San Francisco, California
December 13, 2000
Today's exchange was instigated by Daniel Arp in 1998. Daniel is now a twenty-five-year-old high school writing teacher in Pittsburgh. It was passed on to me and Open Letters by Dominique Ritter, who works at Adbusters Magazine.
I think Daniel's impulse to mess with corporations, to call them on the absurdity of their language, is a very natural and humane response to all of the pseudo-intimate niche advertising that barrages each of us every day. Some advertising is unnervingly well-targeted, but a lot of it, despite the enormous marketing effort behind it, is laughably off-base. Like the Gap flyer I received a couple months ago that said, "We know you're expecting, so come by soon and check out our maternity selection!" (Did they know something I didn't?) Whether or not the marketers have their niches straight, lots of us have the urge to tell them they don't have us figured out; a desire to respond to their false dialogue with a real dialogue, or at least an entertaining exchange, where we are in control.
But as I read Daniel's exchange with Amazon, I found myself scouring it for nuances in the responses from the corporation. Most of those responses are boilerplate, standard form-letter fare, but there are moments where I see glimmers of an actual person on the other end, calculating how to respond, deciding whether to run with it or play it straight. From the outside it's easy to imagine corporations as monolithic entities with absolute control over their corporate identities and public relations, but I doubt whether this is ever really the case.
I've described my zine Other People's Mail as a compilation of found mail, but to be honest a good part of the contents were not found, they were snuck. Snuck to me by folks like Jenna L. and Michael L., the customer-service representatives on the other side of Daniel Arp's exchange with Amazon. My friend James Nestor supplied some of the best business correspondence that I've hoarded for OPM. James and I have been friends for almost fifteen years now and he's hands down the most persistent, inventive smart-ass I've ever known. I think this character trait is overwhelmingly apparent from the moment you meet him, but mystifyingly, it eluded the H.R. people who hired him for a string of customer-service jobs as a diapering consultant, a rare-toy service agent, and an envelope estimator in his first couple years after college.
He thinks he might have been hired because he had a fresh college degree, spoke somewhat clearly and wore a tie to every interview. Then again, he says, maybe it was for what he didn't have: a felony, a tattooed tear under an eye, a bad amphetamine habit, jittery eyes or clammy palms. Today I've asked James to share some his adventures in customer service with Open Letters. James writes:
All these jobs paid next to nothing, but they had other merits: they were easy and stress-free; they required little physical movement and even less thinking. At that time in my life it was exactly what I wanted. I later found out that customer-service jobs could also be a whole lot of fun. By the third week on the job, you somehow find yourself as an unsupervised representative for the entire corporation, given free access to a warehouse of goods. With complete trust, your boss leaves it to you to contact that angry mother in Pennsylvania who is complaining because the largest sized "tummy topper" does not fit her "extra husky" kid. You are the one who writes back to the psychotic aunt who, in a three-page plea, "prays" that you can find just one more discontinued action figure for Johnny (who is handicapped, and gets little pleasure from anything but collecting Micro Machines, especially the rare ones). When you find yourself at a desk, half asleep, surrounded by all this potential, you start cooking up some strange recipes. And before you know it you start trying them out.
At a job for a large toy company, I was in charge of answering customers' letters, packing toys and sending out special requests for rare or discontinued toys. I had been there about a month, long enough to be weary of the daily jog trot, when I started experimenting with "creative" responses. I wrote one reply to an old guy (I could tell he was old because the paper on which his letter was written was yellow on the sides and every inch of it reeked of pipe tobacco) entirely in iambic pentameter, all 700 words. I wrote another, also about two pages long, in one sentence without punctuation, no spaces between the words "Thankyouforyourinterestinourcompanysir" and another that had each new sentence start with the next letter in the alphabet: "Always a pleasure to assist you! But I should mention that your request can't be processed at this time. Could you find another item you might be interested in? Dare I say the newer Robot Racers are really exciting. Everyone loves 'em! From young boys to old girls..." Ending a letter abruptly with "Zoinks!" looks stranger than it sounds.
Because the work was easy, I could come in late, nobody bothered me and I was too lazy to get another job, I actually wanted to stay there for a while, so I felt I had to include some sort of "hush money" to balance things out. Otherwise someone might get offended and decide to forward the letters to some vice president or my boss or something. One guy, an "avid collector," got a letter written backward sa ni nettirw drawkcab but he also got the toy he asked for, and about thirty other rare figures. A mother looking for a small doll's dress outfit was rewarded with a 4' x 4' box full of footballs, frisbees, a talking bear, some T-shirts, and a fifty-page letter that had one word written on each page, all sent FedEx Priority Overnight.
But my letters and boxes of plenty were nothing compared to the thank-you letters I received in return. The responses ranged from confused, terse and restrained (maybe even a little scared) "Thanks for the figures and all the extras. Bill"; "Appreciate it. Carolyn" to extremely verbose and sycophantic. I became "a saint," "blessed," "amazing," "a gentle, gentle man." One flirty housemom actually found my number and called me. With the sound of screaming kids and a blaring TV in the background, she spoke in a whispery, low voice asking me if she could "do anything, anything, in return."
These reactions to my letters fascinated, frightened, dumbfounded, happy, nervous, confused showed me how completely disarming my behavior was. The customers responded the way they might react to a dog suddenly standing up and talking during a small dinner party. We are so accustomed to computerized responses, form letters, sterile, polite, unoffensive, safe and faceless replies, that no one really expected to contact another person on the inside. Subverting the standard customer-service model, however slightly, seemed to allow an open field of play between the "agent" and the "customer." There were no rules. Anything was possible. The letters I received with all their jittery cursive language, their open confessions, their declarations of love, their enclosures of personal pictures were a warm hand stretched out to the heart behind the cold doors of a corporation. They were also often far more strange, creative and amusing than my own pranks.
James no longer works in customer service, but I still think of him when I send out my own business letters, with a small hope for a completely individual and unexpected response.