Lipstick on a fat cat? (A response to a rant)

I recently stumbled upon “Lipstick On A Pig (a rant by Joe Calloway)” through my LinkedIn feed. It didn’t sit well with me. Sorry, that’s an understatement… it prickled at me so deeply that I had to immediately get all my thoughts out or they would just keep burning away.

In his piece, it seems that Calloway is trying to make a point about the value of consistency, honesty, and transparency in customer service – that it doesn’t matter how much you apologize if you’re not making the effort to begin with. This is a statement I agree with 100%, especially as someone in the business of online community and largely in the customer support side. A community manager cannot build relationships if the company they’re working for doesn’t back them up and really try to fix the root causes of common pain points. Rich Millington of Feverbee wrote a recent post that touches on this same root issue, in a much more nuanced way than Calloway’s piece comes across. And that’s what bothers me about Calloway’s piece.

Calloway shares a few recent examples of times where he feels that the companies he was dealing with were just putting “lipstick on a pig.” From hotel room service gone awry to a prolonged car repair experience to flight delays and lack of amenities, Calloway describes three separate incidents where services he was provided were not delivered up to standard. The employees and companies were not rude or offensive to Calloway, and offered concessions to apologize for the inconveniences. It’s these apologies that he appears to take more of an issue with than the original troubles, in fact. If you’ve ever worked in customer service of any kind, you’ve met someone like this – the customer who can’t be pleased, no matter what you do. “Money” doesn’t matter to them, “stuff” doesn’t matter to them, the only thing that really seems to matter is them being right. (Side note: If you’re out of that customer service world and want to remind yourself why you’re so happy you are, Jezebel’s weekly Behind Closed Ovens is great for that.) 

You order room service because you are tired, you don’t have the ability to go elsewhere to get food, you want to treat yourself, you need sustenance. When it takes an hour and a half to get it, you’re upset (and probably hangry). That’s totally reasonable.

You need your car to get you from A to B. You need it working and multiple trips back and forth to the shop take valuable time out of your day. It’s frustrating.

You need to fly to get across the country. It’s not always the most pleasant experience because of a multitude of factors that are beyond your (or anyone else’s) control. And some pleasantries become the victim of compromise when the choices are get there safe and as close to time as possible or get there in a beautiful and frictionless way.

But you still need food and you need the service of someone who is making you that food to save you time and effort. You still need your car fixed and you don’t have the technical skills to fix it yourself and/or the time to do so but you can find someone who can. You still need to get across the country or ocean and you are able to do that in a giant flying bird that means you don’t have to drive, surrounded by a team of people who are specialized in making that work.

Not pictured: unicorns. Image: Justin Boyd,
Not pictured: unicorns. Image: Justin Boyd,

Sending everything back, complaining about things beyond your control or being resentful of an apology letter from a CEO makes you seem like a petulant child. Or like a privileged white cis-male who is used to the entire world bending around your whim. And that’s what really bugs me. That we have gotten so accustomed to ease, to frictionlessness, to having what we want delivered to us when we want anytime we want that we have forgotten that we are not the only people in the world. We have literally othered the people who provide these services – who make our lives easier 90% of the time. Joe Calloway doesn’t refer to any other people in his rant (other than the CEO of the airline) – they are all just faceless companies – pigs that lipstick is being placed on. I know it’s a metaphor, I know he’s trying to make a point, but it’s a telling subconscious slip.

If the point Calloway is trying to make is (in his words) “Do the hard work necessary to create value, consistently deliver quality, and achieve excellence in performance,” I’m terrified of the world he aspires to live in, in which no one and no company ever makes mistakes and anything less than perfect performance is punished with walking your money to another company. “Lipstick on a pig” generally refers to trying to mask an inherently bad product with gimmicks and flash to dupe customers into buying something inferior. Calloway makes no mention of previous experiences with these companies – good or bad. We don’t know if these are parts of a pattern of companies devaluing their service or isolated events where bad stuff just happened all together (and unfortunately, to Joe Calloway). We don’t know if the metaphor is appropriate.

The fact is that the world is imperfect. People are imperfect. Companies are imperfect. Mistakes are made and what shows quality, value, and excellence more than perfection is how you turn around the mistakes – how you (as a person and as a company) learn and grow from the mistakes and try to do better next time. That’s what we can ask of the companies we choose to spend our money with. But, as people who work at companies ourselves, that’s also what we can ask of each other – time and space to work to do our best. That’s not putting lipstick on a pig. It’s empathy, understanding, and long-term relationship building.