Less a Job Than an Adventure

Confessions of a telemarketer

Who do you hate more, terrorists or telemarketers? Chances are pretty slim that anyone you know has been killed in a terrorist attack, but you and everyone you know has been interrupted, inconvenienced and even downright harassed by telemarketers. Telemarketers like me.

Hold on there, Tex, put that dogleg back in its holster, I’m not going to try and sell you anything. See, I’m not technically a telemarketer! No, I’m a tele-fundraiser, and there’s a whole world of difference. I’m not affected by that do-not-call list you’re jabbering about. That’s right! Those laws apply only to those selling you stuff by phone. I’m not selling anything — like I said, I’m fundraising for a nonprofit organization. When you give me your money, you won’t get shit from me or anyone else here. Nope, the best you can hope for is a receipt or a tax write-off.

Naturally, it’ll be more convenient for us if you can use your credit card — see, that way the transaction happens instantaneously, and we don’t have all the administrative bother and expense of sending out our pledge card and then waiting for you to send it back. And besides, as a non-profit, a lot of credit card fees are waived by the banks and credit card companies. Also, when you use your credit card, it makes it impossible for you to think better of your contribution or change your mind about the whole thing. Yes, we trust you, absolutely we do! It’s just that our records show that only 30 percent of our mailed pledge cards actually come back with a check, whereas, in the calling center here about 60 percent of calls that actually reach our prospects end up with a pledge, and we’ve got to work the percentages.

See, my pay is so low that it’s actually cheaper to have me call about 40 phone numbers in an hour — and actually talk to maybe three or four prospects in that time — than it is to send out 35-cent postcards to the same number of people. Yeah, I don’t get any commission or bonus based on my productivity, just a flat, low, hourly rate. How low? Well, I’m part-timing it right now, but even if I were working 40 hours a week, I’d come out below the poverty line. The glamour and prestige make up for it though, don’t you think?

I don’t think it’ll surprise you to hear that the most significant issue on this job is boredom. Let’s face it — the reason standards are so low for these kinds of gigs is that the work is so undemanding. Most of the time you’re simply dialing numbers, waiting for someone to pick up, hanging up after a few rings (or if you get an answering machine), repeat ad infinitum. If you’re not taking calls off a predictive dialer (a whole other kind of hell), it’s not at all uncommon to go 20 or 30 minutes at a time on this kind of autopilot. Boredom sets in while you wait for someone to pick up the phone. The minutes drag by, slowly stretching into hours, and you’ve got very little to occupy your mind, especially if you’re working on a computer, in which case you don’t even dial the numbers yourself, you just hit return.

The dangerous thing about boredom is that sooner or later a bored person is going to try to do something to alleviate that boredom. Something awful like — reading a book or newspaper! Or talking to colleagues! Or idly doodling on some scratch paper! In other words, breaking the rules. Most of a phone job is doing nothing, just occupying space until a response is required, yet any activity other than staring fixedly at the screen and concentrating with all your might on that ringing tone in the earpiece is strictly forbidden. Stand up to stretch — oh, no. That would be a grave violation of the enormous trust placed in you by your employer.

Ah, it’s not all the cruel sting of the whip, though. For years I worked on telephone surveys — we don’t want your money; we just want your time (then other people use what we’ve learned to take your money, but let’s not dwell on that for the moment). One of the joints I worked for was slackness personified. I don’t know that they ever turned down an applicant who could halfway speak English, functional literacy optional. This place was an old-fashioned low-tech sweatshop: dirty cubicles, stained carpet, sporadically functional air conditioning, the whole nine yards. Most of the work wasn’t even computerized. We did the bulk of our data-collection on paper and sifted through huge stacks of phone numbers to achieve our random samples of the populace. Occasionally, we’d even break out phone books and just dial until we found someone at home. This lack of solid-state amenities was especially ironic in light of the fact that the company putatively specialized in market research for computer manufacturers and publications. The most degrading aspect of working at the 99-cent store of market research firms wasn’t the work environment, though. In fact, that was kind of pleasant, since it was comfortably slack enough to accommodate a wide variety of substance abusers that couldn’t get jobs anywhere else. (Uh, like me for instance.) No, the worst of it was that there was nobody, but nobody, we’d turn down for study. As a result we got some of the worst, most depressing research studies you could imagine.

