Back in the USSR

As a nation, we are clearly not over the Cold War. That’s the message coded into the media coverage of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Not that we needed subtext. We’re Americans, we already love watching sports. Especially ones where people might wipe out on ice.

In the competition for which country the American media most loves to dump on, the gold medal must go to Russia. Every viral tweet about poor hotel conditions and every commercial break replaying the 1980 Miracle On Ice seems to say, “Can you believe we used to be afraid of these guys?”

This schadenfreude preceded the winter games by months. Last November, Sochi was already popping up in the New York Times in a piece that foreshadowed the tone for Olympic coverage.

Andrew Kramer reported on flight attendants who were learning the basics of smiling, saying “please” and “thank you.” Russian airlines, notorious for gruff customer interaction, were following the examples of recent conquering invaders, Starbucks and McDonald’s, to blaze new trails toward profitable competitiveness.

The real insight was economic. Because oil money has trickled down for a decade, an emerging Russian middle class can now demand better (actual) customer service. The unavoidable American undertone to the story seemed to be, “It’s adorable they’re just figuring this out.”

We miss the Cold War, because we miss having the Soviet Union as our rival, especially knowing that we already won. In comparison to today’s problems—the polluting Chinese juggernaut who owns our national debt, or the shape-shifting Al Qaeda network that is sometimes closer to our allies than we are, or the paralyzed congressional bipartisanship—the U.S.S.R. was a growling but fuzzy bear on a bicycle.

Aside from the flight attendant seminars, “stadium-size training courses” were being held for the volunteers in Sochi who would usher visitors into the Winter Olympics. The McKinsey executive overseeing the upgrades predicted that Russia would soon “leapfrog the West” in customer service.

Apparently, the rivalry hasn’t been forgotten on their side, either. Since fighter jets and aircraft carriers didn’t beat communism, but capitalism did, it seems appropriate that the venue of competition has migrated from the military to the marketplace.

But is American customer service something other countries should aspire to? The weaponry is fugly, and the arms race has escalated over time.

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The Customer Service Museum

1. The Toll-free Number

This is old school. A standing invitation. It’s how a company used to say, “Call us anytime, on our dime!”

2. The Voice Menu

Originally designed to funnel people into digital FAQs, voice menus are the labyrinth through which we must twist to reach an actual human being, a “representative.” You know you’ve said that word aloud before they ask for it, hoping to bypass a list of choices or two.

3. Hold Music

Research must have once shown that soothing music could reduce a caller’s heart rate. Why else would they use it, unless they thought it worked? Unless they know it doesn’t, but secretly laugh that we have no choice.

Does it work? Maybe. At first. But you inevitably reach the end of the recorded loop and hear it start again. Your rage grows with each cycle, making you into whatever the opposite would be of a Tibetan prayer wheel.

Every time I hear “Your call is important to us,” it seems less true.

4. GIF lists

The utility of sharing these escapes me, but the frequency is undeniable. Various Apple friends have forwarded me that viral list of Things You’ll Only Understand If You’ve Worked In Retail at least a dozen times. Is that cathartic? Is it a cry for help? It feels like a propaganda pamphlet.

5. Yelp!

It’s become a convenient and common practice to scope out a business’s reputation online to see how it measures up to the local competition. Here’s where crowd sourcing can really shine. Yet, here be trolls.

Have you noticed that no matter how well a restaurant or business is rated, there is almost always one aggrieved customer, typing in all caps, who hopes to refute the overwhelmingly positive reviews? That person who got singularly bad customer service was most likely a singularly bad customer.

If you really wanted to invisibly yet credibly tank a review score, you can’t have one whack job rate them a zero. Instead you’d want a team of reviewers all providing ratings in a low to mid range. That would look real. Hence, the noble ideal of public peer reviews gets sabotaged by what is known as…

6. Astroturfing

Sleazy companies hire professionals to gin-up grass roots movements. They hire a PR firm, which in turn hires volunteers to flood online forums, slamming the competition or praising products as though self-motivated. The practice is illegal. Samsung has been caught red-handed and fined three times, so this is clearly standard practice in their playbook.

