Andrew Sturdy (1998) wrote of the “’Consumer Society’…whereby we are all seen as sovereign customers – ‘patients, parents, passengers and pupils are reimagined as ‘customers.’” (du Gay and Salaman, 1992, cited by Sturdy, 1998:27). This in turn, he argues, prompts employers to develop “customer orientated” services to compete within this construct, and as such, there are consequences for the employees whose performance of emotional labour (or soft skills) is required to match the marketing. As such, even "Servers cast the power imbalance as a master-slave relationship” (Hall, 1993:462).
This seed of expectation goes some way to explain potential problems between managers and their customer facing staff, as well as between customers and the professional serving them.
In the case of the former, if a manager is so focused on the belief that they are there solely for the pleasure of the customer, demands can be made on their staff that may border - or cross - the fine line between professional soft skills, and personal intrusion. Especially if the expectation they are trying to meet is outdated.
The debate over whether a woman should wear high heels in the workplace because it "looked nice" is a case in point. While there were arguments on both sides:
- It's a uniform, get over it
- It's an outdated sexist expectation (and potentially medically damaging)
currently still comes down to a matter of personal choice.
With regards to the arguments supporting the prerogative of the management to set the rules came the point that "If you were an actor and had to wear a certain thing for the role, it would need to be up to you to take the role and wear it, or refuse the role".
But this is also tied up in the second point in that while it is very true - the argument only holds up if similar uniform demands were in place for men, AND, if this was truly necessary for the performance of the job as far as the customer or client was concerned.
Sometimes soft skills demands need to be examined below the surface - and not just "why is that rule in place?", but also "What expectation are we trying to meet?"
But there are also some organisations who - often because they are driven by competition and desperation - sacrifice their staff in favour of the customer.
At these times, staff need to assert their worth. (Of course this is not easy, especially in a world where a job is a job and money pays the bills.)
It may be worth managers remembering however, that with very few exceptions, the "customer is king" approach is not necessarily true. More recent research suggests that customers prefer their "specific needs being acknowledged and addressed." (Tang, 2012). Not only that but "going the extra mile"is appreciated and not expected. (Tang 2012). ...and very few customers themselves have an outdated expectations of old fashioned sterotypes.
Organisations have the responsiblity of managing the expectations of their clientel. And it is therefore important for them to consider the implications of what they are offering, on the staff they are expecting to present it.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt