I’m starting a corporate wall of shame to jot down the silliness experienced in various corporate venues that just keep on sucking out there without an adequate degree of ridicule in response. I’m doing it in honor of Borders – that’s right, the bookstore that used to have decent coffee.
When my coffee shop closes, if it’s late, and I still want to work, I’ve been going to Borders. It’s a good place to buy notebooks and drink some passable coffee (if you avoid the “cold brewed” concoction that often sits in a pitcher for days, which they water down in your glass because it’s concentrated). There are enough electrical outlets, and they’re open ’til 11.
There are often the usual annoyances – the bitchy, older small businessman broadcasting his toughness and independence (vestige of the John Wayne era) for all to hear: “I told her that if she was going to… and if he does that, I’ll tell him…”, the gaggle of reading group types making sure they set up right in the center, so we all can benefit from the sharing (and cackling), the single guy who discovered religion or politics just yesterday and is lecturing the tolerating girlfriend about it (pro or con) with the passion of a zealot and the conviction of a sage, or just mix and match – put the single guy on the phone, and give the older one the political megaphone, and make the gaggle a screaming child who says he’s in charge and the parent that let’s him make sure we all know it. Add in the weird musical selections over the PA – one evening some guy is singing a gospel “thank you, Jesus” and the next it’s a bluesy “I’m burning in Hell”. I kid you not, those were the two most recent times I went. But in some ways, it’s still tolerable with a good set of earplugs.
They’re serious about running you out at 11pm. That sucks, but I get it – it’s a labor cost thing. So why the wall of shame?
Seattle’s Best plays a big role. Borders used to have good coffee – coffee good enough to be missed. Even in Seattle, no one drinks Seattle’s Best. But it’s really the policies of the cafe that suck. Look in the forums for the guy that ordered no ice and they filled his glass half full, because that’s the same amount of liquid. Wow. It’s not every cafe, but it’s not none of them, either. Tonight I ordered an espresso, and it was $1.80. I asked if it had gone up, and they said they have to charge for a small drink. In the past, they could charge what they charge just for a shot (because that’s what I ordered). Not anymore – “it’s corporate”, the gal explains. That’s an interesting premise – file that away. So a double shot is $1.95, if that gives you an idea (is that a large drink?). But yep, it’s even decanted as a small drink – no espresso cup – they put it in a small drink cup, way down at the bottom. Imagine – an espresso that’ll take a lid. If it’s a small, hot drink, though, shouldn’t it work the same way as the guy w. the ice? Fill it up, or you owe me the rest. I didn’t make a point of this at the counter, but it only seems fair.
The real straw came when they killed the internet at a few minutes before 11:00. I had just written a lot of crucial material, and hitting save on my cloud document no longer worked. No warning – just bam, you’re screwed. When I asked a passing clerk about it, he said they shut down the internet automatically at 11:00. When I pointed out that it’s not 11:00 yet, he held his hands wide and said there’s nothing he can do about it. Wow again. If I had just been told that the most valuable objects possible in the world (ideas written down) – at least that valuable to someone – were hanging in limbo, and an evening’s work (how’s that for value?) was getting lost because someone decided to to set the wifi to trip off before closing time, I’d go back and flip the switch so the file could be saved. Yes, it’s that easy. But no, there’s nothing he can do. I’m getting that “it’s corporate” vibe, but he didn’t actually say it.
So I go to the manager on duty, and tell her I really can’t regard the place as a cool venue anymore. I tell her about the ice, the espresso, and the internet, and how it has made me reticent to consider them an acceptable place to return even with the notebooks, the coffee, and the many outlets. It’s that serious to me – I’m losing an evening’s work. Wow a third time: what ensues is a list of reasons why I’m wrong, and how much trouble it is that I am raising these concerns. She says everyone has a fill line on their cups – that’s just how every coffee shop does it – I just don’t understand how iced coffee drinks work, because (she tells me) Borders didn’t have iced coffee before Seattle’s Best. They did, actually, and it was excellent. I tell her I just came from a coffee shop, one of many I patronize, and they’re happy to omit ice on a cold drink. “That’s an independent coffee shop,” she says. “This is corporate”. Again that premise. The file on that notion is getting fat.
