Angus Taylor, Federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, recently declared that Australia is the most customer-driven country in the world.
A buzzword in the lexicon of contemporary managerialism, ‘customer obsession’ is consistent with our era’s cultural setting of hyper-consumerism and expressive individualism. Amazon’s corporate Vision ‘is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.’ You are always one purchase away from happiness in a capitalist economy of desire.
Writer Jenny Erpenbeck was twenty-two and living in the GDR when the Berlin Wall came down. Among the freedoms that reunification was said to bring was the freedom to shop. But, she asks in her essay collection Not a Novel, what happens when we’re finished shopping? Her question simply might not occur to those of us who live in a 24/7 digital consumer economy. Haunted by our purchasing behaviour, we are trapped in an algorithmic feedback loop which keeps offering us more stuff we don’t need but might want. Erpenbeck recognised that the freedom to shop, along with other liberties, came at a high price: the price of her entire life as she had lived and imagined it, up to that point.
Enmeshed in a continual process of self-actualisation, we never finish shopping—or working harder and longer to pay for it all. And if you can’t pay, ‘consumer-centric’, ‘lifestyle enabler’ Afterpay facilitates instant gratification of our desires.
Customer obsession has consequences for workers who must serve the vision. Companies like Amazon extract maximum productivity from casualised, insecure, poorly paid workers who are exhorted to ‘Work hard, have fun, make history.’ Amazon’s Leadership Principles include Frugality: ‘Accomplish more with less. There are no extra points for growing headcount.’ An insecure worker under constant technological surveillance is an obedient worker. Customer obsession translates into worker immiseration.
Online shopping keeps workers out of the sight and minds of consumers, insulating and distancing us from the social, economic and environmental costs and consequences of our consumption habits. The very logic of de-sited, micro-targeted consumer technology is to separate the purchaser from the material reality of the anonymous workers who fulfil our online orders. Since production of the goods we buy has largely moved from the deindustrialised West to Asia, these workers have become even more anonymous. They do not exist in the consciousness of online shoppers.
Screening the customer from the material reality of workers who are more than likely far away, the digital shopping realm is depoliticising, disarticulating group consciousness. Antithetical to the formation of a social consciousness that pays attention to the conditions of those who labour to satisfy our orders and who bear the consequences of customer obsession, it is all about individual choice and personal satisfaction. The frictionless digital sphere of consumption renders invisible the material realm of production and distribution, and its human and environmental consequences. Speed is the essence of online shopping; instant gratification militates against reflection on the costs of our unsustainable consumer habits.
Consumer technology acts as a pacifier, monopolising desire and turning us into dutiful agents of hyper-consumption removed from the communal political realm.
It took a decade of research for KPMG to come up with its Six Pillars of customer experience excellence. KPMG’s nuggets of wisdom include ‘Integrity’ (who knew?), ‘Time and Effort’ (in an accelerated economy of desire, time-poor customers want instant gratification) and ‘Empathy ♥’ (driving ‘deep rapport,’ showing customers that you care. ‘Corporate kindness is fundamental to how a company operates.’). If the care quotient of your workers is below par, KPMG can train them to operationalise empathy.
Global businesses like to project onto their activities a rhetoric of customer care and a kind of spiritualised meaningfulness. As philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han observed in his book Psychopolitics: neoliberalism and new technologies of power, consumer capitalism enlists emotions for its own ends, exploiting them to improve profitability.
Caring capitalism operates through the selling of meaning and emotions, inviting us to change the world through commodity consumption. ‘Starbucks’ mission is to inspire and nurture the human spirit, to uplift the lives of our customers.’ Drinking a coffee from Starbucks is spiritually uplifting because you are buying from a company that cares. So, too, is quenching your thirst with Starbucks’ Ethos™ Water (0 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 0 g carbs) because five cents per bottle sold ‘supports humanitarian programs providing clean, safe water to those in need.’ That is the essence of caring capitalism: selling an environmentally harmful product to consumers who swallow the bollocks along with their bottled water.
Caring capitalism is not only a fetish of big corporations—it has infiltrated businesses of all sizes in the guise of seeking customer feedback. Auditing your level of satisfaction creates the illusion that the business cares about you. Every transaction is followed by a text or email asking for feedback. ‘How likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague? We’d love to hear what you think!’ Our haranguing technologies ask us how satisfied we were with our new towels, our Uber driver, our COVID jab. Automated feedback processes isolate the customer’s response from its consequences for workers. We never know what happens after we click Send—except that our personal information will be mined and monetised to facilitate hyper-personalised advertising to sell us more stuff.
As Han observes in his book In the Swarm: Digital Prospects:
The narrative dimension is losing meaning on a massive scale. Today, everything is rendered countable so that it can be transformed into the language of performance and efficiency. As such, whatever resists being counted ceases to be.
The crude logic of Big Data only allows for what is additive. A utilitarian auditing culture means that what can’t be measured or counted doesn’t count.
Couched in the hollow language of customer care, consumer surveys are just one aspect of the all-pervasive feedback systems and practices that flourish in the digital realm and are embedded into the fabric of our everyday lives. Ultimately, their semblance of care for the customer benefits the corporate bottom line while diverting attention from the interests and welfare of workers.
Image by Tham Yuan Yuan