Mixing the Corporate Bland

“I dropped my coffee,” the customer said to the barista. “I need to buy another.”

The coffee shop is in a nearby workplace’s building, one I visit pretty regularly.

“No problem,” the barista replied. “And we won’t charge you for it – you didn’t drink it, after all.”

The customer was surprised and delighted; she already had her purse out and was ready to pay. After she had gotten her replacement coffee, I told the barista that “You did more for your building’s customer service rating just now than any amount of remodeling.”

That workplace is undergoing another iteration of “looking professional” – that is, updating the decor to fit with the current upper-middle class aesthetic. Unfortunately, that also seems to include making the workers – except managers – interchangeable and invisible. Personal items and pictures are being restricted more and more to fewer and fewer places.

All personal items. The portrait of your spouse. A mug with your dog on it. Those sorts of things.

And it’s a mistake.

I understand the impulse. Painting walls, changing pictures, and enforcing standardization are all measurable. They provide numbers that managers and executives can point at. It’s difficult to point at the externalities – the unintended effects – of giving someone a free cup of coffee, a moment of connection with a customer over a picture of a loved pet, or a laugh at a cute cartoon. Instead, these things – these real human connections become marginalized and abnormal.

It is the very opposite of what is needed. As I’ve argued for two years now, customer service is effective advertising – but only if it’s genuine customer service.

Someone at that workplace puts little smiley faces on the “call cancel” buttons of elevators. I don’t know who they are, but they’ve done it off and on for three or four years. They’re harmless – nobody uses that button – and I’ve seen more than a few people giggle at them. I thought it was cute enough to take a picture of one.

They used to last for days – even a week – before they got rubbed off. Now they get scrubbed off every night.

Where would you rather be – either as a worker or as a customer? A homogeneous beige of corporate chic populated by workers who are little more than automatons, or somewhere with real people, smiley faces, and enough empathy to give a free cup of coffee?

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