The internet she blames on the ISP – they “have no control over Verizon outages”. I tell her what the clerk says about the automatic cutoff, so she says she’ll go back and flip the wifi back on long enough for me to save my file (so it’s not Verizon, after all). But great – I might just change my mind about the place – that’s what I’m looking for – simple fix, and I’m out of their hair. But no, she can’t leave it at that. She launches into telling me that I should have come to her sooner. So I’m wrong again. Wrong about ice, wrong about the internet, wrong about not getting to her sooner (it’s now 11:01pm – I discovered the dead internet at 10:58 as I was saving the file to go home – I tell her this, she still says I should have come immediately). She explains they cut off the internet because some people like to try to stay until 11:15. Imagine, customers who like the place so much, they try to stay there. In fact, she tells me, they’re closed now, and they’re trying to leave, and this is posing a real burden on her. So, I can save my file, but I should acknowledge that the system really makes sense as it is, and be extremely grateful with my sip of coffee in an oversized cup and my work hanging in the balance as I tried to leave on time. In the end, I tell her the list of reasons why I’m inconveniencing her, don’t understand how things work, and am complaining in the wrong way, is growing really long. I’m thinking, at this point, I’ll drive home with the laptop open and hit save when I hit a signal.
I am indeed an inconvenience, she says – she’s trying to go home, and that I’m making her evening difficult. I think,actually, and I’m not trying to be bitchy, that this is what “it’s corporate” means – it means I am there for her convenience, not the other way around. I can rectify that, of course, as I see that what I really have to pay for my file is capitulation – I have to accept cubicle wisdom – things are what they are because they’re corporate and corporate is immune from correction – I tell her not to bother with flipping the wifi. I’m now trying to leave, but no – she still can’t let it go – she needs to believe – and she needs *me* to believe. She gets in a few parting shots that I won’t bore you with further with though to portray it accurately, you had to experience at least some tedium (besides, they’re just more things I’m doing wrong and should do better, more that I don’t grasp – it’s corporate, after all – inscrutable, I guess that means, more of how my complaining procedure is incorrect). At the door, I ask who were supervisor is, because I figure I’ll send him the link to this review (I didn’t – I try not to be personally vindictive), and she wonders why I’d want to trouble him with these things (I’m so much trouble) and finish up a Friday evening with a complaint. My evening isn’t finished, I assure her (for one thing, I’ve got work to go try and save – good thing I had that small drink… er… espresso). That’s it, isn’t it – “it’s corporate” means they think we all tuck ourselves in when they turn out the lights? Our lives are over for the day, because their business is closed. The file is getting creepier.
So, wall of shame. And not because I want to get limp revenge on Borders. And I certainly don’t want to get individual people there in trouble, which is why I’m not naming them, and not actually going to that manager – corporate stores like this don’t learn or create learning for others – they punish people when you complain, instead of making them better. Those complaints are too much of an inconvenience, after all. It’s really just futile unless you’re trying to hurt someone for whom this is all there is in the world of work (like kicking a cripple), or unless it’s really worth the price of admission to go that far to analyze and understand how people in that kind of work milieu think.
That’s the biggest shame – that these folks are trained to regard consumer unhappiness as burdensome, a thing to be refuted and argued against rather than repaired with thinking outside the nametag – the need to defend and prop up corporate-ish-ness and make sure the customer knows he’s wrong – that “corporate” simply can’t be wrong in the same way – it’s above the person – it’s a self-justifying mechanism – a thing is so, and is rightly so, because “it’s corporate” – “there’s nothing we can do”.
