Four Months Enduring the Short Temper of America
The call center I worked at had a stagnant dentist office feel without any of the cleanliness. The computers, the phones, even the rust-colored carpet somehow seemed to come from another time—like, thirty-ish years ago.
The walls were creamy off-white stucco; some adorned with awards that the company had received for innovative business models and leadership in the telemarketing industry—none from later than 1999—and others had, in precise 10” increments, were those majestic pictures coupled with inspiring quotes: a silhouette flock of birds flying into a sunset with the caption “LEADERSHIP: the ability to make others see the light”; an aerial shot of a man standing tall at the top of a plateau with the caption: “ACCOMPLISHMENT: the first step you take after you stumble is the most important step in reaching your goals”; a single drop of water landing in a still pool, gentle ripples undulating around it, and the incongruent caption: “IMAGINATION: the capacity to translate vision into reality.”
Riveting quotes aside, these decorations had a lot to say. But mostly they said: “We do not for have to change for the world no matter how much it changes without us.” There was a lot at stake here. It was 2012 and the telemarketing heyday had long reached its sunset, but not for this dedicated company.
When I started there, I had been in Chicago for three months. I had already quit one job because they back-owed me ~$500 worth of paychecks, which was gone forever after a plan I’d made with one of the cashiers—where she was supposed to swipe my paychecks from under the register and I was supposed to take them from her and cash them myself in secret—failed. (Yes, normally you’re supposed to, like, just get your paychecks. That’s a whole different story.) The plan failed because my boss had been one step ahead of me. He had left the checks unsigned and therefore useless. After that, I pretty much got the point: that in this city, everyone’s too busy looking out for themselves to give a single fuck about you.
And this is also when I responded to an ad in The Chicago Reader seeking call center representatives “to help match potential students with their ideal school. WALK IN INTERVIEWS!! NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY!!” And so I thought: I care about people; I would like to help them get back in school; I badly, badly need a job—now. This was my chance to be of service and to keep eating food I didn’t steal from the supermarket or get from a dumpster.
The “walk-in interview” turned out to be not so grueling. By the end of it, I was filling out my W-2s and being told to come in the next day. Finally, after three months, I would have a job where they actually paid me. I rode my bike there the next afternoon, found the training room, and took a seat at a heavy wooden conference table with the other trainees.
Of the twenty-five or so people in my training group on day 1, I’d say twenty of them showed up for day two. Then, on day three, there were about fifteen. On day four, they put us on the phones. People who didn’t make a certain number of sales that day were sent home. People who didn’t make any sales were sent home and asked not to come back.
Now, when I say “sales” I don’t mean that people were buying anything. For this campaign, we made calls on behalf of a website that sent people information about for-profit, often unaccredited colleges that run ads on basic cable (colleges like Everest, Phoenix, etc.) Our job was to call people, obtain their contact information, and convince them to allow representatives from these colleges to call (i.e. bother) about their available programs.
There were two challenges to this that made it a little harder than it sounds. The first was script adherence. When we made calls, we did it in front of a computer screen with a script we had to read word-for-word. Our calls were recorded and later reviewed at random to make sure we said exactly the same thing on every call. It effectively robbed us of our ability to consider and respond to what people said; and without that, the whole coercion game had to be played with voice inflection alone.
For instance, we were not, under any circumstance, allowed to start a call with anything but: “Hello, my name is Eric from [The Scam Website I’m Calling For] and I’m calling to discuss your online request discuss furthering your education.” (That “request” was bogus, by the way. What they actually did was provide their name and phone number to a website that promised to contact them with job leads.) For anything that someone might say after or during my opening spiel—and really, people only ever said 1 of about 6 different things—there were rebuttals we had to say word-for-word.
So when people said:
“I already have a degree,”—
I would say: ”Oh really? Well have you thought about earning a higher degree to increase your earning potential? What would you like to study?”
Or when people said: “I’m looking for a job. I don’t want to go back to school,”—
I would say: “Perhaps if you earned a degree it would make you more desirable in the eyes of potential employers. What would you like to study?”
