Customer Service - 'Is That Perfect For You?'

Customer Service

institutionalized in the 1970s, most likely eternal

2 out of 5 gods clothéd in a tortilla

Out of all the beloved american institutions---baseball, apple pie, imperialism---chipotle is surely the most quietly useful.  It represents the best of the melting pot. A cultural food (mexicanish), done well, served efficiently and relatively cheaply.  A mashup of fast food and gourmet. It’s even managed to transform down-the-line food, a process previously reserved for the sad cafeterias of prisons and public schools.  Eyeing the trays, curating your very own burrito, feeling the twinge of your saliva might even be excited to slide down the line.

Fast food perfected the mcdonaldsization effect long ago, where every location resembles every other location no matter where you are in the world.  A hall of mirrors meant to evoke comfort in the customer. I may be in lagos or timbuktu, but standing in a mcdonalds I’m always breathing the same air.  In 2018, chipotle had 2491 restaurants in the US. Like any sprawling corporation, they obviously spend a lot of time on systems. Systems for cooking, systems for serving, systems for cleaning, systems for stocking, and, of course, systems for training employees.  

Speaking as a binge customer, there seems to’ve been a shift in chipotle’s training philosophy.  Most of my chipotle communications have been almost militaristic, two soldiers assembling something and who cares what’s said so long as it gets built.  Niceties need not apply. The best burritos seemed to come from the middleaged latina ladies who didn’t speak much english (I freely admit to some racism when it comes to white people making me burritos).  Those latinas could wrap a firetruck in a tortilla. But now some bona fide customer service lingo has crept in. The other day, at the very end of the slab, food arrival imminent, a girl sprinkled some lettuce on the exposed innards of my burrito, angled it for inspection, and asked, ‘is that perfect for you?’  A firework of discomfort went off in my head. It was a terrible question. I stood silently for a beat, trying to fire up my speech centers, then eventually managed, ‘umm. Sure.’

‘Customer service’ is a peculiar and loathsome phrase.  There’s a world of hierarchy in those two words, and most of the language of customer service is designed to reinforce it: ‘how may I help you?; ‘the customer is always right’; ‘are you completely satisfied with our service today?’.  The norms around these phrases dictate something akin to a master-servant relationship, where the customer asks and the employee provides. Fawning, obsequious behavior is normal.

It can be difficult to disrupt the situation.  I worked for a bike shop that had a laissez faire approach to customer service.  There was very little formal training, and each employee was trusted to figure it out.  Nevertheless, at the end of the day, service was king. And but so, when one day a cranky and rich old man demanded I leave the customers I was talking with to sell him a bike, going so far as to pull out an actual wad of cash and say, ‘young man, get over here and help me or I’m going to leave,’ it took a lot of effort and presence of mind to keep my feet planted.  Had he spoken to me like that in any other setting, I wouldn’t’ve hesitated to get in his face, but it was hard to stand up for myself in that moment.

The language can alienate the customer from the employee.  A friend of mine once said of retail, that ‘it turns you into a racist against a race of people called customers.’  The most insidious phrase is, ‘have a nice day.’ It seems to have been around since the 1920s, and really boomed in the ‘70s when it hitched up with the yellow smiley face.  Tshirts, logos, and bumper stickers materialized, all urging the reader to have their day nicely. It spread throughout the world on the backs of blue walmart vests and red mcdonalds visors.  Its ubiquity has been its undoing; even the most optimistic and credulous of shoppers can’t be expected to believe all these strangers really do care if he has a good day. The lack of sincerity renders the phrase useless or even vaguely malevolent.  Is it a request, a command, a wish? A business psychologist named sandi mann has said have a nice day culture is, ‘filled with fake smiles, forced bonhomie, and meaningless demands by workers...managers compel their workers to be attentive and affable despite the fact that some employees do not feel those emotions.’  Worse, we’re often jarred when we don’t get it as a parting shot---leaving a shop to silence feels...wrong.  We expect it, we want it, and we don’t want to want it. And it has infiltrated more than just retail.  In new york in 1979 a judge sentenced a man to a seven year prison term for robbery, saying, ‘you are hereby remanded to the custoy of the sheriff’s department for delivery to the custody of state officials.  Have a nice day.’ The man crumpled to his knees.

‘Is that perfect for you?’ is equally outrageous.  The ultimate expression of american retail service, weaponized.  Perfect is an extremely strong word.  It belongs to a group of adjectives sometimes called ‘uncomparables,’ along with words like precise, exact, correct, preferable, inevitable, possible, unique, and false.  They describe ‘absolute, non-negotiable states: something is either false or it’s not; something is either inevitable or it’s not.’  Your friendly neighborhood grammar nazi would point out that they cannot be modified (‘mostly false’, ‘kinda precise’, ‘increasingly inevitable’, etc), although of course they often are, especially in advertising language.  Advertising isn’t designed to be correct, just to grab your attention and convince of something you probably don’t care much about. Everything gets turned up: ‘free gift’, ‘totally unique’, and so on.

Perfect is the granddaddy of uncomparables.  It represents a kind of spiritual summing up---is this burrito, taken wholly, the fullest expression of what I want in a burrito?  Not an atom out of place? Moreover, perfection only exists in the ephemera of the mind; it’s an idea, not an object. And the very asking implies that if it isn’t the final reckoning of beans, rice, and tortilla, then this innocent, beleaguered employee in her company tshirt and weird plastic gloves will fix it.  Not even achilles had that arrogance! Megalomaniacal emperors rampaging across europe wouldn’t presume to promise perfection. It is a word reserved for divinity, not to be lobbed carelessly over a sneeze guard at hungry, unprepared customers. Chipotle, you shall not make for yourself a carved image. So is this burrito, the one right in front of my goddamned eyes, with a boulder of guacamole all to one side, is this burrito going to satisfy me physically, emotionally, and spiritually?  Ambushed, fumbling for my wallet, expecting to field questions about to-go versus for-here, I suddenly found myself next to indiana jones, sorting through dozens of cups. Is this the holy grail, the cup of all the cups, the perfect cup?  Umm. Sure.

*uncomparables info came from ‘24 word notes’, both flesh and not, DFW

*saddi mann quote and the story of the judge came from wikipedia, “have a nice day”

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