Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hi. This is John. I need to talk to you about your expiring car warranty.

Millions of phones have handled fewer calls in the last week. Telemarketers now need written permission before they can use pre-recorded robocalls, although "purely informational" messages are still allowed. Try and picture someone who would sit down at the kitchen table with pen and paper to write that letter. If you do know a sad soul who's contemplating this, pull him aside and ask if everything's all right in his life. Alert family members so they can help.

How lonely is that person, who's so desperate for interaction with some type of speaking creature that they'll welcome any conversation, even a decidedly one-sided one? They want to listen to a recorded message tell them that their car warranty is about to expire, even though they last owned a car in 1987. They welcome stern warnings about out-of-control debt. Great rates on mortgages!? Sign 'em up.

I have enjoyed the phone silence the last week, but I've never had the hatred for telemarketers - the recorded and human kind - that many people possess. The reason is that I was a telemarketer for a few fleeting hours in the summer of 1997. It came a few months before I took a job as a wheelchair pusher at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but that's a story for another time, likely with a therapist.

Following college graduation, I moved to the Twin Cities with my cousin, who converted his English degree from a private school into a low-paying job at Barnes and Noble that induced an impressive bitterness unseen in most 21-year-olds. I was too good for such a gig, I told myself. So I held out for a month, jobless, subsisting on little but the newly created cheese-in-the-crust pizza from Pizza Hut. Finally the money ran out and the bills kept coming and I accepted a job as a telemarketer working with an organization that represented the Minnesota Professional Firefighters association. Unfortunately, the telemarketing group didn't exactly match their firefighting brethren.

Professionalism? A vague term, but to co-opt a phrase from the Supreme Court, I know it when I don't see it. Firefighters? Not in this office, unless the poorly constructed room ever went up in flames.

The group supposedly collected money that they then funneled to firefighters somewhere, perhaps in Minnesota as the name suggests, likely not. They did this by selling concert tickets, with the proceeds going to the brave men and women who risked their lives every day.

That was the sales pitch, anyway. A 25-year-old former frat boy filled with caffeine and cockiness delivered the speech on my first day on the job. He gave the lecture with the enthusiasm of an Army recruiter desperate to meet a hiring quota. The man knew nothing about me, yet he attacked every psychological weak point. He appealed to my sense of duty and my poverty. We were doing good work, he said. You're going to love this profession, he added. The pay hovered around minimum wage. Sweatshop workers enjoyed better benefits.

The office was on the second-floor of a nondescript building in a nondescript suburb that was 30 minutes away from our place. But it was a job. With the checks I could pay for some of the cheesy-crust pies delivered nightly to the Fury boys's household.

The floor leader gave me a handful of pages with names listed in alphabetical order. All around me, men and women of all ages and at varying stages of desperation shouted, cajoled, begged, whined, and bullied. Call the number. When the poor bastard on the other end picks up the phone, don't say, "Is Mr. Johnson there?" That phone line is no place for doubt. Exude confidence. Say, "Hi Mr. Johnson," and make them correct you if it isn't Mr. Johnson. If the mark doesn't hang up immediately, start reading the script. Study the script like a Broadway understudy, so it's committed to memory.

Tell them you're calling on behalf of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters Association. No, no, we're not actually with that group, we're just representing them in this vital endeavor, where we sell concert tickets to country music acts that struggle to fill the stage at a county fair. That's an important detail for the lawyers.

"So can I put you down for two tickets at $49.99 a piece, Mr. Johnson?" When the elderly or confused person on the other end of the line says yes, transfer them to another person, who takes down the information, including the vital credit card numbers. Meanwhile, the main man on the floor Usain Bolts up to the front of the room. He grabs a piece of chalk and puts a mark in your sales column. Even better, he bangs a nearby bell. He bangs it with the ferocity of a mother calling the farmhands in for lunch on a hot summer day.

That first day, I failed to earn a ringing. Each call concluded with the type of phone rejection I hadn't experienced since the summer of 1994, when a girl as nice as she was cute said it probably wouldn't work for us to date, "because you'll be away at college, Shawn."

