Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee

By ALEX FRANKEL

Intuitively you understand the appeal. Who hasn’t bought a drink at Starbucks, shopped at the Gap, or had a package delivered by UPS and wondered — if only for a moment — what it would be like to be on the other side of the transaction? True, the idea of spending every working day making complicated caffeinated drinks, selling jeans, or delivering packages probably doesn’t have much long-term appeal for most of us, but there is a certain voyeuristic pleasure that comes from knowing what is going behind the door marked “employees only.”

Frankel, a freelance journalist, set out to find out. Over the course of two years, he worked on the front lines of the Apple Store and Enterprise Rent-a-Car, as well as the aforementioned Gap, Starbucks, and UPS. As he is quick to point out “I was not so much interested in exposing some sort of corporate evil, but in exposing the workplace: what it felt like to work there, and what culture, if any, was handed down from the top or grew organically from the bottom.”

But while that may have been the grander goal, the smaller insights he learned along the way are what make the book truly compelling. For example: want to know the secret to making it through a full day of delivering as many as 180 packages for UPS? Pack an extra pair of socks and change into them after lunch. And Frankel delivers simple but convincing insight on Apple’s reputation for superior employees: They hire people who are already fanatically loyal consumers of its products.

Perhaps of even more interest to the rest of us, he learned that while the rental car company Enterprise prides itself on providing excellent customer service — getting the rental car to the person who needs it — the vast majority of its training materials are devoted to teaching employees how to sell high-margin insurance to renters.

In many ways Frankel is an interesting choice to write the book. The author of a book on corporate “namers” (2004’s Word Craft) he doesn’t seem to have much real-world business experience and so was surprised to learn that the computerized tests he takes to try to get hired at places he would like to work — Best Buy, Home Depot, and Whole Foods — have been designed to identify employees similar to those who have worked out well in the past. Try as he might, he can’t figure out what are the right answers to questions such as these asked by Home Depot:

Suppose we contacted your most recent supervisors (or teachers). What would they say about how often you make snap decisions?

And

Compared to your peers, how often do you lead others?

Guessing about what Home Depot wanted to hear, Frankel said he rarely made snap decisions (“impulsive decision making does not sound like a good thing in an employee”) and that he led “somewhat more often” than his peers, figuring “maybe they wanted to hire followers.”

He failed to get the job every time he was confronted with this kind of test — which probably says more of the companies (they know the kind of person who is going to succeed) that it does about Frankel. But when he was hired he worked diligently through the training, never disclosing he was a reporter.

So what was it like being a frontline service employee for two years? While Frankel found his stint at the Gap stupefying — endless days refolding clothes customers had rejected made time seem not only to stop but to actually go backward, he writes — for the most part he found the work harder than expected. Not only were the basic tasks (such as mastering all the drinks Starbucks serves and learning the exact sequence of keys to hit to fill out a rental contract using Enterprise’s antiquated computer system) more difficult than he would have thought; for the most part, he was on his feet all day, leading him to come home exhausted most nights.

As for finding a corporate culture in which employees believe deeply in the company’s goals, Frankel was consistently disappointed. While he found an employee or two in each workplace who was sincerely committed to the company’s mission, most seemed to be trading their time for the organization’s money.

The exception was at UPS, where employees truly seemed to like their jobs, enjoyed interacting with customers — many of whom they see every day — and felt they were performing a vital service. Working as a driver’s assistant during the Christmas season, Frankel, too, got caught up in the challenge in making sure all the packages were delivered by the holidays and came dangerously close to going native. “At UPS I gained a strong sense that I was a part of the thumping, beating heart of capitalism,” he writes. “UPS was the only workplace where I felt as if I was actually learning a craft and helping shape the final product, instead of acting the part of a craftsman.”

And he came to understand what makes the best service companies so successful. It’s not their product offering. After all, there isn’t much difference between one airline or another — they all get you from point A to point B — or one middle-of-the-road hotel chain compared to another, except for the people who provide the service. And that point of differentiation is only going to become more important in coming years.

Indeed, as companies continue to streamline processes and handle more and more transactions via computers, the number of interactions with employees — what the former head of SAS Airlines, Jan Carlson, called “moments of truth” nearly two decades ago, in his book of the same name — are going to decrease. That means the importance of each of those interactions is going to increase. Companies, especially service companies, that understand this and get correspondingly better at hiring, training, and employee support are the ones that are going to win.

That, ultimately, is the message of Frankel’s book. Well, that and the importance of a pair of clean, dry socks if you plan to be on your feet all day.