Or when they said: “I never requested to be contacted by you fucking people. Where the fuck did you get my number?”—
I would say: “Have you been discussing furthering your education with friends or family? Perhaps one of them filled in your information to help you get on the right track towards furthering your career. What would you like to study?”
Or when people said: “You people have already called me 10 times today. Why don’t you take me off your list?”—
I would say: “I would be happy to remove your name and number from our calling list. Please be aware that it might take up to 6 to 8 weeks for you to be completely removed from our system, and in that time you may receive more phone calls.”
This complaint came up constantly. The system that generated the numbers just kept them in the system to be called over and over in short periods of time, like a day or two. Which made for the second challenge: if a person said no to this the first time, chances are they would say no the second time, as well as the seventh time, and the tenth time.
But despite all of this, I was pretty decent. In fact, after just a week on the job, I was told in the break room by this eighteen-year old kid—one who had never had a job before and took this one way too seriously—that he’d heard about me. He’d heard I was pretty good.
At that point, early on, I was sort of hustling to do a good job; but there was a good reason for this. They had a points system! A sale was worth twenty points. Depending on how many colleges you got somebody to agree to, you could get up to three sales—sixty points—in one call. There was a little box at the bottom of the computer screen in front of you. If you were averaging four sales an hour or more, the box would be flashing green. If you were averaging below four sales an hour, the box would be flashing red. Corresponding with this was sales per hour ratio set to a percentage scale where four sales per hour equaled 100%.
This might sound stupid, but seven hours a day, it became exciting like a Vegas casino. One minute your ratio could be hovering below 50%, box flashing red, and then all-of-the-sudden that big three-college “sale” comes through and your ratio shoots up to 150%, box flashing green. It was legitimately exhilarating at times. Like when I was talked to a guy on his cell phone in his car, edging closer and closer to a tunnel as he was about agree to a three-college “sale.” What a buzz!
Naturally, I grew bored after a while. I started bringing books with me to work once I figured out that, even though it was against the rules, nobody really cared. But it was hard to get much reading done. The calls just came in too quickly.
Then—like a godsend—I was tapped for a new campaign. A special campaign. And I was told that I wouldn’t have to make outbound calls anymore. That this would be an inbound campaign, which meant customer service as opposed to telemarketing. I just needed to show up on time and relatively well dressed the next day to impress the new client that this campaign was with when they came to give their presentation.
So of course I showed up to the training room half an hour late, searingly hung over and reeking of stale liquor. When I got there, two middle-aged women were in the middle of explaining over a table stacked with pots and pans that for this new campaign, we would answer calls for the Induction Cooktop Stove, which was kind of like a hot plate, except, according them, the term “hot plate” was never to be mentioned by us representatives, and if a customer said it, we were to correct them.
This cooktop-stove-hot-plate would heat food by transmitting magnetic energy from the cooktop to the pot or pan that sat on top of it, thereby heating the food that was inside the pot or pan. The cooktop itself didn’t heat. You could touch it while it was on and your hand would not burn. If you cut a pan in half and cracked an egg over it, the egg would only fry on the side that landed on the pan but not on the side that landed directly on the cooktop. All you needed was special “induction ready” pots and pans that had magnetic qualities to transmit the head. Regular pots and pans wouldn’t work. But don’t worry! The company that sold the Induction Cooktop Stove also sold induction ready cookware, and they even offered a free cookware set complimentary every cooktop sold.
According to these presenters, this fabulous new technology was “already popular in France I think.” They gave us a demonstration. They passed around each of the pots and pans they sold so we could feel how heavy they were and locate the “induction ready” symbol. Also, for training purposes, we watched this product’s infomercial—all twenty-eight minutes of it. Under the spell of enthusiasm, everything about it seemed peachy.
Except for two things. In the infomercial it says that if you buy one induction cooktop, you get a second one free, but hard to notice while it says this is the small white text on the bottom right hand corner of the screen saying “+$39.95 S+P” (S+P=shipping and processing); and when it says you’ll receive a free induction-ready cookware set to go with it—which people need because the cookware they already have won’t work with this product—the same small white text appears at the bottom of the right hand corner, this time saying “+$69.95 S+P.”