That phone call only brought heartbreak. The rejections on this day, in that office, caused conflicting emotions. Sadness at not being able to close the deal Glengarry Glen Ross style. Elation that I still had never duped someone into spending half a hundred dollars on concert tickets that anyone with at least one working ear would reject. Where had it all gone wrong?

The goateed floor leader patted me on the back at the end of the day and gave me an earnest attaboy, telling me I'd get the hang of it soon enough. "Man, I bet by tomorrow you're going to be selling like crazy."

A day later I sat at my desk and made my first call. The first name was a foreign name, and I thought it presented a better chance at closing a sale. I might as well have had a sign draped around my neck with the words Ugly American in all caps. If the person doesn't completely understand what I'm saying, there's a better chance they'll buy it. Overnight, I'd become a predatory telemarketer. The type of person the FCC issues warnings about. My God.

Sure enough, the kind and patient Asian man on the other end of the line listened intently to my speech, words that came much easier to me after a night of study. When I delivered the key line, asking if I could put him down for some tickets, he said yes.

Yes? Yes! I don't know if that yes actually indicated a desire to help the Minnesota Professional Firefighters or was an answer to his wife's question wondering if he wanted breakfast. Didn't matter. He'd said yes and also agreed to stay on the line while I transferred his call. As I hung up, my floor leader - my mentor - got the word from my deskmate that Shawn had completed his first sale. He sprinted to the front. And as he took that chalk and made that mark and grabbed that bell and rang it for all to hear, I finally felt accepted. I was a telemarketer.

In my head I was thinking of ways to call the poor man back and tell him he'd made a horrible mistake. Maybe he was rich. Maybe I was underestimating him and he did completely understand what I'd just sold him. Probably not. And those 50 dollars could have been used for gas or school supplies or cheese-in-the-crust pizzas for the whole family.

If the office had contained a shower, I'd have jumped right in and scrubbed for an hour. I respected the people around me who were good at this job. They had bills to pay just like me. I'm sure they grew up wanting to be a firefighter, not to vaguely represent them through shady phone calls. Yet they stuck with it.

But I wasn't them. I didn't have the ability, I didn't have the guts to pick up that phone 20, 30 times a day, knowing that hatred and disgust were waiting on the other end of the line.

I made a few half-hearted attempts at sales the rest of the morning. During my lunch break at 11:30, the floor leader told me I had to go see "Greg."

I wandered into the office of the head honcho, a man in a tie with a desk and a view who'd already been held up as "the ultimate salesman," a machine who started off at the same shabby desks that we sat in every day. The smugness dripped off Greg's forehead faster than the sweat. Just a few seconds after I sat down, he pushed a tape recorder and I heard my own voice during one of my earlier, unsuccessful calls. The office was like the Nixon White House. Ah, there's the cracking voice that disgusted many a music teacher. There's the uncertainty. There's the lack of confidence.

"Shawn, we like you, but you really gotta work on that technique, buddy," he said. "You gotta study that script. Get it down cold. Get some enthusiasm!"

The man barely spoke in complete sentences but he did speak fluent exclamation point. It turns out that Greg wrote the script his phone warriors repeated every day. His mother must have been so proud.

He said they'd keep recording my calls for training purposes. Each day he'd go over them with me until my performance improved.

I listened. The man made good points, no doubt. He was basically saying I was terrible at the job, and I had no grounds for an objection. And then I did what so many had done to me in the last day-and-a-half. I rejected him. It wasn't working, I told him. This job isn't for me, and I'll be taking my lunch and not returning. Just send me my check in the mail.

He must have heard this before. People must quit that damn job every damn day. He acted hurt, but all I'd done was quit the job, not critiqued his writing skills. He walked me to the exit but couldn't resist one final sales pitch.

"See that Beamer," he said on the outskirts of the parking lot. "That's mine. You could have had that, Shawn. But instead you quit." Again, the man wasn't wrong. But it wasn't right for me.

I did quit. And to this day I still haven't driven a BMW and Greg probably goes through them faster than he goes through telemarketing groupies. But as I climbed into my 1989 Beretta that day I at least had my pride, if not a steady paycheck.

So the next time you feel the need to angrily yell at a telemarketer, just remember that they're probably more scared of you than you are of them. Hang up, sure. But hang up with kindness.

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