My Supermarket, My Friend

Is that forced Safeway smile a customer service, or an annoying attempt to control?

Even utilities are getting cozy with customers. One of the players in California's recently deregulated electricity market goes by the name of Friendly Power and Gas. "Know Who Your Friends Are" advises the company slogan. And what makes Friendly Power and Gas so darned friendly?

"We've developed a customer service department with fully scripted personnel," says Alec Messeroff, Friendly's chief financial officer.

Corporate America's latest message to consumers is: "We don't just want your business. We want a relationship with you." In truth, companies really just want your business, the way they always have. But they're willing to offer a "fully scripted" ersatz relationship, in the hope that you don't notice how it differs from genuine human contact.

Company-mandated friendliness doesn't make most customers feel more appreciated; if they're paying attention at all, it makes them uncomfortable to see what's being done in their name. A mandatory smile cheapens the real thing and turns courtesy into just another commodity to be stacked on the shelves. Forced friendliness does nothing to boost employee morale; most self- respecting workers wind up resenting company rules meant to govern basic human interaction. About the only people who benefit from the program are company executives, who gain more control over employees, while getting to pass it off as an added service to customers. And unlike lowering prices or raising wages -- moves that would make customers and employees break out in genuine smiles -- the customer service program doesn't cost the company a dime.

Safeway, along with an army of imitators, is quickly adopting the creepy "smile or else" corporate culture that has some employees of Disney referring to their place of work as "Mouseschwitz." The jackboot of friendliness is coming down at a store near you, and the beleaguered troops are all wearing yellow smiley face armbands.

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