7. Persona Management Software

As if it weren’t sinister enough that companies fake public sentiment, there is now persona management software that allows a handful of users to run multiple fake online identities. This tactic has been applied to anti-terrorist propaganda, as well as by climate change deniers and Republicans blocking voter access in Florida.

Corporate-sponsored hacker ghosts? You’re damn right I long for an enemy I could just punch or shoot. The kind that are deadly, but sort of lovably bumbling, like Stormtroopers. Or zombies.

But weren’t sports invented to sublimate our desire for war? Isn’t that the spirit of the Olympics? We essentially get to battle, but no one gets (too badly) hurt? That brings us back to Sochi. Why are we bringing back overtones of war, which has (thankfully?) morphed into economic competition, into our celebration of sports? Sports which economics allowed us to play instead of waging actual war in the first place?

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Every American will tell you that they love good customer service.

This is what a gracious, imperial people are supposed to say. How royal of us to appreciate good help! How upstairs!

What most Americans actually mean when they say that is they will fucking lose their minds if they think they’re getting bad customer service.

An un-showered, three-hundred-pound customer had a nervous breakdown at our Genius Bar. She wanted to sue Apple for ruining her life. How could we help her? What it came down to was that she had lost her job, but felt she couldn’t secure a new one without creating a résumé. She claimed to have been working on a new résumé for ten months, but now couldn’t print it. She therefore blamed Apple for her current and any subsequent unemployment. This poor woman clearly needed counseling, both professional and psychological. And also a Kinko’s.

Sadly, she only had us, a mildly glorified customer service desk, to turn to in her life.

Are the Russians ready for that? Do they realize the art of acting friendly on behalf of a corporation invites anyone and everyone who actually needs a friend to unload their baggage? It’s a make or break moment for a customer service professional. Step out of the role and into your human self and see that this person needs real help.

Americans worship rugged individualism, which is why they resent asking for help. Americans also hate class distinctions, which is why they bristle at being paid to help. Awkward!

That lady experienced what I think Americans are still grappling with, that our status in the world has tumbled. What would happen if our nation had to cater to other countries? If we all had to learn another language or two? Or compete in the global service economy? What will happen when we aren’t the fattest cats?

News flash, Olympic viewers, it’s been happening already.

And that’s scary. Scary like, let’s run back screaming to the 1980’s, which seem so much rosier in retrospect. Let’s prepare for fake threats like say, zombies. Thanks, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones! Pop culture, take me away!

The gold medal for irony goes to NBC for airing trailers for the Captain America sequel. This movie, sandwiched between Olympic events, has the greatest branding synchronicity ever! First, you get even more Stars and Stripes on tights! Second, the bad guy’s name, pulled right from the comic books, is uber-conveniently, The Winter Soldier. Just like the American Olympians, blue-eyed Steve Rogers is presented simultaneously as both invincible and yet somehow the underdog. And talk about nostalgia? Double down! This is a World War II superhero, a throwback to 1944, waking up in 2014 to face a Russian cyborg, which is essentially a throwback to 1984!

Captain America II is actually a reboot of Rocky IV, being teased during Sochi, which is NBC’s reboot of Top Gun, which we eat up, praying America doesn’t re-enact World War Z.

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Come Together

A good friend of mine works as civil servant. Servicing the product of government is way harder than servicing iPhones. He fielded thousands of constituent calls for a city commissioner for twelve years. The best ones were “undoubtedly from WWII vets.”

“They had a very different tone from the very beginning. As soon as they could, they asked me about me. They wanted to know my story, and they wanted to lodge their complaint (very few people call to praise) in a context that first established who each of us were as people. They were not going to start grousing until we had some appreciation for each other.”

“I think you could describe this from any number of vantage points, but the overwhelming feeling I got from these conversations was that we are all in this together, and, communicated to me with a calm assurance, that we will figure it out.”

Whether you work in customer service, seek it, or dread it, that generation’s hard-won grace should inspire us. Even if you think the Russian judge lowballed you.

It’s okay to look back wistfully; we all had some good times. We just can’t let it stop us from moving forward together. The ice is thin.