Service with a Smile
The Pains of Customer Service Masking
Text: Janina Ryymin
Image: Masja Willekins
I’m walking home from my shift working as a receptionist in a high-end hotel. Despite my shift being over, I catch myself greeting a stranger on the street like I welcome the guests arriving at the hotel. The confusion of this event catches me off-guard. What am I doing? Why am I saying hello to a random person?
I remember the manners and norms I was taught as a receptionist: do not point with your finger, use the whole of your palm. Do not stand with your arms in front of you, they mustn’t be crossed. Keep your hands and arms behind you. Stand up with your back straight, do not hold your weight on one leg but evenly on both. All of these things were emphasised in my orientation and I notice that still, after many years, they are ingrained in me. Although they at times feel like foreign ways of being, I also notice they evoke a mirage of professionality and elegance which has been an advantage at times. Wanting to understand how commonly these habits of being are taught, I looked into training manuals in the hospitality field. My findings shocked me.
Worshipping the Corporation
‘Whether I am on or off duty, I am an ambassador of X brand and will always observe the highest standards of professionalism…’ This quote is directly from a large hospitality company’s training manual. It’s not uncommon for companies to ask their employees to adhere to a set of values as a part of their training for their position. However, often these values come across as ideology, a system of belief. Values given via ideologies are treated similarly to values given through religion. Because these values are presented as fundamental building blocks of a good life, they are not easily questioned.
As the sociologist Emil Durkheim suggested, religion can be understood as society worshipping itself, meaning that the sociological function of religion is to maintain the social order of society. Whilst his theory was in reference to religion, perhaps something analogous is taking place with corporate ideology and the values enforced through them. The purpose of giving values through training is to maintain the social order within the company and thus the training manuals could be seen in a Durkheimian way, as examples of corporations worshipping themselves. I can find this similarity in how ideologies are enforced in religious contexts and in the context of onboarding. When being trained to work as a receptionist, I had to do a quiz based on the company's vision, values and mission. From the multiple-choice questionnaire, I had to confirm that my values were those that the company had taught me. Comparatively, during my stay at a Christian confirmation camp, a standard rite of passage in Finland, I was quizzed and expected to learn and repeat the ten commandments. In both of these experiences the values were not chosen or discussed, but rather imposed.
Work-me or & Personal-life-me: Which am I?
The values displayed in them are fixed and cannot be freely questioned, especially by those who are at the lower end of the (perceived) social hierarchy of the corporation. And so corporations can demand performance of the corporation’s brand’s identity both on and off duty. Employees are expected to embody the values of their employer even when not working. Therefore, the merging of one’s work identity and personal identity (that I still experience) is encouraged via training.
Looking at this phenomenon from a critical perspective, the merging of one’s work identity and personal identity can bring about discomfort and questions about authenticity. As the model of one’s work identity is not chosen freely but enforced via training, it’s no wonder that employees may feel disorientated with the norms expected of them. After working in five-star hotels, I changed jobs to work in a start-up that did not emphasise prestige. I felt immense freedom being able to mention to my boss at the time that I had gone to a rave the previous weekend. Before, I had felt that these aspects of my personal life that did not fit the image of a high-end receptionist had to be hidden away. Thus fearing judgement, I never mentioned them. This embodiment of norms, prompts questions.
The Mask of Power
Often, it is the case that we must make compromises with the companies we are employed by; it’s relatively rare that one fully agrees with every single aspect that their employer's corporate ideology suggests. We are not usually able to choose a perfect company that represents ourselves like some corporate brand builders dream we do. It seems contradictory that companies are striving for diversity and inclusion yet simultaneously require agreement to a specific corporate ideology.
However, the issue isn’t black and white. The training and habits offered by companies also work as a shield. The philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about how power manifests itself through ‘subjectification’. The term refers to individuals becoming subjects who discipline themselves (through norms) instead of the previous conceptualizations of power working through a risk of physical punishment. Most importantly Foucault pointed out that power isn’t only controlling but it is also (re)productive; meaning that subjectification also produces power. Many people working in hospitality have a customer service persona which I would argue works to protect their authentic persona. It is thus a form of resistance toward the power struggles that occur in the day-to-day operations between customers and customer servants. Adhering to corporate values can be productive and protective. Unfortunately, those working in the front line of hospitality businesses often receive negative feedback face-to-face, sometimes even in hostile ways. When being shouted at, the stress can be diverted toward the work persona by separating one’s work persona and personal life. But here lies the issue of demanding adherence to corporate ideology both on and off duty; if the work persona and personal life persona merge, how can an individual create the necessary boundary to deal with the stresses of recurring conflict? Therefore what training manuals are demanding is contradictory to their end goal of having a workforce that is well-equipped to deal with difficult situations. Training manuals often emphasise diversity and inclusivity yet offer a rigid model for manners which doesn’t allow for diversity of actions. Manuals emphasise personalised service, yet the norm within the industry is to behave according to a specific mode of conduct. I suggest that these contradictions are rarely pointed out because training manuals work as a guide to the corporate ideology of the company. Thus the values pointed out in them are treated as sacred. What would it look like if training manuals wouldn’t reduce the complexity of human beings by asking them to adhere to a specific set of values? After all, customer service is about serving fellow human beings, who are as diverse as the people who help them.