Bermuda revisited? power and powerlessness in the worker-manager-customer triangle

Bolton, S.C. and Houlihan, M. (2010) Bermuda revisited? power and powerlessness in the worker-manager-customer triangle. In: Internatioal Labour Process Conference, 2010-03-01. (Unpublished)

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The growth of service work has introduced the customer as a third, and in many accounts, powerful, party to conceptions of the employment relationship (du Gay and Salaman, 1992; Leidner, 1993). There is however a need for theoretical and empirical development to produce more complex understandings of worker-customer (and, we argue, manager) power relations within the sociology of customer service work (Korczynski, 2009). In previous papers, we have questioned the reality of customer power as represented in services literatures. However, in our emphasis on the relationship between customer and service provider, we, as many others, are guilty of marginalising the role of the manager – who, it would seem – has moved to third place in the employment relationship. When references are made to managers, they appear ghost-like in the customer service machine – an objectively rational figure representing control via technologically driven labour processes, customer feedback and performance targets, or abstractly representing commitment as a cheer leader and coach. The customer service manager has not only to stand at the cross-roads with employees and senior managers but customers too. Yet, in the cost led environment of disconnected capitalism (Thompson, 2003) where decisions about stock levels, pricing, quality of products, and the needs of the customer are made ‘elsewhere’, how much power does the manager have to mediate the flow of potentially competing demands? It seems to us that the customer service manager, and more particularly, their power and agency, is disappearing from view in the Bermuda triangle of customer service In this paper, we seek to address the labour process of this ‘distant management figure’ (Korczynski, 2009), what they do, and how they cope. Using Kanter’s (1979) notion of spirals of power and powerlessness we argue that the overt expectation that managers have the power to resolve customer dissatisfactions and address structural failings requires unpacking. Drawing on data collected from call-centre workers and their managers, we explore the lived experience of powerlessness among customer service managers and in turn, the consequences for the staff they manage and the customers they serve. We depict occasions of management smoothing, engaging, and disengaging that conjure up an understanding of disappearing power within the customer-management-employee triangle.