On the phones, people got livid when they found out the shit they spent $100 on wouldn’t work unless they spent another $70 for the pans that went with it. Most of my calls were some variation of this conversation:
Caller- “Hi, I’m calling because the 5-piece cookware set that was supposed to with my induction cooktop didn’t arrive. I’m wondering if it was shipped separately?”
Me- “Can I have your name and address so that I can get into your account and tell you when it’s supposed to arrive?”
Caller- [gives me name/address]
Me- [looks up account] “Well, it says here that you didn’t order the 5-piece cookware set with your induction cooktop.”
Caller- “What do you mean I didn’t order the cookware? The infomercial said that the cookware comes free.”
Me- “Yes, but in order to receive the cookware, you have to agree to the shipping and processing charges when placing your order.”
Caller- “Alright, well how much is shipping and processing?”
Caller- [angrily] “You mean I have to pay $70 for something that was supposed come free with my order?”
Me- “Sir / Ma’am, the cookware set is free. All you have to do is pay the shipping and processing fee.”
Caller- “Fuck this. I want to send both the cooktops back” (remember this was a buy-one-get-one-free offer). “What do I have to do to get a refund? The cooktops won’t even work unless I get that cookware.”
Me- “To get a full refund you have to send the cooktop to this address (I spell out the address) along with your customer ID number.”
Caller- “And when do you send me a shipping voucher?”
Me- “You don’t get a shipping voucher.”
Caller- “You mean to tell me I have to pay the shipping costs?! Are you going to refund the shipping and processing I paid for you to send it here?”
Me- “I can only refund you the product price.”
Caller- “What about the shipping costs for the second cooktop? The one that came free.”
Me- (what a dumb fucking question) “Like I said, sir / ma’am, I can only refund you the product price. I can’t refund you any of the shipping and processing fees.”
Caller- “This is bullshit. You guys stole $70 from me. I’m going to sue you. I’m going to have the Better Business Bureau” (old people were especially fond of this one) “and I’m going to tell all my friends what a lousy product you’re selling. You should all be ashamed of yourselves.”
Me- “I’m sorry to hear that, sir / ma’am, but if you’d like, I can still send you the complimentary 5-piece cookware set if you just agree to the $69.95 shipping and processing fee.” (ha!)
At this point, people either relented and paid the fee, cussed me out and hung up (we weren’t allowed to hang up on them), or they asked for a supervisor; in which case I would call over my floor manager, put them on the line, and the whole conversation would play out all over again.
Occasionally, for like an hour or two at a time, they would switch me back to the college-finding outbound campaign, but for the most part I basically spent thirty-five hours every week having the above conversation with a rotating cast of angry and oblivious strangers.
Until they trained me on more inbound campaigns.
And then more inbound campaigns.
Until pretty soon I was answering as a different company from one call to the next. I was giving people information about Reverse Mortgages one minute, enlisting them for motivational seminars the next, then back to arguing with them about the shipping and processing fees on their Induction Cooktop Stoves; all going off of scripts and little to no knowledge of the product. There were a couple campaigns that only women worked—like the one that sold vaginal cream for menopausal women and the one that settled bills for a phone sex line—but other than that I worked pretty much every campaign they had.
Until I just couldn’t do it anymore. There were so many people working on that call room floor that I just quit by leaving a voicemail, and to this day I don’t know if the general manager ever got it or if he even noticed that I stopped showing up. My presence one way or another didn’t appear to matter; the production carried on. The diversion-within-a-mirage maintained its ability to feed itself continuously regardless of who appeared on either end of the connection.
A couple months later, I ran into my old supervisor on the El–him on his way to that job, me on me way to my new job–and he invited me out for drinks with him and some of my old co-workers at a dive bar in Irving Park. I went, played pool, drank Budweiser after Budweiser that my supervisor insisted on buying me.
Finally I was having fun with these people—and it felt like closure.
Eric Wallgren lives in Chicago, IL and plays bass for mtvghosts. He’s online at ericwallgren.tumblr.com.