Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tales of Telemarketing

Photo credit: John Stames
I was about to include a couple of telemarketing war stories when I mentioned it the other day, but then I realized that I had way too many for a simple digression. And let's remember that this wasn't my worst job ever. Which is saying something. Because there was a lot about this job that sucked.

I worked for a company that published business newsletters. We'd call people to offer them a free three-month trial. And every month, we'd also send them a bill in the hopes that someone at their company would pay it accidentally. But we'd explain it to customers that we were sending them this thing that looked like a bill so they could cancel at any time in the three months. Or subscribe if they wanted to. But they did have to cancel within the three months, or they'd be expected to pay a coupla hundred bucks for the subscription (which many people did willingly--the company was dodgy, but not a complete scam).

It was critical that we explained the rules to each customer. If you were caught lying or not explaining everything (to get someone to agree to the trial subscription), you'd lose your commissions, get fired, etc. Unless you were in good with one of the managers, which several people were. In which case, they'd say whatever they wanted to in a loud, clear voice that everyone could overhear.

One of the great things about the job was the diversity. Since it was all done over the phone, all that mattered was that you could speak clearly and sell. Not only was it more racially diverse than any other place I've worked, but there were also more out gay people. We even had a pre-op transwoman who was not fooling anyone with that cheap wig. We had a guy in a wheelchair and a guy who was born with no arms (he wore a headset and dialed the phone with his feet). People who faced employment discrimination everywhere else had a chance there.

But the managers were crazy in a big fish in a small pond way. One time, the big boss hauled all the women into the conference room to yell at us for half an hour because the ladies room was messy. (I dunno, I guess someone neglected to flush. She was unclear on specifics.) We got a 15 minute break that we had to punch out and in for--but the time on the clock in the break room was different from the punch clock. Which meant people punched back in late by a minute or so sometimes. I got in trouble for this once, and pointed out the problem to the manager (actually every clock on the floor was set to a slightly different time), but he didn't care. Most other people would punch back in from break after ten minutes and then go back to the break room for another half an hour, so the joke was on them, I guess.

And the customers. The next time you're about to hang up on a telemarketer, you might want to stop and think abut how crazy you sound. One receptionist hung up on me because she was mad that "you people are calling us at work now!" I was calling about a work publication--was I supposed to call at home? (And by the way, the ones that do call at home call during dinner or TV time because that's when you're actually home. It's not a conspiracy. And in the US, you can always sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry.)

One guy listened to my whole pitch and then took the opportunity to get hostile about the whole concept of telemarketing, like I had invented it, and it was my fault that my company had chosen to use that particular sales technique. He asked me to repeat my name, and when I did, he insisted that it was a fake name. Admittedly, I used a fake last name so that I didn't have to waste time spelling my real last name 20 times an hour. But does "Jennifer Davis" sound made up? 

Another guy was really nice and asked a bunch of questions about how my job worked. He also made it clear that his boss wouldn't be OK with him ordering the newsletter and apologized for keeping me on the phone for so long. It turned out that this happened while someone was working on the copier and making so much racket that they let everyone stop calling for a while, so I didn't lose any sales.

This was way back in the early 90s, so it wasn't computerized. They gave us index cards with contact info, and we dialed the numbers ourselves. (Shortly after I quit, they started with the annoying robo-dialing that meant the workers never got a moment to breathe between calls.) At first, we all had to get up and go to a manager's office to get a stack of cards several times a day. When we got to the end of a campaign and we started running out of cards, they'd only give us 5 cards at a time to stretch things out. Heaven forfend they send some people home with pay, or send some people into the conference room to watch a motivational video or something reasonable like that.

Later on, they split us up into groups, and had one person in each group hand out the cards. When they started monitoring how much time we spent on the phone (as opposed to how much time we spent yakking to each other), they discovered that my group leader was on the phone for less than 20 minutes an hour. For some reason, 12 minutes an hour sticks out in my mind, but I could be wrong. She was absolutely shocked to find this out. The rest of us weren't. Girl never shut up. Mind you, she still made 2 sales an hour in those 12 minutes, so I guess not dealing with as much rejection as the rest of us improved her percentages.

What are your own tales of telemarketing? We've all been on one side of the line or the other. I once got so many political robocalls in support of one local candidate that I decided not to vote for him after all.


  1. I attempted to sell credit cards to anyone who didn't hang up on me for two weeks, despite the fact that I have opinions about credit cards that conflicted with the company I was working for. I sold ONE the whole time I was there, to a man in California who didn't hang up only because he liked the sound of my voice and enjoyed flirting with me while I read him the gigantic contract over the phone.
    I quit the next day.
    It was a good experience because now I have a good idea of how to handle telemarketers and how to make them go away, and also how to treat them with respect.

    1. I think I've actually signed up for credit cards just because I was being nice to the telemarketer.

      There was one guy at my job who had a great voice--a wonderful Caribbean accent. People would stay on the phone with him just to hear him talk. He had the best sales numbers of everyone. Of course, he also lied about the terms of the offer...

  2. I love this story! I worked as a telemarketer for a few weeks one summer as a teenager. I had to sell "lovely family portrait packages" for the low, low price of $39.95. I was terrible at it, and was asked not to come back. I guess that's a gentle way of saying "fired" but I was mainly just relieved, and I spent the rest of my summer hanging out with my friends and causing trouble, as teenagers are supposed to do.

    1. Phone sales is SO not for everyone. They were always bringing in a new training class of 20 people and maybe 10 would last.

      I made my quota, but hearing no all day made me twisted and bitter by the time I left.

  3. It's kinda fun to read and learn about other jobs that you really have no idea about. Thanks for sharing your experience!


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