Benoit Duteurtre’s satiric novella, Customer Service, is a kind of modern quest narrative pitting a rational man against an omnipresent, almost Kafka-esque corporation too soulless to provide any genuine help to its customers when things go wrong.
The novella opens with the hapless narrator leaving his cell phone in a taxi. In his mind, this is an easy enough problem to solve—all he has to do is get a replacement phone and he’ll be on his way. For anyone who’s ever dealt with a cell phone company (i.e., everyone), it’s never that simple. As the narrator finds our, the new phone will cost four times as much as the original, and without his SIM card, he won’t be able to keep his phone number, and besides, his account doesn’t allow for a replacement phone—he’ll have to open a new account and pay for both until the original contract expires.
Refusing to give in to this insanity, he decides upon another approach—getting in touch with Leslie Delmare, Director of Customer Service, who had sent him a letter granting him “preferred customer” status, which must count for something, right?
Once I’d arrived at this third level in the pyramid, however, I understood that I couldn’t climb any higher: The middle manager tried to dodge my request; then, seeing that I wouldn’t give up, explained to me in a patient voice that Leslie Delmare, in charge of customer service, didn’t exist. It was just a name invented for the signature. The only person who could take care of my problem was imaginary. This woman’s words threw me back, mind ricocheting, to all those powerless operators who couldn’t make the slightest decision but were forced just to repeat the phrases they’d been taught.
Of course, this is just the first of our narrator’s modern difficulties. Following the cellphone debacle, he can’t withdraw money from his bank account while overseas, his computer insists on a mysterious password, and he receives a bill for unordered high-speed Internet service. And behind many of these travails is Leslie Delmare, who plays a key role in the conclusion of the narrator’s quest for justice. (Without giving anything away, things get a bit surreal toward the end, and depending on how you look at it, don’t end very well.)
Complaints about the pervasive insanity of today’s “customer service” departments—and jokes about these complaints—are nothing new. We’ve all seen Seinfeld, we’ve all gotten pissed off trying to explain something quite logical and reasonable to an employee who just doesn’t get it. We’re all baffled by charges on our phone bills.
A familiarity with the general content of Customer Service cuts both ways: it makes the novel feel old and a bit stale at the same time that it makes us identify and sympathize with the protagonist. We all hate the ridiculous nature of labyrinthine phone-trees and the idea taking a number to wait in line to hear that there’s “nothing that can be done.”
The thing that sets Customer Service apart from a typical water cooler rant is the not-so-subtle critique of our economic system that not only allows, but encourages baroque agreements and unhelpful, outsourced customer service employees.
Tainted as my brain was by these financial concerns, I saw right through this Machiavellian scheme. On the one hand, these companies lure the public with cut-rate prices, enticing offers, publicity brochures, rock-bottom fees, and months of free service (on a poster I’d even seen the offer of a cell phone for the price of a hamburger). On the other hand, once the consumer signs up, he must obey draconian rules and pay penalties if he commits the slightest infraction. Tied down by a year-long contract at minimum, he becomes a tool of the company, whose after-sale service is reduced to almost nothing, in order to ensure a high return. For the most minor complaint, the wait time is infinite and the billing for that waiting period itself contributes to increased profit. A naive person would have called it “not enough employees.” But the real mechanism is more cynical: waiting time had been transformed into an economic agent and source of profits.
In a way, the recent financial collapse—and the almost unfathomable greed that precipitated it—helps make this novella more relevant than ever. Duteurtre’s Marxist criticisms of the way the contemporary marketplace commodifies every possible thing, while eliminating as many employees (and thus costs) as possible at the expense of producing quality goods and services, are helpful reminders of what’s wrong with our world.
When I was a child, my father once told us about a friend of his, an executive in a large American company. Though still young, this man was already worn out, in bad physical and mental health, because each year he had to guarantee profits that were higher than those of the previous year. This bizarre rule generated an atmosphere of tension, leading inevitably to depression—far different from my father’s respectable position, which required him only to do his work and ensure the smooth functioning of a public institution. This story seemed strange and harsh to us, almost barbarous, like the description of a ruinous mental illness.
At times these bits can be a bit over-the-top, and the humor isn’t as fresh as it might have been when the book was first published in France (2003), but Customer Service is an entertaining book and yet another example of the great work Melville House is doing in their Art of the Contemporary Novella series. And if you like this book, Melville House also published Duteurtre’s The Little Girl and the Cigarette, which has, if nothing else, a fantastic “title-less” cover.