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Swept away by service culture

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Scott Jagow: It’s easy to complain about customer service, when you’re the customer. But what if you’re the service — that person behind the counter?

Journalist Alex Frankel spent years writing about business culture. But he wanted to know what it was like to be inside the companies he was covering. So he took a two-year hiatus and got jobs on the front lines — at Starbucks, Gap, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, UPS and an Apple store. He lived to write a book about it.

Of all the places he worked, Alex says his favorite was UPS. Alex, why was that?

Alex Frankel: I really had no idea as a customer what it was like, you know, in the truck. So once I put on the brown uniform, I felt the transformation of myself as I was joining that company, their culture, becoming part of them. I felt, all day, that we were doing something worthwhile — we were on the move and had a lot of packages to get out to different households. But in each case, when you rang somebody’s doorbell and were met by them, you felt a real connection with the customer.

Jagow: I found it interesting that you applied for several jobs and you didn’t get hired. What happened there?

Frankel: A lot of the best companies out there do a really good job of screening people they hire. Computer screening tools are more and more in vogue, so that means as the applicant, you’re going to sit down in front of your home computer and answer up to 200 questions. In the case of Whole Foods, when I applied, through these questions which are looking a lot at your personality, the company can determine ahead of time whether you will be a good match. And in my case, they were able to determine that I wasn’t going to be a good match, and so in a few cases, never even got an interview.

Jagow: Did it surprise you? I mean, did you think, well this is gonna be easy, I’ll get all these jobs.

Frankel: Well, I went into these online testing, screening tools with the thought that hey, I can game the system, I can figure out what the right answer is. But they are written by industrial psychologists who know how to test for what they call “favorable self-presentation.” So if I’m gonna answer in a way that I think they want, they know that I’m doing too good a job, I’m too perfect of a candidate.

Jagow: Is there a story that comes to mind that might exemplify your overall feeling about your experience?

Frankel: Yeah. Starbucks was a place where I started, and I was not subscribed to the company or the culture at all. But a few weeks into my time at Starbucks, I found myself working on a really busy day, when we were understaffed. I never once stopped during that day to think, “Hey, I don’t really work here, I don’t have to keep working as hard.” All I could think of was meeting the needs of the customer. And it wasn’t until I left that afternoon that I thought geez, I just got completely sucked into this place, and was doing everything that they would want me to do.

Jagow: So you want to do it again? You want to go back out there?

Frankel: I think I’ve learned, you know, there were certainly a few places I would have liked to be hired . . . have been hired, like Whole Foods, but I think I’ve gotten enough data.

Jagow: All right. Alex Frankel, the author of “Punching in.” Thanks for being here.

Frankel: Hey, thanks for having me.

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