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Inside the New York Telephone Company

Company rhetoric asserts that this rigidity does not exist, that Representatives are supposed to use “initiative” and “judgment,” to develop their own language. What that means is that instead of using the precise words “Of course I’ll be glad to help you but I’ll need more information,” you are allowed to “create” some individual variant. But you must always (1) express willingness to help and (2) indicate the need for further investigation. In addition, while you are doing this, you must always write down the information taken from the customer, coded, on a yellow form called a CF-1, in such a way as to make it possible for a Representative in Florida to read and translate it. “That’s the point,” Sally told us. “You are doing it the same way a rep in Illinois or Alaska does it. We’re one big monopoly.”

The logic of training is to transform the trainees from humans into machines. The basic method is to handle any customer request by extracting “bits” of information: by translating the human problem he might have into bureaucratic language so that it can be processed by the right department. For instance, if a customer calls and says: “My wife is dying and she’s coming home from the hospital today and I’d like to have a phone installed in her bedroom right away,” you say, “Oh, I’m very sorry to hear that sir, I’m sure I can help you, would you be interested in our Princess model? It has a dial that lights up at night,” meanwhile writing on your ever-present CF-1: “Csr wnts Prn inst bdrm immed,” issuing the order, and placing it in the right-hand side of your work-file where it gets picked up every fifteen minutes by a little clerk.

The knowledge that one is under constant observation (of which more later) I think helps to ensure that contacts are handled in this uniform and wooden manner. If you varied it, and said something spontaneous, you might well be overheard; moreover, it is probably not possible to be especially human when you are concentrating so hard on extracting the bits, and when you have to deal with so many bits in one day.

Sometimes the bits can be extraordinarily complicated. A customer (that is, a CSR) calls and says rapidly, “This is Mrs. Smith and I’m moving from 23rd Street to 68th Street, and I’d like to keep my green Princess phone and add two white Trimlines and get another phone in a metallic finish and my husband wants a new desk phone in his study.” You are supposed to have taken that all down as she says it. Naturally you have no time to listen to how she says it, to strike up a conversation, or be friendly. You are desperate to get straight the details.

The dehumanization and the surprising degree of complication are closely related: the number of variables is large, each variable has a code which must be learned and manipulated, and each situation has one—and only one—correct answer. The kind of problem we were taught to handle, in its own language, looks like this:



This case, very simplified, means only that the customer has regular residential phone service with a black phone, a green one, and an ivory bell chime, and that he wants new service with two white phones and a bell chime. Nonetheless, all these items are charged at differing monthly rates which the Representative must learn where to find and how to calculate; each has a separate installation charge which varies in a number of ways; and, most important, they represent only a few of the dozens of items or services a customer could possibly want (each of which, naturally, has its own rates and variables, its own codes).

He could want a long cord or a short one, a green one or a white one, a new party listed on his line, a special headset for a problem with deafness, a touchtone phone, and on and on and on. For each of the things he could possibly want there would be one and only one correct charge to quote to him, one and only one right way to handle the situation.

It is largely since World War II that the Bell System abandoned being a comparatively simple service organization and began producing such an array of consumer products as to rival Procter and Gamble. It is important to realize what contribution this proliferation makes both to creating the work and to making it unbearable. If the company restricted itself to essential functions and services—standard telephones and standard types of service—whole layers of its bureaucracy would not need to exist at all, and what did need to exist could be both more simple and more humane. The pattern of proliferation is also crucial for, among other things, it is largely responsible for the creation of the “new”—white collar—“working class” whose job is to process the bureaucratic desiderata of consumption.

In our classroom, the profit motivation behind the telephone cornucopia is not concealed and we are programmed to repeat its justifications: that the goods were developed to account for different “tastes” and the “need of variation.” Why Touchtone Dialing? We learn to say that “it’s the latest thing,” “it dials faster,” “it is easier to read the letters and numbers,” and “its musical notes as you depress the buttons are pleasant to hear.” We learn that a Trimline is a “space-saver,” that it has an “entirely new feature, a recall button that allows you to hang up without replacing the receiver,” and that it is “featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection on industrial design.” Why a night-light? we were asked. I considered saying, “It would be nice to make love by a small sexy light,” but instead helped to contribute the expected answers: “It gives you security in the bedroom,” “it doesn’t interfere with the TV.”

