Counter Offensive


I never thought I'd have anything in common with Russell Crowe, but I think I do and, sadly, it has nothing to do with my ability to conjure richly drawn characters with various perfectly executed accents. No, what the two of us allegedly share is something shameful, something ugly, but something increasingly common.

I have Customer Service Rage.

To be more precise, I'm in recovery from CSR. Having let go of my fury and replaced it with understanding, I have great empathy for those who still suffer.

It's easy to chide Crowe, who could face a jail term if convicted of assaulting a hotel clerk. If you missed the story, the actor had a faulty phone in his room at the Mercer Hotel in SoHo and had a heated exchange with the front desk clerk. Crowe allegedly registered his disapproval by hurling the telephone. It hit the clerk, who was taken to a hospital and treated for a cut on his cheek. Crowe says he wasn't aiming to reach out and assault someone; he was just frustrated.

The actor wasn't asking the clerk to sort his Skittles by color or configure his caviar in the shape of an R; he just wanted basic phone service. In short, he expected things to be fair, and that can be dangerous.

"Service people are wonderful; they work their tails off," explains Jerry Deffenbacher, a professor of psychology at Colorado State University who specializes in anger management. "The problem is when we have unrealistic expectations that everything be fast and efficient. That's what takes frustration and turns it into anger or even rage."

Crowe may represent an extreme strain of the disorder, but I ask you to look inside and ask yourself if you've ever suffered from Customer Service Rage.

Even that goddess of goodwill Oprah Winfrey may not be immune. It's been widely reported that Oprah when refused entry into the Paris Hermes store after it closed for the night was incensed at how she was treated by store personnel. None of us knows what went down that night, but I do know this: We haven't heard the last of it. Despite copious apologies from many in the French retail community, Oprah's representatives say she plans to "discuss" the incident when her show returns from hiatus.

A war is raging... quietly, and with mellow hold music. Customers are getting angry, and some are even taking up arms, or phones, or microphones.

It's my belief that CSR is cumulative, born out of hours on hold and in line, helpless to get help from banks, stores, utility companies, medical offices, Internet service providers, tech support lines, government agencies, airlines and the colossally impersonal mega-corporations that now employ many of our service reps.

"Perhaps more than ever in history, we rely on a great number of people for a variety of services," Deffenbacher says. He adds that anger is compounded if triggering events "are placed close together in time."

If you are suffering from even a mild case of CSR, the following phrases will cause discomfort: "Sorry, but you're not in the computer"; "I can pass you to my supervisor, but she'll tell you the same thing"; "you'll need to fax that request"; "you can't have my last name, but I'm the only 'Bob' at the call center"; "that's not our return policy"; "I'm putting you on hold." Think I'm exaggerating Customer Service Rage? Take a field trip to your pharmacy, a hotbed of the disease. I haven't picked up a prescription in years without witnessing at least one meltdown at the counter. The imbroglios generally involve an elderly woman whose prescription is lost or a mom who is furious that her kid got a tube of antifungal ointment instead of rash cream.

I don't place blame. We're all on the same side. Pharmacists are people too. They also have to deal with the DMV and endless, winding phone service menus and cavalier airline reservationists.

Finding a cure

The only road to peace is to realize that you and the customer service rep are one.

Stay with me. You must humanize yourself to this disembodied voice or perfect stranger so that you aren't another annoying, angry person demanding attention. I always introduce myself with a voice so cheerful it makes Oprah's theme song sound like a dirge. Over the phone, I begin by asking, "What's the weather like where you are?" Sounds hack, but it works. You have made a human connection and miracles follow, such as locating your reimbursement check or getting the cable guy to show up during his 19-hour window.

Maybe Oprah will have a better idea. Russell Crowe sure didn't have the 411.