The one that stands out was commissioned by the Veteran’s Administration. We were to contact veterans collecting disability and interview them to determine their assessment of how they were treated by their case workers, doctors, and so on. Thankfully, we didn’t have to get a tremendously large pool of responses on this one, because at least once a shift I’d find myself talking to someone with the saddest life story imaginable. One guy had been paralyzed from the neck down at the age of 17 in Vietnam, some 20 or 25 years before I spoke with him. He was a black guy from rural Alabama with such a thick backwoods drawl that even I, who’ve spent most of my life in Texas, could barely understand him. He still lived with his mother, who was his primary caregiver, and never went anywhere except the hospital — as near as I could tell simply because he couldn’t go anywhere else. He was understandably extremely depressed about his lot in life, and at first seemed to relish the idea of a phone call from me. I got the sense that he didn’t get many calls, and didn’t get to talk to many people except his family and doctors. It was a pretty terrible feeling when I realized that he found the questions I had to ask him upsetting. About halfway through our interview he was weeping. I signed out for a break after that and went on a walk several times longer than the allotted 15 minute break.

Even under normal circumstances, my breaks at this particular job meant a walk around the park and a joint up in smoke. Like I mentioned before, chemical dependency was part of a vicious cycle in this workplace: if you weren’t zoned out, you’d never be able to put up with the job, and anyone together enough to roll their sleeves down and cover their track marks in the interview were pretty much guaranteed a seat in the phone room. There was, conveniently enough, a convenience store across the street from the offices that sold Busch tall-boys, so a number of the older workers would shotgun 20 ounces of cheap beer at every coffee break and two or three at lunch. There was the occasional short-timer who needed something stronger, though. I remember one guy pouring grain alcohol into a covered coffee cup to sip as he dialed. There was no coffee in the coffee cup.

Naturally, a mood of fatalistic desperation and drug abuse doesn’t go over well with most employers, so we’d be subjected to the usual “inspirational” banalities. “Smile and Dial!” was a particular favorite. We were also constantly encouraged to “Probe Thoroughly” — that is to say: get the most complete response possible to an open-ended question. Signs bearing these slogans, among others, filled the walls of the office. Unfortunately, the corporate logo was a hand with an extended index finger. The juxtaposition of “Probe Thoroughly” with the picture of a jutting digit evoked a lot of lewd snickering among us phone-drones, but somehow the execs never got the joke.

Anyway, that wasn’t the worst phone job I ever had. Nah, it was actually pretty slack around there. I had one gig, telemarketing proper, which was unbelievably rigid. We’re on the phone, right? You can’t see me. There’s nothing about the work itself that would make a t-shirt and jeans unacceptable, but these jokers had us wearing shirts and ties. Women in dresses had to wear pantyhose. No sneakers, dress shoes only. This was supposed to create a “professional environment,” though I never heard of any professional who made $9.50 an hour and was forbidden from going to the restroom except when his supervisor okayed break-time. Jackasses.

Anyway. There was a dress code there, just like it was a goddamn bank or something. The killer thing was if you showed up in a tie or pair of pantyhose that were deemed too worn or dirty or whatever by your higher-ups, they had — get this — a vending machine with ties and pantyhose where you could buy new clothes (with profits going in the company’s coffers, natch) and bring your appearance up to code. Of course, if you didn’t bring enough cash with you to buy a new tie or pantyhose, they kept an ATM next to vending machines. A teller machine, I may add, that charged a two-dollar fee for cash withdrawals. Once again, the company owned it. If you didn’t have enough in the bank for a withdrawal to buy your way back onto the calling floor, you’d be sent home for the day with no earnings and a strike against you. (This was the same joint where, despite the fact that it was a 400-seat call center with an equivalent number of outside lines, you were forbidden from using the phone at your desk for a personal call, even when you were on break. No, these tightwads had payphones in the break room.)

That’s still not the worst of it. This place was a cesspool of dishonest business practices. They instituted a point system for commissions, based on how many sales you got, how many of them were credit card sales, how many hours you worked, and at least two or three other variables that I can’t remember anymore. The upshot of this was that the formula for figuring out the appropriate amount of your commission bonus was totally impenetrable. Some of the data used to calculate your bonus was forbidden from workers entirely. It was absolutely impossible for you to dispute the amount of your bonus. I’m sure it’ll come as a shock to hear that it was invariably smaller than you expected.

One last story about this place. Didn’t happen to me, it happened to a friend who was working there on Sept. 11, 2001. He was on the phones when the Twin Towers collapsed. The first he heard was when someone he was calling told him about a plane crashing into the first tower. He was amazed and told a co-worker who didn’t believe him at first (did anyone believe it at first?) but kept on calling. Of course, it wasn’t long before everyone they called was saying “how can you be calling right now, don’t you know what’s happening?” The supervisors, managers, and execs all must have been aware of the situation. Yet word came down that they would keep calling on schedule and anyone who left would get an unexcused absence strike against them. This lasted for hours, until mid-afternoon, when they finally let people go. It wasn’t any notion of compassion or inappropriateness that changed their minds. It was the fact that no one was buying.