Hell Is Other Business People Are bosses, business travel, and customer service worse than ever? Or are the authors of three new books on those topics just too easily appalled?
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Let us begin by picturing something you like. It could be kittens. Or jazz trumpeters. Or tasty chocolate fudge. You have that picture in your mind? Okay. Now imagine that times, say, a thousand. A thousand kittens. A thousand wailing trumpets. A thousand slices of oleaginous chocolate fudge. Do you like this more? Or less?
I bring this up because it gets to the core of the problem of three recent books: Customer Service Nightmares, by Nancy Friedman (Crisp Publications, $12.95); Best Boss/Worst Boss, by James B. Miller (Fireside, $11); and After the Death of a Salesman, by Roger Rapoport (RDR Books, $15.95). Each is a compendium of horror stories--first-person accounts of, respectively, service from hell, bosses from hell, and business trips from hell.
Now, there is something appealing in a horror story. It's cathartic to share one's most terrible experiences and oddly comforting to hear that someone else has had it even worse. For while we may have differing opinions on religion, or politics, or art, just about everyone has at one time or another been screwed by Northwest Airlines. The true international language isn't Esperanto, it's whining, and a finely tuned rant is a thing of beauty.
So I approached these books with enthusiasm, figuring that if one tale of woe can be entertaining, then a book full of them would have to be really entertaining, right? As it turns out, while one horror story may be interesting, a book full of them quickly becomes repetitive. And wearing. And dull. Eventually, they're about as much fun as a room full of angry, yowling kittens. Sadly, none of these three books are in the Stephen King class of superlative horror, since their authors make some rather unfortunate choices in how to present their material.
Both Friedman and Miller commit the same understandable--but grave--error: They attempt to turn their paltry tales of woe into parables. After each story in Customer Service Nightmares, Friedman pauses to offer commentary, presumably for the benefit of managers hoping to avoid the same pitfalls in their own companies. She insists on doing so in the voice of her alter ego, The Telephone "Doctor"(R), a moniker so heavily punctuated that my eyes hurt looking at it. On a more fundamental level, Friedman's problem is that there really is no need for a diagnostician here: Just about anyone can figure out what went wrong in her stories.
For instance, she relates the ordeal of an overweight woman who was told that she was too fat for the couch she'd bought. Can you spot what went wrong in this situation? In case you can't, here's Friedman: "This is simply a case of learning to think before you speak!" Oh. Similarly, Miller hammers home the lessons he's culled from years of surveying employees to find the best and worst bosses in America. "Making a worker who has earned a paycheck bark like a dog is ridiculous," he warns. You don't say.
Rapoport, fortunately, avoids such didacticism, allowing the stories to speak for themselves. But the book has shortcomings of its own--most notably its inclusion of the messy details of the author's life, as in the following passage: "I remember waking up one morning in New York next to a woman I had met only the night before and asking myself if it was love or just a date that had gone out of control. Before I could begin to answer the question, I was in a cab headed for the National Stationery Show." Er ... thanks for sharing.
Even if these books didn't try to serve as management studies or aimless memoirs, I doubt they'd be entirely satisfying. Tales of woe, it should have been obvious to me, work best in small doses. Only a kvetch--the kind of person who sits down next to you and tells you about every slight, real or imagined, that he or she has ever suffered--wouldn't know that.