've noticed that American customer service more and more often resembles the way Czech used to be about six days after they stopped being Communists. Perhaps I'm simply older and crankier, and more used to deference, but that seems not to be it, and I've had some downright surreal interactions when I was with someone else who could confirm that I was a) treated remarkably rudely by someone I was giving money and b) carefully polite myself. Over the last few months especially, I've had several experiences in the States that went beyond post-Communist Czech all the way to full blown Kafka.

In theory, customer service in a capitalist economy should be good, since everything is driven by the desire for profit. Customer service should be especially good in a consumer-based service economy, because that's where most of the profit is. Yet, as the United States has increasingly become that kind of consumer economy, and simultaneously become more and more of a capitalist's paradise, customer service seems to be much worse than it was in, say, the 1980s. How could this be?

The answer, I think, is that service jobs are worse in the States than they were twenty-five years ago: lower-paying, more demanding, less likely to carry benefits. And those jobs are no longer so much a stepping stone to better jobs as they are a whole sector of the economy. Service is bad because the people performing the service are paid badly and treated badly, and there's no profit motive to make them keep the customer satisfied, because they're not going to make any of that profit, even indirectly. A Communist-era waiter or ticket seller or bus driver had no economic reason to be efficient or friendly, because no matter how well they did their job it wasn't going to benefit them; nobody was making any money off this. An American working in a low-end service job today is in the same boat, or a worse one: someone is making money off their work, but doing it well doesn't get them anywhere. Doing a job well doesn't lead to a better job; there's just an endless series of crappy jobs. And the profit it all for investors: we've had decades now of hearing how overpaid workers cut into profits. If that's your mindset, you can't expect workers to be motivated by pay or profit. They don't get any.

The Czechs are better at customer service now, some of the time. (The rest of the time, well, they're still a Slavic culture and dealing with tourists is a pain in the ass.) But things aren't looking up for us in the States.

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