Bermuda revisited? power and powerlessness in the worker-manager-customer triangle

S.C. Bolton, M. Houlihan

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper

    Abstract

    The growth of service work has introduced the customer as a third, and in many accounts, powerful, party to conceptions of the employment relationship (du Gay and Salaman, 1992; Leidner, 1993). There is however a need for theoretical and empirical development to produce more complex understandings of worker-customer (and, we argue, manager) power relations within the sociology of customer service work (Korczynski, 2009). In previous papers, we have questioned the reality of customer power as represented in services literatures. However, in our emphasis on the relationship between customer and service provider, we, as many others, are guilty of marginalising the role of the manager – who, it would seem – has moved to third place in the employment relationship. When references are made to managers, they appear ghost-like in the customer service machine – an objectively rational figure representing control via technologically driven labour processes, customer feedback and performance targets, or abstractly representing commitment as a cheer leader and coach. The customer service manager has not only to stand at the cross-roads with employees and senior managers but customers too. Yet, in the cost led environment of disconnected capitalism (Thompson, 2003) where decisions about stock levels, pricing, quality of products, and the needs of the customer are made ‘elsewhere’, how much power does the manager have to mediate the flow of potentially competing demands? It seems to us that the customer service manager, and more particularly, their power and agency, is disappearing from view in the Bermuda triangle of customer service

    In this paper, we seek to address the labour process of this ‘distant management figure’ (Korczynski, 2009), what they do, and how they cope. Using Kanter’s (1979) notion of spirals of power and powerlessness we argue that the overt expectation that managers have the power to resolve customer dissatisfactions and address structural failings requires unpacking. Drawing on data collected from call-centre workers and their managers, we explore the lived experience of powerlessness among customer service managers and in turn, the consequences for the staff they manage and the customers they serve. We depict occasions of management smoothing, engaging, and disengaging that conjure up an understanding of disappearing power within the customer-management-employee triangle.

    Conference

    ConferenceInternatioal Labour Process Conference
    CityRutgers University, New Jersey, USA
    Period1/03/10 → …

    Fingerprint

    Workers
    Managers
    Customer service
    Employees
    Service work
    Labour process
    Conception
    Capitalism
    Customer management
    Sociology
    Pricing
    Power relations
    Senior managers
    Customer relationship
    Coach
    Costs
    Staff
    Customer dissatisfaction
    Call centres
    Service provider

    Keywords

    • service work
    • customer-management-employee triangle

    Cite this

    Bolton, S. C., & Houlihan, M. (2010). Bermuda revisited? power and powerlessness in the worker-manager-customer triangle. Paper presented at Internatioal Labour Process Conference, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, .
    Bolton, S.C. ; Houlihan, M. / Bermuda revisited? power and powerlessness in the worker-manager-customer triangle. Paper presented at Internatioal Labour Process Conference, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, .
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    abstract = "The growth of service work has introduced the customer as a third, and in many accounts, powerful, party to conceptions of the employment relationship (du Gay and Salaman, 1992; Leidner, 1993). There is however a need for theoretical and empirical development to produce more complex understandings of worker-customer (and, we argue, manager) power relations within the sociology of customer service work (Korczynski, 2009). In previous papers, we have questioned the reality of customer power as represented in services literatures. However, in our emphasis on the relationship between customer and service provider, we, as many others, are guilty of marginalising the role of the manager – who, it would seem – has moved to third place in the employment relationship. When references are made to managers, they appear ghost-like in the customer service machine – an objectively rational figure representing control via technologically driven labour processes, customer feedback and performance targets, or abstractly representing commitment as a cheer leader and coach. The customer service manager has not only to stand at the cross-roads with employees and senior managers but customers too. Yet, in the cost led environment of disconnected capitalism (Thompson, 2003) where decisions about stock levels, pricing, quality of products, and the needs of the customer are made ‘elsewhere’, how much power does the manager have to mediate the flow of potentially competing demands? It seems to us that the customer service manager, and more particularly, their power and agency, is disappearing from view in the Bermuda triangle of customer service In this paper, we seek to address the labour process of this ‘distant management figure’ (Korczynski, 2009), what they do, and how they cope. Using Kanter’s (1979) notion of spirals of power and powerlessness we argue that the overt expectation that managers have the power to resolve customer dissatisfactions and address structural failings requires unpacking. Drawing on data collected from call-centre workers and their managers, we explore the lived experience of powerlessness among customer service managers and in turn, the consequences for the staff they manage and the customers they serve. We depict occasions of management smoothing, engaging, and disengaging that conjure up an understanding of disappearing power within the customer-management-employee triangle.",
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    Bolton, SC & Houlihan, M 2010, 'Bermuda revisited? power and powerlessness in the worker-manager-customer triangle' Paper presented at Internatioal Labour Process Conference, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, 1/03/10, .

    Bermuda revisited? power and powerlessness in the worker-manager-customer triangle. / Bolton, S.C.; Houlihan, M.

    2010. Paper presented at Internatioal Labour Process Conference, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, .

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper

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    AU - Houlihan, M.

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    N2 - The growth of service work has introduced the customer as a third, and in many accounts, powerful, party to conceptions of the employment relationship (du Gay and Salaman, 1992; Leidner, 1993). There is however a need for theoretical and empirical development to produce more complex understandings of worker-customer (and, we argue, manager) power relations within the sociology of customer service work (Korczynski, 2009). In previous papers, we have questioned the reality of customer power as represented in services literatures. However, in our emphasis on the relationship between customer and service provider, we, as many others, are guilty of marginalising the role of the manager – who, it would seem – has moved to third place in the employment relationship. When references are made to managers, they appear ghost-like in the customer service machine – an objectively rational figure representing control via technologically driven labour processes, customer feedback and performance targets, or abstractly representing commitment as a cheer leader and coach. The customer service manager has not only to stand at the cross-roads with employees and senior managers but customers too. Yet, in the cost led environment of disconnected capitalism (Thompson, 2003) where decisions about stock levels, pricing, quality of products, and the needs of the customer are made ‘elsewhere’, how much power does the manager have to mediate the flow of potentially competing demands? It seems to us that the customer service manager, and more particularly, their power and agency, is disappearing from view in the Bermuda triangle of customer service In this paper, we seek to address the labour process of this ‘distant management figure’ (Korczynski, 2009), what they do, and how they cope. Using Kanter’s (1979) notion of spirals of power and powerlessness we argue that the overt expectation that managers have the power to resolve customer dissatisfactions and address structural failings requires unpacking. Drawing on data collected from call-centre workers and their managers, we explore the lived experience of powerlessness among customer service managers and in turn, the consequences for the staff they manage and the customers they serve. We depict occasions of management smoothing, engaging, and disengaging that conjure up an understanding of disappearing power within the customer-management-employee triangle.

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    Bolton SC, Houlihan M. Bermuda revisited? power and powerlessness in the worker-manager-customer triangle. 2010. Paper presented at Internatioal Labour Process Conference, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, .