Tuesday, April 5, 2011

AutoEthnography - Mandatory Training

I have been working on an autoethnographic project since the beginning of February 2011. As part of my everyday need for money to sustain existence, I have been working as a parking attendant at a large parking company in San Diego, with my location being at a mid-range hotel. My primary job responsibilities are to sit in a parking booth located to the right of the hotel entrance. I am supposed to greet guests pulling into the lot and collect tickets and fees on the their way out, among other things. The job involves a high amount of customer interaction and the parking company has been emphasizing enhanced customer service since the beginning of the year, which is probably why it required this mandatory training session last Saturday (April 2, 2011).

The training session was titled "Building a Better Guest Experience" and included an 8 page "participant guide" which I was able to take home and share with you now. On the bottom of each page was a warning: "This training program is the property of [Parking Company] and any reproduction is unlawful. While we are not vengeful, we can be provoked. To receive copies, call the T & D Dept.: XXX. XXX. XXXX". (The actual phone number has been replaced with X's and the actual name of the company removed due to ethical reasons.)

I wasn't the only one who noticed this warning on the bottom of page (except the title page). A few of my fellow coworkers pointed it out to me and laughed about it. And, since I wouldn't want to provoke them, I haven't reproduced it in any fashion here, except to quote it.

The training session was conducted by a middle-aged woman whose name I did not catch. She stood in the front of the room slightly to the right of the projector. She wore a pinned on microphone, which was helpful, even though the room wasn't very large. There were two rows of tables lined up on either side of the room and only half were occupied. We learned that there were three locations present, all the same hotel franchise. The great majority of the employees were valets with a smaller number working as cashiers (which is what my job is officially).

We began on page 2 (page 1 was the title page) with the "Class Objectives." There were three: "Identify the four communication styles. Identify how to engage the guest in a genuine, professional manner. Recognize how to create a positive guest experience." These were not elaborated on, however there was a rather curious image of a bible with a tree growing out of it that I have yet to identify the significance of.

The third page is titled "What Do Guests Want?" The answer, of course, is "Treated as Individuals," as labeled on the powerpoint and the handout. We were given four options and told to "vote with our feet." In each corner of the room was an option and we were to go to that corner if we thought that was how we wanted to be treated by a service person. The options were:

A. They're friendly, warm, build personal rapport with me.
B. They keep our interactions as brief as possible.
C. They're very methodical, proceeding step-by-step.
D. They're focused on the technical aspects; they're not building a relationship with me.
As we all got up and started heading in only one corner, I turned to a male valet who I knew well from my own location, "This is so rigged." He laughs and motioning to the three men who chose something other than option A says, "Yeah, those three guys just lost their jobs."

I laughed too, because it was a very poignant example that we weren't supposed to be showing what we actually think, we were supposed to show them what they wanted to see. It was our job to show that we understood what "true customer service" meant and show that we were good, obedient employees. Which is why I didn't bother going into the corner for "B".

Then she says, "Ok, now back to the 'depends" mentioned earlier." (And to paraphrase, because I didn't think to bring my digital voice recorder with me) What if you are just getting off work and it's late at night. You are on your way home and you remember that you have to go to the store to pick something up. Waiting until the next day is not an option. You're tired and you just want to go home. What kind of interaction would you want now? Vote with your feet.

Not surprisingly, nearly everyone moved to option B, myself included as it appeared I could easily conform with the crowd. (Who wants to put oneself in a position where one may be called out in front of the entire group to defend one's position and therefore be labeled unequivocally as a "bad employee"?) The speaker seemed relieved and empowered that we fell into her visual so easily. She went on to describe how we can't treat everyone the same in all situations. We have to learn how to treat guests differently based on the non-verbal cues they are giving us, which is the whole point of this training session.

The next slide and page of the "participant guide" is labeled "Individuality and Communication Styles." Here are four boxes labeled "Analytical, Functional, Intuitive, and Personal" with each having four bullet points below them. Just in case you are interested, this is what it says:

  • Unemotional delivery 
  • Specific numbers vs. feelings. 
  • Having lots of supportive evidence in reserve 
  • Trust comes from technical competence
  • Process, Process, Process
  • Highly detailed information
  • Recommendation at the end
  • Trust comes from proceeding step-by-step
  • Recommendations up-front
  • Do not equivocate, beat around the bush
  • Bottom-line big picture
  • Trust comes from not wasting their time
  • Get them involved
  • Informal, friendly
  • Are others doing it?
  • Trust comes from interpersonal warmth

She spent a brief period of time explaining what these four categories meant. I remember wonder where the hell she got these and what junior college taught her how to summarize so poorly. After she was done and explaining that she was a functional, she gave us another group exercise. We were to go around the room and talk to four different people (not at our table) and generalize to four different groups, defined as "business, families, couples, events." 

