It wasn’t as exciting, or demeaning, as, say, phone sex, but it paid decently and wasn’t taxing. I was a role player for a company that facilitated mock scenarios for firms hiring prospective financial advisors. I enacted the various cold calls and client calls, and then I would complete a behavioral evaluation of the candidates’ demeanor and interpersonal skills. In between calls I’d read a book, or refresh various blogs and gossip with my friend Laura, who usually worked beside me. Though it involved talking to complete strangers, it was not in any way close to telemarketing. I had done that once, and it was the most miserable few weeks of my working life. I still haven’t managed to recapture the sliver of my soul I lost from that experience.
I had just moved to New York and was desperate for a paycheck. Armed with little but a B.F.A in theatre, I sent out resumes and knocked on doors but couldn’t land anything decent. I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to have flexibility in order to audition. This was before the omnipresence of Craigslist, if such a time can be fathomed, so I took to scanning the ads in the back of the Village Voice, looking for a job that would match my limited skill set. I bypassed the restaurant ads. Despite the cliché, I’d never waited tables in my life, and in the fast-paced New York food service industry, they want someone with experience. I kept seeing listings for telemarketers. Actors, the ads screamed in bold type. Make money while you’re waiting for your big break. I was loathe to take the bait, but it had all the earmarks of a job I could hack. Flexible? check. No experience? Check. A paycheck was a paycheck, at least until I got my footing. As terrible as the stigma of being a telemarketer was, I reminded myself I had a costly sublet and a dwindling savings account. Besides, I rationalized, I could hone my acting chops by inventing characters and trying out accents on the phone. So I answered one of the ads.
I interviewed for the position in the large, bland conference room of the company, on a rented floor of an office building somewhere in the west 30s. Boxes, overflowing with reams of paper — the leads –were stacked in the corners. There were dented black file cabinets, mismatched, fraying chairs, and a pot of coffee that was slowly congealing to sludge on the burner. I was evaluated by a suave African-American man in his mid-thirties, who was dressed in a wool blazer and khaki pants. He spoke quickly, pointedly, and I could tell right away he was a salesman. He oozed manufactured charm, and was selling me on the job before I could even open my mouth. He glanced over my paperwork and before I knew what was happening he had hired me on the spot. We discussed schedules and then I was out the door, on my way to the elevator, wondering if Faust had the same vague feeling of queasiness after he dealt with the devil.
We were ostensibly making calls for a ballet company located somewhere in the Midwest. I’d be convincing past ticket holders to renew their lax season subscriptions. I told myself this was good. I was working for a cultural institution. I was ensuring the arts would thrive. I was clearly deluding myself that the job would be more noble than it turned out. I was assigned the 3-8PM shift, and showed up for work a good fifteen minutes early the first day for training. Strolling tentatively into the conference room, I realized I hadn’t been told who my supervisor was, or what station I was to be assigned. I waited, and I waited, but no one came by. At around three o’clock, as the previous shift ended, the room was suddenly alive with activity. The seasoned telemarketers putting on their coats, punching out, tossing off jovial parting words. They seemed a happy, close-knit bunch—not the sedated office zombies, sallow and self-loathing, that I’d pictured. Three other new hires arrived, and we made obligatory introductions while waiting. Our supervisor, a heavy-set blond girl with chipped blue nail polish, arrived to collect us and brief us on procedure. We were given time cards, punched in, and taken to the next room, the call center – the coal black heart of the enterprise. We were briefly introduced to our new co-workers, then taken to a desk for training. Scripts were distributed, the phone system was demoed, and then we listened in on one of the senior telemarketers making a call, to get some pointers. “Remember,” our supervisor said, “don’t sound like your reading. Make the words your own.” And with that nugget of advice, we were each told to find an empty desk and have at it.