One day a woman named Carol Nichols, whose job it is to supervise instruction, came to watch our class. Carol is a typical telephone company employee: an aging, single woman who has worked her way up to a position of modest authority. In idle conversation I inquired into the origins of our programmed instruction. Carol said it was all prepared under centralized auspices but had recently benefited from the consultation of two Columbia professors. One, she believed, was the chairman of the English department; another, an English professor. Their principal innovation, I gathered, was to suggest formal quizzes in addition to role-playing.

Carol took the content of the work very seriously. She was concerned to impress on us the now familiar Customer’s Service Ideology that We Do Help the Customer no matter what his problem. She said: “If the customer tells you to drop dead, you say ‘I’ll be very glad to help you sir.”’ I couldn’t resist raising the obvious question, wondering what is the Rule covering obscene propositions, but saying innocently, “Gee, I can think of things a customer might say that you wouldn’t want to help him with.” Carol looked very tough and said: “Oh. We don’t get those kind of calls in the Commercial Department.”

Carol threw herself into role-playing tests with gusto. In one of the tests she pretended to be a Mrs. Van Der Pool from Gramercy Park South, whose problem was that she had four dirty white phones that needed cleaning and one gold phone that was tarnishing. Carol enjoyed playing the snotty Mrs. VDP to the hilt, and what sense of identity, projection, or simple resentment went into her characterization it is hard to say. On the other hand, despite her caricatured and bossy airs, Carol was very nice to the women in the class. At the end, when Angela and Katherine were complaining that they were doing so poorly, Carol gave them a litte pep talk in which she said that she had been miserable on her first day as a Rep, had cried, but had just made up her mind to get through it, and had been able to do so.

Many have passed this way and they all felt the way you do,” she told them. “Just keep at it. You can do it.” Angela and Katherine were very grateful to Carol for this. Later in the week when, frustrated and miserable, Katherine broke down and cried, Sally too was unobtrusive, sympathetic, encouraging.

Selling is an important part of the Representative’s job. Sally introduced the subject with a little speech (from her program book) about the concept of the “well-telephoned home,” how that was an advance from the old days when people thought of telephone equipment in a merely functional way. Now, she said, we stress “a variety of items of beauty and convenience.” Millions of dollars have been spent by the Bell System, she told us, to find out what a customer wants and to sell it to him. She honestly believed that good selling is as important to the customer as it is to the company: to the company because “it makes additional and worthwhile revenue,” to the customer because it provides services that are truly useful. We are warned not to attempt to sell when it is clearly inappropriate to do so, but basically to use every opportunity to unload profitable items. This means that if a girl calls up and asks for a new listing for a roommate, your job is to say: “Oh. Wouldn’t your roommate prefer to have her own extension?”

The official method is to avoid giving the customer a choice but to offer him a total package which he can either accept or reject. For instance, a customer calls for new service. You find out that he has a wife, a teen-age daughter, and a six-room apartment. The prescription calls for you to get off the line, make all the calculations, then come back on and say all at once: “Mr. Smith, suppose we installed for you a wall telephone in your kitchen, a Princess extension in your daughter’s room and one in your bedroom, and our new Trimline model in your living room. This will cost you only X dollars for the installation and only Y dollars a month.”

Mr. Smith will say, naturally, “That’s too many telephones for a six-room apartment,” and you are supposed to “overcome his objections” by pointing out the “security” and “convenience” that comes from having telephones all over the place.

Every Representative is assigned a selling quota—so many extensions, so many Princesses—deduced and derived in some way from the quota of the next largest unit. In other words, quotas are assigned to the individual because they are first assigned to the five-girl unit; they are assigned to the unit because they are assigned to the twenty-girl section; and they are assigned to the section because they are assigned to the district: to the manager and the district supervisor. The fact that everyone is in the same situation—expected to contribute to the same total—is one of the factors that increase management-worker solidarity.

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