A movie that probes the human condition using the customer service industry as a loose backdrop? Why not! This week, Team SBR went to see Anomalisa, a stop-motion animation film from writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
Anomalisa is about Michael Stone, a middle-aged customer service guru who travels to Cincinnati to give the keynote at a regional conference. To be sure, this isn’t a movie about customer service. But it made us wonder why Kaufman would use it as the context to push the events forward? It turns out that he spent some time in his early career working in customer service, so he probably knew just enough to get himself into trouble.
In the movie, Stone is set to speak about his book, whose title (How May I Help You Help Them?) is as nonspecific as his techniques (“Look for what is special about each individual” / “The customer is an individual just like you” / “Smile…it doesn’t cost anything”). People gush about how Stone’s book helped them increase productivity by 90%, so he has an audience.
When you consider what this film is really about – the banality of existence and references to a delusion in which all people are thought to be the exact same person – then customer service might be the perfect choice. Customer service is an ordinary, all-purpose trade that everyone engages on a daily basis. In some way, we are all supplying service or receiving it, whether from the grocer, call center agent or barista.
In Anomalisa those in customer service roles are shown performing routine characterizations of what it means to be on the help line, from the front desk clerk’s fixed expression to the bellhop’s incessant speak about the weather. After all, they are puppets. It takes a lot of work to produce a single frame in stop-motion animation, so we know that there was a deliberate decision to create each movement and expression.
When you are in the business of creating a reliable degree of service, you want consistency, but not at the expense of humanity. While it surely was not Kaufman’s ambition to do so, Anomalisa gently reminds us to break from the norm and bring a dose of personality back into the business of caring for the consumer. This also means, as we recently reported, slaying generic openings like, “How are you today?” If you are a Kaufman fan or just like when films scratch your cranium, Anomalisa is really worth a watch.