The heavy-set blonde brought over a stack of leads, and I placed the black headset on and dove in, albeit hesitantly. One thing I have always hated is people listening to me on the phone. I tried to block them out and focus on the task at hand. I made the first call—wrong number. On the second call no one was home. It took me awhile to speak to an actual, living human being. I realized quickly that the majority of our leads were bad, the hot ones were reserved for the veterans, proven “closers” whose calls concluded with a sale and a valid credit card number. Sheet after sheet, I notated whether it was a bad number, a do not call, or a no and put the sheets in their various piles. When I did speak to a person, I was barely able to make it through half the script before they politely, or angrily, expressed their disinterest. I watched as my co-workers made sales, the tally displayed on the white marker board in the front of the room, which enhanced the spirit of competition. I finished my shift and resolved to do better the next day.
My next shift, I fixed myself a cup of watery coffee and took a seat at an empty desk. I was determined to make a sale. Why anyone would want to be a good telemarketer, I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to see my name on the board. Plus, our base pay was fairly meager. The only way to really earn was to get the sales commission. That realization spurred me on. I was on a roll that afternoon, and while I didn’t close, I got further in the script and managed to be quite persuasive. I took a smoke break in the stairwell, and was soon joined by my blonde supervisor. She still had her chipped blue nail polish, and up close I noticed her dry, blotchy skin, poorly hidden under thick pancake makeup. She asked me what I did, and I told her I was an actor.
“Neat,” she said. “I’d like to try acting, but I want to finish up school first.”
“Oh” I said.
Turns out she was still a student, a year or so younger than me, and finishing up courses at a community college. We ground out our cigarettes on the concrete steps and returned to the fluorescent hive.
By the end of the week the job felt routine, and I’d made a sale or two. I was getting more comfortable in the environment, so I started to observe my fellow telemarketers. It was, to be polite, a freakshow. One young guy, Hispanic and in his early twenties, never made a call. Ever. He’d pick up the receiver, start to dial, then replace it in its cradle. He’d do this a few times, then get up and stretch, or go get coffee, repeating the routine for the entire five hour shift. He was content to ride the clock and collect the paltry hourly pay. Then there was the aggressive Asian woman. She was tiny, in her early forties I judged, and happened to be seated next to me on this particular day. What I hadn’t noticed before was that she was missing her fingers. All ten of them. At the end of her small hands were these nubs that stopped at the first knuckle. Maybe this defect spurred her determination, because she was always hectoring the supervisors. If it wasn’t the blonde girl, it was a disaffected guy named Juan. The Asian spitfire was the first one in every shift, and would be up at the front desk, saying “Give me good leads Juan. I need the leads. I can close Juan.” Frankly, she scared me. I started to feel like I was in an absurdist dinner theatre production of Glengarry Glen Ross. I had to get out.
My decision to quit coincided unfortunately with a lucky streak. I’d started making sales. Lots of them. I was flush with the feeling of success, and liked being congratulated by the supervisors. And admittedly, to feel the darts of jealousy from the others as I brought my sales form to the front of the room, seeing my total added to the board. My cockiness would alternate with moments of clarity, though, like when I called for a Mr. Something and was told by his widow that he’d just passed away. She could have been lying, a ruse to get me off the phone, but her voice was frail and teary, and I knew it was true. And I hated that even for a moment I second guessed this bereaved, elderly woman. The more calls I made, the more I got the sense were just bilking old people out of their money. Most of these subscribers were retired and living on their pensions. We were told, nay strongly encouraged, to give them the hard sell, find the chink in their emotional armor and go for it, and this directive made me a not just a little queasy. I started taking extended coffee breaks, smoke breaks, potty breaks, anything to keep me away from the phone. I would purposely dial wrong numbers, and even pretend to continue conversations long after the person on the other end of the call had hung up on me. I doodled on the yellow legal pad at my desk, gross caricatures of the people to whom I was speaking. I felt rotten.
By week three, I was tired of being yelled at. Tired of hating people who hated me. This is exactly the reason the burnout rate for telemarketers is so high. No one except an avowed masochist can take that level of revulsion and enjoy it. Or a sociopath.
It was at the end of my shift, on that third week, that the blonde supervisor came up to me. “You’re really good on the phone,” she said, leaning over my desk. I mumbled my thanks and shuffled some papers around.
She scanned the room with her big eyes, then leaned closer, and in a stage whisper said “I think I’d like you to start training our new hires.” With that she walked away, smiling. I called in sick the next day and never went back.