Book Review: "Punching In" by Alex Frankel

I had my review copy of Alex Frankel’s Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee sitting in my bookcase for almost two weeks before I had a chance to read it. When I interviewed the author, Alex Frankel, for my work with Customer Service is the New Marketing (where he is speaking), it renewed my interest in the book and I made some time to read it over the relatively slow holiday season.

Punching In recounts Frankel’s experience as a frontline employee at five radically different companies over the course of two years. He starts off as a temporary delivery assistant for the shipping giant UPS and quickly finds himself asking what he can do for Brown instead of what Brown can do for him. He becomes surprisingly absorbed surprisingly fast in the company’s culture. Despite the hard physical work, Frankel finds himself fitting into the role of a genuine UPS deliveryman comfortably and quickly.

After UPS, Frankel moves onto an incredibly boring, painfully mind numbing job of essentially folding clothes at Gap. At Gap, he experiences a culture that treats it employees more like potential criminals than future leaders. Frankel makes a sudden turn and starts to work at the unique, career development focused Enterprise Rent-a-Car. During the largely negative experience, Frankel learns about a company that isn’t as true to itself as the company handbook says. The supposedly “authentic” culture at Starbucks is similar and lacks the authenticity that ironically made the brand huge in the 1980’s. Frankel’s final job is at the laid back, but very cool Apple Store, where because of a laid back, but still rewarding working environment, he has a largely positive experience.

Each workplace, as Frankel points out, is unique. There is no one word to describe the five companies or how they treat their respective employees. Each job has its pros and cons, a unique company culture (or lack thereof), and an incredibly varied employee base. Frankel finds himself getting involved, and unexpectedly into, each job he holds not only as an undercover journalist, but as an actual employee. Punching In tells about the front lines in a way that interviews could not.

During his journey throughout the commercial front lines, Frankel encounters employees of all shapes, sizes, looks, and skillsets. Most importantly, he meets employees who have radically different views on their respective employers. He meets those employees who have unmatched levels of dedication to and passion for their employers and their products and services they offer. In these employees, he sees the quintessential example of the perfect, highly passionate employee that each company dreams of hiring. Frankel also meets and finds himself working with the polar opposites; disaffected employees who could care less about their job and the company they’re working for. Frankel finds that the only passion these employees have is for the bi-weekly paycheck and often, there isn’t much gratitude for that.

Aside from telling of the typical day in the life of a deliveryman, sales representative, or barista, Punching In shares anecdotes and information that will interest any retail or customer service executive. Frankel asks questions and addresses issues that good retail managers and executives should be concerned about. He examines the front lines and concisely points out how that crucial front line translates into the bottomline.

While Frankel provides a fairly varied view of what it is like to work in various retail outlets, he mainly works in larger stores in larger cities. Punching In doesn’t go that far into the suburbs or that far into the detailed operations of any of the companies. There is more recounting and telling than there are suggestions for improvement, but it all fits within the scope of what Punching In is trying to do.

Punching In examines the overlooked, undervalued part of the American business economy that is the frontline employee. Executives at the top will never fully grasp and understand all of the challenges that those at the bottom face every day, but Punching In provides a firm starting point with a valuable amount of useful insight and information for all employees on all levels of the corporate ladder.

Bottomline: Punching In is a worthwhile read for those interested in retail and the importance of front line employees.
Pros: Well written and insightful. Unique perspective of the front lines and companies that consumers think they know well.
Cons: Lacks “take home” advice that could make the book really useful to those focused on improvement, Frankel mainly works in stores in large cities (which are often different than those in the suburbs).
Interested? You can buy the book on for about $16.
More on Service Untitled: Interview with author Alex Frankel coming Monday.

4 Responses to “Book Review: "Punching In" by Alex Frankel”

  1. Book Reader said:

    Jan 11, 08 at 4:48 pm

    This looks right up my alley. I manage a bookstore/cafe and am always looking for ways to help get my employees to treat the front line better.

  2. Jen, writer said:

    Jan 11, 08 at 5:32 pm

    Yes, I’ve heard of this book before. Early last year, I think. Thanks for the reminder. I think Punching In is going to be a great read. Personally, I’m interested to see which companies give their employees a positive working environment and which do not. It’s like a story book for adults. The adventures of the front-line employee. I’m not at all surprised that he found working at Apple to be very positive.

  3. Service Untitled said:

    Jan 11, 08 at 5:55 pm

    Book Reader: it should probably be worth the read then! Let me know your thoughts when you do read it.

    Jen: I’m not sure how the long the book has been around, but it has been on my radar at least a couple of months. I think it is interesting to see who treats their employees well and who doesn’t, too. It shows a lot about the companies.

  4. Service Untitled » Interview: Author Alex Frankel - customer service and customer service experience blog said:

    Jan 14, 08 at 8:07 am

    […] This interview is a follow up to my review of Punching In by Alex Frankel. You can read the review here. […]