You Review: Punching In – The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee by Alex Frankel

Reviewed by Vinod Krishnan

There are three sorts of business book.

The first is the bullet-point formula for success variety, like Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Always hard to read and even harder to remember, these are my least favorite. The second is the biographical, where a titan of industry (or presumably the ghost writer) takes us through a rose-tinted tour of his business and personal life, drawing morals and maxims at every step. Quite apart from their contextual irrelevance, it’s often the sanctimony and even hypocrisy that makes them interesting.

The third kind is the Business Story. Barbarians at the Gate, Liar’s Poker, Po Bronson’s Nudist on the Late Shift, and Punching In all belong to this genre. By far the most interesting, these provide an almost voyeuristic – and fascinating – glimpse into the working of big business at a personal level.

Frankel’s book revolves around a topic of business and social relevance – customer service, or the front-line between businesses and customers. Almost everyone understands the importance of retailing to the American economy. Companies’ fortunes revolve around their ability to get customers to buy and keep buying. This book is Frankel’s journal as he takes on jobs at some giant brands (UPS, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, The Gap, Starbucks and even Apple!) and focuses on how a front-line employee is trained and what the challenges and rewards are in the demanding job of putting up with the whims of the American customer.

Frankel brings in a social and personal dimension to the books as well. He continually battles with the social ethics of the customer service function. In jobs like the ones he takes on, it’s a dilemma that plays over and over – serving the company or the customer? It’s a rich area to explore and Frankel expertly probes his co-workers and his own mind for answers.

On a more personal front, he agonizes about his own incapability to drink the corporate Kool-Aid and to believe in each organization’s culture and values – something I personally feel he would have had an easier time with if he had been genuinely dependent on these jobs for his livelihood!

Even if Frankel’s observations are somewhat tainted by the Observer Effect since he’s very much in the experiment, he manages (in most part) to avoid value judgments and lets the reader draw their own conclusions about the companies and their practices. His writing has an easy conversational style and he slips in and out of the business, social and personal dimensions with the same felicity with which he changes jobs in the book.

Punching In will appeal to the business student, the social scientist and even to all of us who have shopped at a big brand store and wondered if the banter exchanged with the guy behind the counter was genuine or part of the corporate act!

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You Review is made possible by the following publishers: Penguin US; Penguin UK; HarperCollins US; Hachette US; Hachette UK; Simon & Schuster US, Random House US, Little, Brown UK, Hodder and Stoughton.