I Was a Teenage Telemarketer
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Those damned telemarketers. Who doesn't hate them? They're always calling, at all times of the day.

And it must be a horrible job. How desperate would you have to be to do that for a living? Who'd ever want to do it?

Actually, I did.

It began back in the autumn of 1978. I needed a change of scenery, so I flew from my home state of New Hampshire to stay with some friends near Phoenix. At their urging, I took a job on a construction crew. I had never done such work, but I was young and strong. I looked forward to a nice, long stretch of employment.

I lasted four days. My muscles were sore, my hands bruised, and my entire upper body was covered by the worst sunburn I had ever experienced, courtesy of the Arizona sun.

There had to be, I thought, a better way to make money than this.

One of my roommates, named Tim, was also looking for work. He came across a distinctive ad in the newspaper, which he showed to me. It said,

"Earn up to $4.50 per hour!"

We were impressed. We were both 19, minimum wage was then $2.90 per hour, and this was 1978. The rest of the ad gave no clue as to what the actual job was but said to apply in person to Golden Opportunities, Inc., in downtown Phoenix.

The prospect of easy earnings made us hurry down to apply. A receptionist explained the job to us. We were to make telephone calls to sell a booklet that contained coupons for free goods and services in the area. It cost $19.95 and was delivered by part-time students in their cars. The job paid $2.90 per hour to start, she said, but if we stayed for two or three weeks, our wages would rise to $3.50 and $4.50 respectively.

The receptionist took our names and told us to return at 8:30 am the following Monday morning. We would then receive a half-hour of training before launching our sales career at 9:00 am.

I was excited. This was definitely better than swinging a hammer.

Job Training

Monday had arrived. Tim and I, along with ten other recruits, were ushered into a small, windowless office with narrow tables lining the walls. There were about fifteen telephones and chairs and not much else. The manager, a fat, outgoing guy named Chuck, gave us all a printed sales pitch. All we had to do, Chuck told us, was to read the pitch and then simply take the order. I looked down at the paper. It started like this:

Me: Good morning. Is this the lady of the house?

Lady: (reluctantly) Yes.

Me: Well, then, have you ever considered...

If a man answered, we were supposed to say, "Is this the man of the house?" which sounded completely ridiculous every time I said it.

The stilted, mechanical speech went on to tell the prospect that the coupons were worth over $500 and contained such valuable gifts as a free oil change, pizza, dinner, etc. The idea behind the coupons was to bring customers to the various businesses in town for something free, then sell them something once they got there.

We were also given a telephone prefix, such as 555, and a long list of suffices in numerical order, like 1000, 1001, 1002, etc. (This system did have its pitfalls, as I would soon find out.) We were to make the calls in order, non-stop, until we had made a sale.

Chuck rubbed his hands together. "Any questions? Good. Let's hit those phones!"

Smoker's Paradise

In those days, smoking was allowed in office buildings, and almost everyone except me immediately lit up. There was no ventilation to speak of. Soon, the room was filled with a dense fog of gray smoke.

I could hear a few voices starting to sell. Now it was my turn.

At first, I was nervous and talked too fast. But after a couple of hours, I began to settle down and actually sold some books. There were basically two types of prospects: polite and not polite. The polite ones would listen to my entire spiel and only then say they weren't interested. The others would interrupt as soon as they knew who I was. Some of these had bought the book a year or two before and didn't want another one. "I bought it last March, and I never used it. It sat on my refrigerator for months," was the usual story.

Sometimes, the system of calling numbers in sequence had interesting results. One morning, for example, I discovered that all of the numbers I was dialing belonged to a women's dorm at a nearby university. Although it was pleasant conversing with friendly female voices, there were no sales. And sometimes I would stumble onto an unlisted number. One irate woman demanded to know who had given me her number. I tried to explain our system to her, but I don't think she believed me.

When I did get lucky and make a sale, I would take the order to Chuck, and he would call the delivery person to take it to the customer's house. In addition to my hourly wage, I would get a one-dollar commission per book. If I was able to sell five books in a day, I would receive an extra $5.00 on top of that.

There was one major drawback. Once the book was delivered, it was easy to refuse. The lady (or man) of the house might look it over, shrug, and say, "I don't really want this after all." The delivery person would call Chuck, and he in turn would walk over and put a slip on my desk. I don't remember if the slip had the word REJECTED stamped on it, but it might as well have. Naturally, the commission was lost.

One day, I reached the pinnacle of sales stardom by selling seven books in one day. As the afternoon wore on, however, those reject slips would make their way to my desk. At day's end, I ended up with only four sales and three rejections. I sadly waved goodbye to my lost $5.00 bonus as I left that day.

Beginning of the End

As I began my second week, I noticed that many of the original employees were gone, and new ones had taken their places. They were of all types: retirees, students, working mothers, etc. One person who had remained from the previous week was an elderly man with a wonderful speaking voice. He was very successful on the phone; he was probably a retired salesman.

I, on the other hand, was starting to lose interest. The biggest obstacle I had was that I just did not believe in the product. Many of the coupons in the book were nearly worthless, and I never would have bought the book myself.

The sheer number of calls I had to make every day steadily ground me down. The high rate of rejection made it hard to keep going. In the sweatshop atmosphere, with smoke and voices filling the room, I was usually sullen and depressed. My voice was always hoarse by 11 am.

It began to occur to me that the high turnover was not only inevitable but expected. It made sense that the company might be using people for a week or two, while enthusiasm was high. That way, they could also avoid paying the higher wages promised. I couldn't imagine anyone working there for very long.

After two weeks, Tim and I had had enough. We didn't show up for work one Saturday, and the company's receptionist called later to say our sales were down, and we were no longer needed.

Tim took the call. I looked at him as he delivered the news. He was smiling.

Those Pesky Salespeople

I imagine telemarketing has come a long way since I did it. I read somewhere that computers now dial the phones -- not people. That accounts for that strange silence you hear when you first pick up the phone.

You'd think that after my experience, I'd be more sympathetic to telemarketers today. Not in the least. As soon as I pick up and hear that pause, down goes the phone. If it turns out not to have been a sales call, too bad; they should have talked faster.

Telephone surveys, while slightly less annoying, I will sometimes go along with, depending on the time involved. In my opinion, surveys are somewhat necessary. Phone sales are not.

There is another tool I like to use for keeping the telephone salespeople at bay. I just stay online. Works like a charm.

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