When Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle came out in 2013, Kate Losse accused Eggers of plagiarism. The Circle’s main character is a woman named Mae who starts working in “customer experience” at the titular social network, a job that’s depicted as a near-endless loop of questions from the site’s users, responding to those questions, following up with customer satisfaction surveys, and responding to those surveys to maintain a high score among customers.
Losse said Eggers took both inspiration and familiar anecdotes from her memoir, The Boy Kings, which is about her time working in customer service as Facebook’s employee #51 (before she became Mark Zuckerberg’s personal writer). In her memoir, Losse details not just the sexism she faced in the office and the vitriol she received from angry or mean-spirited users, but also the lack of respect for her position itself, exemplified by her low pay and the fact that only engineers would get certain benefits — such as bussing from their homes and back — that were not offered to other employees until they protested.
Three years later, these types of issues are ongoing; the world at large got a good look at the sorry state of customer service work when Yelp employee Talia Jane took to Medium in February to air her grievances in an open letter. Her complaints included an expensive daily commute into the company’s San Francisco offices, a lack of training and pay so low, at $8.15 per hour after taxes, that Jane stopped using heat at night to cut back on expenses:
Have you ever slept fully clothed under several blankets just so you don’t get a cold and have to miss work? Have you ever drank a liter of water before going to bed so you could fall asleep without waking up a few hours later with stomach pains because the last time you ate was at work? I woke up today with stomach pains. I made myself a bowl of rice.
In response,Yelp fired Jane the day she posted the letter (it also ended up raising her former co-workers’ wages this April, from $12.25 to $14 per hour), but the letter went viral, receiving more than 1,000 comments on the piece and responses all over the internet, many from people who shared her pain. “I definitely felt like the customer service team was treated like second-class citizens compared to engineering and even marketing,” says Penelope,* a friend of mine who worked at both Yelp and another Yelp-like service (the latter in customer service).
In both jobs, Penelope faced low pay and forced overtime, including working 10-hour split shifts and on weekends. Eventually she realized that “there’s not necessarily hope to move up and out of customer experience.” Penelope quit more than a year ago, but says most of her former co-workers are still there. “These are insanely bright women that went to great colleges, but it seems like there’s nowhere else for these people to go in the startup world when they are one to three years out of college and lack the experience to go into other roles.”
Of course, that’s exactly the opposite of how tech companies have typically advertised these jobs: as a way to break into the startup world for people who are not programmers or engineers, and especially for young people and women (who make up the majority of customer service workers in the United States). As career site The Muse explains:
Working in support is a great way to gain exposure to tech, especially if you’re a recent graduate. Support reps respond to users, help explain how to use the product, deal with policy issues (like Terms of Service violations), and decide how to handle feedback. Because they’re often the most in-touch with user happiness and issues, support staffers play a critical role in improving a company’s product.
But companies are making it harder for low-level employees to move on to a different role within the same organization. In an article for Backchannel, writer Lauren Smiley describes how customer service reps at Lyft were placed on a different floor from the rest of the company, which made it harder for these workers — most of whom had graduate degrees — to network with other departments as part of the necessary “scheming” involved in getting out of support. Last September, the dream of switching departments became a near-impossibility when Lyft’s support team was relocated to Tennessee. In making this move, Lyft joined startups such as Weebly and Yelp in pushing their customer service reps — and only their customer service reps — to cheaper, inland states like Arizona, away from the rest of the company.
The move fits with the standard treatment of customer service workers — and the emotional labor they trade in — as essentially invisible. Being “in touch with user happiness” means customer service reps are the first line of contact for people who want to vent their anger about a product’s bugs. Their job is to put on a smile and keep being nice. Sylvia* found this out while working at a social media app, which she describes as “not exactly a life-or-death tool, but people were SO angry when their little toy didn’t work exactly as they wanted it to.” When she would report the app’s bugs and problems to engineers, they would simply blow her off, confident that their work was less fallible than customer feedback suggested.
“They would wait until I had hundreds of complaints that were identical to even consider that they had made an error, and I was left to assuage the concerns of the customers,” Sylvia remembers. “That I was expected to just brush off their vitriol made me feel really ignored.”
Another issue is the lack of training for most customer service jobs — either for the positions themselves or for something more stimulating within the company. “It takes too much effort for companies to train a bright customer experience employee to do marketing or something else,” says Penelope. “So they’d rather hire someone with that skill set already.”
But when customer service reps are trained for the job they already have, the role can offer opportunities for growth. Consider Will Scholl, who’s been promoted twice since starting at Foursquare less than two years ago — from product support intern to his current title, service support team lead. “Lots of changes in our products were a direct result of user-listening,” says Scholl, including projects he now monitors. “The support team’s connection with other departments helps ensure the product takes shape based on what we hear from our users” — by passing that feedback along to the appropriate departments.
Others in customer service genuinely like the job’s fundamental role of “helping people,” notes Michelle Earhart, a support specialist for the project management tool Trello. “When a customer reaches out to a support team, you and the customer are on the same side — you both want that customer to succeed, whether that means they get things done more efficiently, or you help solve an issue they were running into,” she says via email. This is in sharp contrast to Backchannel’s description of customer service jobs as “burnout positions with some of the highest churn rates at startups,” which, of course, varies from company to company.
What set Earhart’s role apart seems to be that other teams actively listen to her department’s feedback. “It depends on the department — with some teams that we interact with pretty frequently, we have regular meetings, and with some of the other teams, we have a point of contact we can go to,” she says. While she is the only one working from the main Trello office — the rest of her team is remote — Earhart says the team’s communication over chat and video help them feel less disconnected.
Still, Earhart’s experience seems like the outlier, and for Sylvia, being ignored and disrespected was only the tip of the iceberg. “The app was popular in Russia, Japan, and South America so I would have to use Google Translate to (very imperfectly) figure out their issue, write a response in English, then translate it into the language of the user. There were hundreds of emails a day, often with very detailed questions and issues that we didn’t have a canned response for,” she says. “I was expected to spend at least a few hours of the weekend answering questions otherwise I’d be totally swamped on Monday and customers were increasingly angry. It was also more common for them to be using the app on weekends so it never ended up being just a few hours.”
Sylvia’s company went beyond the promises of other startups that a customer service job would lead to a better role elsewhere in the company. “Customer service was only supposed to be half of my job. The other half was supposed to be content strategy, marketing, and writing, but once I got to the customer service portal and actually started delivering decent customer service, I realized that it was more than a full-time job to do that alone.”
But even after Sylvia left the job, the company did nothing to learn from its hiring mistakes.
“The hiring manager really seemed to think that this was a cool job and wanted someone ‘cool’ to be hired for it,” she says. “This was so at odds with the reality of the job and something I’d expressed repeatedly: that this was a job that should be done remotely by a skilled customer service representative, not some hip young person wanting a startup experience.”
Either way, her successor is likely to be in for some surprises.
Sulagna Misra is a freelance writer who has contributed to Vanity Fair, The Toast, Vulture, The Hairpin, The Billfold, Vice: MOTHERBOARD, and Teen Vogue.