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Jewish World Review April 6, 2001 / 13 Nissan, 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports


Who do you really think you work for?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHO'S your employer?

If you responded with the name of the company that signs your weekly paycheck, you've given an incomplete answer.

Let's phrase it differently:

Who do you work for?

Yes -- you work for your boss. But that's not the point.

For the answer, let us turn to Ronald S. Cope -- who would be my choice to be America's chief economic adviser.

You may recall the name. Mr. Cope is the fellow I introduced to you a few weeks ago -- the guy who figured out how insane our nation has become by pointing out a seemingly simple fact no one else was astute enough to notice.

Mr. Cope -- a Chicago attorney by profession -- figured out that Americans in big cities are now paying more to park their cars than to buy them.

Downtown parking rates, in many lots, exceed monthly car payments. And no one, before Mr. Cope, had the perceptiveness to proclaim this to the world -- and to pronounce it absolutely nuts.

Now ... back to your employer.

How many times during a given week do you call a company you're doing business with -- a bank, an airline, a credit-card corporation -- and find yourself greeted by an automated system ordering you to press the keys on your phone to select various options?

And how many times during that given week do you spend long, long minutes on the phone trying futilely to find the person or service you're looking for -- all the while going from one phone prompt to another?

We've all been annoyed by that -- we've all become frustrated at the impersonality of it.

But Mr. Cope has cut to the core of it.

"We are working for those companies," he said. "We didn't ask to work for them, and they're not paying us -- but we're doing work for them. Which is why they did away with the people they used to employ to do the same job we're doing for free."

His theory -- with which you can't argue: Every company that has eliminated people to answer telephones and communicate with customers has, in effect, replaced the eliminated workers with someone else:

You.

"That's the reason they do it," he said. "It's not for anyone's convenience -- certainly not yours. There is a certain category of job at their company: dealing with customers when they call in. They have shifted the burden of the cost from themselves to you. Without your consent, you have been put to work for them."

And?

"I was pushing the buttons when I called one company, and I was actually told by an automated voice that it would be 18 minutes until a service representative would speak to me. Now, how much is your time worth? However much it's worth, you ought to be able to bill those companies for it. They're supposed to be providing a service to you -- but they've turned it around so you're working for them."

Is the answer to send these companies an invoice? Any time you find yourself doing the work of people they should pay to man their phones, should you send them a bill for your time?

"They'd just ignore it," he said. "That's the thing about what they've been able to get away with: They have never informed you that you are working for them, they have never asked you to sign an agreement, so you have nothing to fall back on. If your bank or your credit-card company had come to you and asked if you would like to work for them for no salary, of course you would have said no. But they never asked. They just put you to work."

Individually, customers of these companies probably don't have much of a claim, he said. But in the aggregate, with all the Americans every day who operate, via remote phone hookups, the switchboards of companies that purportedly are serving them, "these companies are getting millions of dollars in free work out of their customers -- work they otherwise would have to pay their own people to perform."

How does Mr. Cope propose to deal with this? In his own life, he tries to do business with companies that employ actual humans to speak with their customers. That's how he chose his bank -- and rejected a bigger bank that forces its customers into servitude.

"But the real answer is, you can't win," he said. "You're working for all these companies -- you have all these bosses. And they never asked your permission."



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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