Baghdad (International) Green ZoneBaghdad (International) Green Zone by James Gordon

Does this sound familiar?

Jane works for a company that is fairly successful. The product it produces is beer and has moved from being a local favorite to a regional favorite to a favorite in pubs across the entire U.S. Jane's role is customer service and she takes calls from, mostly, happy customers every day, thanking her for producing a really great beer with a great taste and a solid heartfelt brand. One Monday morning, the companies executives round up all of the employees for a big meeting and tell them that, because of the great success thusfar, the board has decided to go more nationally aggressive with the company. The company is getting a boost in funding and will be hiring a whole bunch of new people to handle the expansion. Jane is excited. More customers equals more great phonecalls for her.

As they expand, things start to change...but not in the directions Jane thought they would. The biggest addition seems to be to the sales team - a group of beverage sales specialists. In order to help Jane out, they hire two other people, quite junior as part of her customer service staff. The sales team sticks to their own, which baffles Jane a little. The smaller company always hung out as a team, so they would know exactly what was happening in each department, from executive to sales to customer service to science to even the staff that were brewing.

The pressure is on to sell and produce more beer and there are rumors that the strict quality process they had before isn't being adhered to. Jane and her new team are receiving more negative phonecalls than usual, and, because of the national focus of the new sales, the customer service lines are constantly busy, giving Jane no time to monitor or train the new people. One day she is pulled into the office of the VP Marketing who tells her there have been complaints about customer service. She works unpaid overtime to put together scripts and quality control documents for her staff. She puts in a request for a CRM system so that she can keep track of the calls, but is told that customer service is a 'loss leader', so the request isn't approved. Meanwhile, the sales department is furnished with a foosball table, and they are all given expense accounts to wine and dine their customers.

Jane is frustrated, and, as things get worse and worse, she starts to hate the job that she once loved. She feels powerless to help the customers who are calling her daily unhappy - she doesn't know what is going on, and when she does (as far as the quality rumors go), she can't say anything. Then the decision comes to 'tighten the belts' of the company as sales are waning. Who do they cut first? Jane's team. She is left with one staff member. Even the quality of Jane's customer service plummets as she can't handle the volume of calls...and when she does, she is powerless to help the customers. She is called into the office of the VP Marketing again. This time the news is really bad. They've decided to outsource their customer service and, other than handling the transition, Jane is no longer needed. The poor performance of her department just doesn't warrant keeping it local.

This is a classic story that I've heard from many companies over the years, but other than a different idea of what is important (what you measure, matters), I just thought it was the way most businesses handled themselves.

It wasn't until I read Naomi Klein's latest work on Disaster Capitalism that it occurred to me that what happens in this country with the social system is tightly connected to what happens to the parts of a business like customer service, that are seen as 'extraneous'.

In her writing, she discusses the growth of Green Zones - the 'free market' influx of private companies coming in to solve public services for a profitable venture - while the Red Zones - the public services that remain in place to serve those who cannot afford to pay for the Green Zones that are underfunded and forgotten until they are enough of a problem to wipe out altogether (housing projects, for example) - are used as an example to demonize the public system and further grow Green Zones.

This happens in business like the above examples. The Green Zones are the profit centers of the company and the Red Zones are the cost centers of the company - the cost centers, of course, support the growth of the profit centers (providing customer service, marketing, support staff, quality control, etc), but on the books are seen as pure loss leaders. So, when a company needs to cut back costs...those centers are hit, not the 'profit' centers like sales. After enough cutbacks, the performance of the cost centers suffers, which gives enough validation to outsource or get rid of them altogether. Because the sales team is showing numbers (even though those numbers would not exist if it weren't for the corporate Red Zones supporting them), they are shown as an example of what works in the company.

Now, I don't know if Klein would want me to twist her metaphor to support my thesis, but I do believe it is the core of what is failing with business today. The Yin and Yang of it need to be kept in place and both cost and profit centers rely on one other to exist and flourish. Jane's story above ends in her getting a new job that she can love again and her old company struggling to stay afloat, not understanding why things went so badly after the expansion...maybe even returning to their roots years later and re-gaining their customer's trust.

In the public sphere, we must be wary of Green Zones and the creation of Red Zones, but we must also be aware of it in terms of our professional sphere. Is your company creating a Green Zone/Red Zone atmosphere? I urge you to read Klein's work either way and tell me if you see the parallel yourself.

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