I might indeed be wrong, I might be. The guy w. the half full cup might be wrong. But how would they know? Are we wrong just because they want to do things a certain way and our asking for it to be different is an inconvenience? What’s troubling is that they’re right about the independent vs. corporate thing, which they all seem to have down, including the guy that says “there’s nothing I can do” (translation: I have no empowerment in my job – I exist in a world of absolutes that cannot be changed). The gal that explains the price gouge: “it’s corporate” (pricing isn’t about rationally sensible to you, it’s about what works for us). And their manager, finally: “that’s an independent store, we’re corporate” (She’s right, of course – the independent person, right down to the lowly part time counter clerk, at any independent coffee shop I’ve patronized in the last 15 years would have imagined what it’s like to be in a customer’s shoes and would have said “That sucks to lose an important file, here let me flip the wifi if all you need is to hit the save button. Then we’ll get you on your way.”). It would have been shameful for an employee at any independent coffee shop to think, live with, let alone say the words “there’s nothing I can do”. They just don’t want to work in a place like that – it’s why they’re not at Blockbuster.
The internet thing is stupid, sure – it’s like turning off the lights while someone is still reading 5-minutes before closing, or locking the bathroom so they can’t let out they’re espresso 5-minutes before they get on the road. It’s just dumb. 11:00 should not mean 10:55. Close 5-minutes earlier, if you want. If I know that’s coming, I’ll shut down then. Did I mention that there were several announcements over the P.A. system to the effect that the store closes at 11:00? Nothing said, “but at 10:55, we turn out the lights!” Spooky, but kind of fun if you just announce it. But come on, it’s more like a restaurant than the post office.
The coffee thing, well you can always work around stuff like that in a corporate store – they’re never quite clever enough to prevent all frugality (which seems to be the real moral crime in one of those places). You just learn to do things like order a double espresso, add twice as much half and half and some honey, and then ask them to fill your “small drink” cup with ice (ice is free, isn’t it?), after which you lid it and shake. I feel like Jack Nicholson trying to order a sandwich in Five Easy Pieces. “What do you mean I can’t get toast, you have sandwiches, you have bread don’t you?”
But the whole, ‘we’ll flip the switch rather than lost you, but you complained in the wrong way, and we’re not really wrong, you’re wrong – about everything, and we hate getting feedback like this – we only want positive feedback – because we’re a corporate store’ – all the way out the door – that’s really the “corporate” mentality writ large – and that’s almost worth a nights work to write off. There’s only one right kind of feedback in a corporate store, because there’s only one reason for things: “we’re corporate” – and that’s why I don’t complain to the GM – because there’s only one response in a setting like that – the patronizing “sorry you had a bad experience, that shouldn’t have happened” and then someone gets punished – not for a rational reason – they don’t get trained – they get punished – for one cause – “it’s corporate”. But it doesn’t change.
Sure I always knew that Borders was corporate. And yeah, I’m picky and all, and yeah – for those of you who avoid conflict like gonorrhea – I could have just let it go or adapted. But I *want* to interact with the world of other people’s work, too – even big box work. I *want* to engage it, even if it’s an unwinnable cause, because it fuels my own understanding of work. I suppose the first step to breaking free is understanding there’s a problem. Sure, you’ve gotta get beyond that, but it’s never really good to lose touch with the problem. As a colleague of mine says, “We’ll watch them, we’ll learn from them, and we won’t run our businesses the way they do.” I always smile and nod and say, “And that’s why we’ll outdo them with fewer resources. That’s why we’ll succeed where they fail.” So I admit, I’m not exactly the quiet type who just sinks his chin and goes off looking at his feet. Especially not after abiding by the rules, and still being unable to save a night’s work. That’s raping me, in my book. But it does provide an opportunity (I’ve got to get something out of it) to think about what those two pregnant words (“it’s corporate”) mean to people. What is it they think they are saying? I don’t know if you caught it, but they also think that my Friday ends when their store’s Friday ends. At 10:55. What does that say about the lens a corporate store uses to understand its clientelle?