Confessions Of a Telemarketer

ESSAY

January 30, 1994|By Joe Sugarman

I must confess. I have been burdened by the weight of my

sins for too long.

Yes, it was I who rang your telephone and dragged you dripping from the shower. It was I who disrupted dinner, clamoring to caulk your driveway. And, it was I who called at the climax of "Citizen Kane" curious as to your brand of bathroom cleaner. But, please, have mercy. I was only doing my job.

For I am the telemarketer -- expert in bad timing, professional of bad manners. Public enemy No. 1.

Wait, wait. Before you slam down this article on me as you do your telephone receiver, let me try to explain just who I am and where I come from. Perhaps then you will understand that I am not merely the vile afterbirth of Bell's great invention, but a fellow human being.

So, where do I come from? I do not grow up aspiring to be a professional telemarketer. I am not classically trained in the field. I am basically driven to it. In a time of shrunken employment ads, I must skip over "computer programmer" and "nurse" due to lack of training and head straight to the T's. There, I find a host of job opportunities I am qualified for. Ads call for telephone talkers in all fields and experience levels. I might market steak knives, replacement windows, vitamin supplements or bird food. I could set appointments for doctors, insurance agents, carpet cleaners chimney sweeps.

Often, my experience in telemarketing isn't even brought up at the interview. I simply fill out the application and begin calling.

No job requirements means no telling who will be found in the telemarketing office: I am the student interested in picking up a few bucks between classes. I am the retiree trying to supplement my Social Security checks. I am the homemaker forced to return to the work force. I am even the ex-used-car salesman who simply cannot get enough of selling.

There are diverse faces in my field. I am white, black, Asian, young, old, poor. Telemarketing does not discriminate.

But why choose such a scorned occupation? First, telemarketing is flexible. I work mornings, afternoons, nights, weekends, whatever is convenient. Second, it often pays decently. Like the executioner, I am rewarded well for doing a job many scorn. And with so many telemarketing positions to choose from, if I don't like one, I can easily land another.

But even all these attractive perks are not enough to make telemarketing a career choice for many of us. Just look at the turnover rate.

The telemarketing office has more workers coming in and out than fans using the bathrooms at an Orioles game. Though some us thrive, others barely survive. An hour on the job is often enough to discourage the novice from ever touching the telephone again. If he or she lasts past the first crucial night, it's only a short time before "telemarketer's burnout" overwhelms.

Within two to four weeks, the drawbacks of the job begin to take their toll: the constant pressure from grouchy office managers to make "just one more call"; the cramped dialing fingers; the sore throats; the hemorrhoids; the bit of acne on the chin from the phone mouthpiece; and, of course, the single biggest deterrent to telemarketers -- you, the recipient of the call.

You tell me where I can go. You come up with clever excuses to avoid my reach. You tell me you're eating dinner. You tell me "the man of the house" is not at home. And if I really get you at a bad time -- bottom of the ninth, family emergency, lovemaking -- you do something that society has taught us to reserve only for ex-spouses: Hang up. You slam the receiver down -- the dial-tone guillotine decapitating my dignity! Just what gives you the right?

True, I may bend the truth now and again. I say sweetly, "Could you spare just a minute, ma'am?" But I have an ulterior motive in mind.

I hear the hesitation in your voice, as you stammer, thinking of a possible excuse: "Well, I'm, you see, I'm just . . . "

But I pounce! It's too late. I've got you and you'll be mine for the next five hours as I hack away at you with market research questions on denture pastes and cold-sore ointments.

All right, for these atrocities I repent. But perhaps you might take solace in knowing my life as an outlaw of the work force is not glamorous or fulfilling, or even socially acceptable for that matter. I cannot brag of my phone-canvassing virtuoso to women in bars. No one says, "Gee, that's fascinating" when I tell them what I do for a living. I do, however, have deep, philosophical conversations with repo men, meter maids and Internal Revenue Service auditors -- my only friends.

So, what will you do the next time you are confronted with me and my kind? Will you make polite excuses, listen to what we have to say, or scream unmentionables into the mouthpiece, hang up and sit back down to your leg of lamb without the least bit of guilt? Think about it. Because if you do hang up, just remember one thing about telemarketers: We have your phone number.

JOE SUGARMAN'S last telemarketing job was selling circus tickets for the Shriners.

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