I found it impossible to participate in this activity. At this point I was so irritated with the whole nonsense and the level of degradation we were subjected to (can you imagine what age she was imagining all of us to be?), I couldn't place myself inside the position of employee and participate fully. I was analyzing it as an outside ethnographer who was angry at being subjected to such simplistic exercises that did not serve to help us "learn" what she was trying to "teach" us, but to ingrain her ideas into us as if we had decided that this was our idea all along. And while not everyone was fooled, there was many who were and participated enthusiastically. I imagined they were probably seeking promotions.

After we all settled down, she started throwing a foam ball around the room so that people could answer what they thought. I have to admit I zoned out a bit and checked my phone for texts and emails.

At this point we skipped a page and went to page 6 which was labeled "Conversations and Proper Phrasing." Prior to the state of the session, 16 large posters had been taped to the walls with several phrases, three on each poster. Her explanation of the directions of this activity confused nearly everyone and she had to stop us a few times to explain what she had meant and everyone was still confused by the time she asked us to sit back down.

On our handout were two columns, one labeled "Unacceptale" and another "Best Response." The activity, briefly, was to write on these posters what the best response alternative was to the unacceptable response. We counted off and I ended up in small group with two others whom I did not know. We went from poster to poster adding better responses until she told us to sit back down. I found myself correcting spelling and grammar mistakes from other groups as we went along. To the unacceptable phrase, "It's policy," I wrote "For your safety and convenience..." As I was writing the dots, the speaker came up to our group and said "That's actually really good." I was tempted to say, "Well, I am ivy league educated," but I restrained myself. 

Other unacceptable phrases included "How ya doin? It's policy. See ya later. My bad. No problem. I don't know. NO. No worries. Give me a second. That's not my job. That's not my fault. Hi/Hello. Yeah."

The next page was labeled "Opportunities for Extradordinary Service" which we skipped. The last page was labeled "Putting It All Together," but instead of going over that page we were instead broken up into small groups again where a few people were chosen to act out a couple of predetermined situations in which we were supposed to identify the communication style of the "guest." None of us paid much attention and were all too eager to return to our seats. I immediately turned to page 9 which was an anonymous feedback form. I admit I was a little harsh in my answers. For the question of what I liked about the training, I added simply "candy, powerpoint." When asked how I will apply what I've learned, I added that oversimplifying guests' identities into four different communication styles was only useful to a point, but that the point that we were allowed to customize our reactions and service to a guest was a welcome one and that I hoped it would be reflected on the secret shopper evaluations. When asked what they could improve, I was the most scathing. I criticize their teaching pedagogy (I seriously doubt they know what that word means) and their instruction method. I also suggested that the presentation was more confusing than helpful and that a number of people were confused as to the proper response and clearly laying that out in the handout might have been more helpful than blanks.

I was very grateful when it was over and annoyed at the fact that I had to drive back to my actual work location, change out of my business casual clothing and into an unflattering uniform, and work until 11pm. However, she (my boss) asked me to work the next day for 8 hours (6:30am to 3pm), so I left early at 8pm instead.

I'm still organizing this project in my head and I'm not entirely sure what all I am going to add to the article I am writing and what I am going to leave out. I have been using my facebook account to record memorable anecdotes from my experience working there, and since many of my friends enjoyed hearing about them, I decided it would be interesting to my friends and useful for me to record longer ethnographic experiences on my blog here. The 250 word abstract is due on April 15th to present this project to the annual AAA conference in November in Montreal. I will also be writing a formal article to be submitted and reviewed for publication in a peer reviewed journal. Although I loathe my job (which may be putting it mildly), I am enjoying this autoethnographic project and I hope to write more about it as I move from the ethnographic stage (I'll hopefully be quitting by the end of May) to the analyzing and writing stage. I would appreciate any comments or suggestions either here on my blog or on my facebook account.


  1. I love that you are making the best out of a cruddy situation. And after working retail so long I have been in so many of those trainings and it's quite a phenomenon how almost universally companies take you into those and talk down to you as if they are teaching a 4th grader skills of interaction. I almost feel like I could respect it if they began with, "we are here to scrap your basic way of interacting with people on an honest level and make you a smiling drone with false personability." Then again, I might not respect that either.

  2. Thanks for commenting! Your comment is the very first one on my blog! Woo!

    I completely agree with that sentiment and I think you said it better than I did above. They tell you they want the interaction to be personal and to make the guest feel like you are acknowledging their person-hood ("affective labor" - see Hardt 1999) while at the same time you have to simultaneously deny your own person-hood (what sociologists like to refer to as "emotional labor"). It's ironic the very explicit ways they tell you to create utterly fake interactions for the purpose of creating affective labor (creating an emotional response in the guest).

    I wonder, though, whether or not they are aware that they are doing this. After all, I'm not sure if a college degree is required to design these programs (and even then, a college degree doesn't necessarily mean you are able to critically analyze anything outside of the classroom).


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