Promises on the line

In telemarketing, you keep the pitch light until the deal is closed - and hope you get your cut

Rating: NNNNN

MONTREAL — Five minutes before my first shift, eight or nine of us are clustered around the front steps outside smoking and glancing at watches.

Slowly, we enter like an uneven string of beads being pulled up through the front doors to the fifth floor of a building in Old Montreal.

The smokers are always the first people I meet at work, and in telemarketing everyone smokes.

This is my first time at this job, with new co-workers and a new office, but a telemarketer changes jobs so often it scarcely matters. The turnover rate is incredibly high I’ve seen people fired in their first two hours. I’ve worked at six different places in the last two years, selling carpet cleaning, long-distance plans, charity tickets, local phone service and cruise vacations. Tonight’s product — cheap long-distance — is one of the most common pitches in the industry.

The office itself is typical — cubicles arranged around a central podium from which managers survey their charges and listen in on their calls. The walls are dotted with inspirational posters: rowers gliding toward a sunset, a mountain with an eagle flying past.

Knowing how to size up an office is a good skill to have. If the furnishings and fixtures look straight from the quick-and-dirty school of design, you’re probably at a dodgy job that will vanish in the night, one step ahead of the police.

A former manager of mine once ran a place that received all its payments through a courier service. One day, calling about a late delivery, she was told the courier was being questioned by the RCMP.

Her next call was to the owner, before she rushed out the door and watched from across the street as cops raided the place. Another friend once cashed cheques worth $750 for his boss on a Friday. They bounced, and on Monday he found the office empty. These stories are extreme, but everyone who telemarkets for a while has heard enough of them to be cautious.

Glorious career

Managers come in as many different varieties as telemarketers themselves, but mainly you get the young, super-enthusiastic ones who think their dead-end job is the first step in a glorious career in business, and the older, cynical ones who are on the downward spiral from some downsized corporate middle-management job.

This time, my manager is fairly standard. He speaks the basic language of closing: “They’re buying you, not the product,” and “There’s lots of money to be made here.”

The equipment at my desk is standard. At my first job, all I had was a regular phone and pages ripped out of the phone book. Much more common is a computer with an auto-dialer that calls the numbers for you, skipping over busy signals and answering machines until it connects you with someone. Beside that is a binder containing the script, my sales pitch.

No matter what the product, the scripts are all the same. After an opening greeting, I explain the product’s advantages while asking questions that elicit a positive response (“Do you like children?”) to get the customer in the habit of saying yes to me. When the customer asks me a question, I never say no or “We can’t do that.”

I always answer questions positively, keeping it a big, happy yes-fest until the money changes hands.

Another rule is to never ask the customer questions like “So what do you think?” or “Are you interested?” Always assume the sale. That way, if the customer turns you down at the end, you get to act betrayed, like the customer has broken some precious bond of trust forged in the last 15 minutes.

As my supervisor barks something about “making money” and starts up the dialers, I lean into the screen and wait for the first call. I’m working the 5 to 11 pm shift. It’s illegal to telemarket after 9 pm, but we’re all calling cross-Canada, so the different time zones let us work late.

My calls follow the customary pattern. You lose most people after the first two minutes — I punch a zero-seven into my computer, code for “not interested.” Tonight I punch a couple of zero-sixes in as well, code for “deceased.” One of the worst moments is when you ask for Mr. Whoever and his wife tells you he died just last week.

You have to devise some inoffensive way of getting off the phone. It is a truly modern test of etiquette. I remember one telemarketer telling the bereaved wife that her deceased husband had ordered the product the week before and that he just needed her credit card number to confirm the order. Ugh.

When my co-workers make sales, they run up to put them on a message board beside their name. Some offices have a bell you ring when you make a sale.

About an hour in, I get Cheryl, a woman who seems interested in our 10-cents-a-minute long-distance plan. She pulls out the most common objection to a quick sale: she has to talk it over with her husband.

I tell her to keep in mind that she isn’t buying anything — she’s merely choosing to subscribe to a plan that will save them money –and wouldn’t her husband be happy about that? She mulls it over and agrees, and I sign her up for our plan. I wonder how many domestic disputes my sales have caused.

She goes through verification — a third party confirms the sale and makes a recorded verbal contract –and I have my first sale of the night. I have to average around two a night to keep my job, a figure many people are unable to match.

The weirdos keep it interesting. As the shift wears on, the boredom increases, and I resort to the classic coping mechanisms: going to the bathroom a lot and using the auto- dialer to call friends, a simple enough trick at most offices.

Most people who haven’t done the job assume it’s difficult because of all the people yelling at you, but in fact it’s the angry or bizarre callers who keep me entertained.

What truly wears you down is the constant rejection and having to say the same thing over and over again.

Like me, my co-workers are mostly people who suffer from anglo Quebec’s biggest workplace handicap — poor French. In this business, the workforce is full of people who’ve been left behind by the new economy. So the city and the province have thrown millions of dollars in grants, loans and tax breaks at the owners of telephone sweatshops. (The polite term is “call centres.”)

No security

Other economies that took big hits in the 90s, like New Brunswick, have done the same thing. But the new jobs differ from the old ones in that there’s no security, no representation and no benefits.

While the RCMP spends millions going after the scumballs who use bogus lottery scams to swindle oldsters out of their pension money, no one cares about telemarketers regularly getting screwed out of their pay.

Next time you get one of us on the phone, please be polite. We don’t like telemarketing any more than you do.

From Hour Magazine

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