I was smart enough to avoid working as a telemarketer. At least, smart enough to avoid working there as a tele-chump. I was, however, desperate enough to take a sys admin job for a telemarketing company. I imagined sitting in a server room, misdirecting calls every now and then to torture people who annoyed me. I got a desk at the far end of a "bank" beside a Viet Nam vintage IBM mainframe and console which still clearly bore the "Protel" pay terminal logo. System administration, frankly, did not amount to much. Every day the auto dialers needed to be fed a new batch of numbers, the day's "seed". These numbers were pulled in sections from the mainframe via a query and dumped to a flat file. Flat file was fed to the auto dialers. That was my job. Well, that and looking busy for eight hours. In the mean time I would listen to the ebb and flow of calls, and watch the circus at the other end of the "bank."
Tel-co (we'll call them that) was run by a group of grade A salesman. Forget selling ice to Eskimos, these guys could sell angst to teenagers or sex in a hippy commune. They brought on a new class of "recruits" every hour. Sometimes an applicant would show up and they'd have him on a phone in an hour or less. Most of that hour was spent on the credit card order system. Things could only get worse from there.
First off, know that tel-co didn't make anything. Tel-co didn't stock anything. Telco did only one thing, and that was sell. If you ordered something from tel-co, they would put in an order to the supplier and have it shipped to your house. This worked for them big time. No stock to worry about liquidating, very little overhead. I never saw an item marked up less than 50% and I know. The man who runs your mainframe knows, folks.
The rank and file phone salesmen were high school kiddies or pre-college. Anyone else had too much sense to work there, except Ragged Ron. I don't know his actual last name. Ragged Ron worked fine for everyone else, it worked ok for me when I had to talk to him. Ron was forty. Ron was homeless. He had a habit of shouting the name of the alcohol he was going to buy after making a sale, frightening those around him with "Night Train, Baby! Ronny's sleeping warm tonight!" Ron was a ridiculously good salesman. That's important when you consider how the rank and file get paid.
Your average sales schmuck has almost no chance of making a sale. He/She/It was making about four dollars an hour (yes, this dates me) getting hung up on and screamed at. To make the fifteen dollars an hour promised in the ads, you'd have to sell. Sell golf clubs. Sell shoes. Sell artificial lawns. Tel-co sold whatever was giving the best kickback this week, so there was no incentive to learn anything about the item you were selling. Most phone calls, according to our phone system, were less than twenty seconds. Every once in a while though, the caller would hang on, and the circus would start.
The sales man would start his pitch himself, reading from a canned script composed by telco's sales men as often as by the company they were selling for. Any and all claims were never verified, probably bogus, and often irrelevant to the actual product. To the kind of callers Tel-co struck gold with, it wasn't the product. It was that someone wanted to talk to them. That's right. Telco wanted elderly customers. When they bought phone blocks (the set of numbers used to seed the auto dialers) they often did it from one of two sources: Other telemarketing firms, or magazines who's readership was comprised mainly of elderly people. The ideal customer was old, alone, and with just enough disposable income to have a credit card.
When a salesman got a talker on the line, his first job was to keep them talking. Job #2 was to flick the lamp on his desk on and off as fast as possible. This served two purposes: One, it sent anyone with epilepsy into a convulsion, and two it summoned a sales manager to stand with you. Once the sales manager was with you the hook was set. Tel-co "rewarded" all salesmen with tiny trinkets, tokens, bait. Someone makes a sale? Cokes for everyone! They marked up the item by $150, they could afford a case of coke an hour. Golfing for dollars was another popular reward - when you made a sale, you would go to the front and "putt" at a windmill with dollar amounts on the vanes. Make it into the windmill, win $10. Now, you might want to note something here - the standard payout for a sale was supposed to be $10, but the windmill vanes all had lesser numbers on them. I could never get why people were excited about the putt. You weren't winning unless you actually sank the shot. At least, not money wise.
Tel-co's managers were masters of manipulation. A fun atmosphere they promised, and a fun atmosphere was often delivered. Bells were rung, kazoos buzzed, flashing lights targeted people who "made the grade", as they put it. The tiny trinkets flowed like plastic cash all day, every day. My shift began at 12:00 and so I was always the last one out, and I watched the place shut down every night.
Ever been in an amusement park when it was closed? Or the fairgrounds in mid summer? I picked up a swarm of bees at a fair ground. In the fall it is packed so tight you have to thread your way through the waters of humanity. In the summer I stood in the square and listened to the birds and the distant cars. Tel-co was like that at night. The chrome was stripped away at night and all I saw was rows of empty plastic chairs, tacky lights and a pile of plastic crap the janitor swept up each night. Yes, the rewards that people grabbed so willingly were thrown like dust on the floor, too cheap to be carried out and home. On Mondays I worked a reverse shift, starting at midnight and ending at noon, and watching the place spin up was surreal.
Mike came in first (well, I don't count) and turned on the normal fluorescent lights. He and the other sales leaders would confer about today's items, joke about the new people hitting the floor. New people were called "Mops", because they were still just soaking it in. At 8:45 the fluorescent lights went off. The glow lights came on, amber yellow track lights on the floor that made the place feel like a cross between a disco club and a movie theatre. The phone banks lit up. The auto dial stations blink while you are waiting for the next call. In the dark the "bank" flashed like a mob of fireflies. At 8:55 they started the music, 80s pop rock, just loud enough to discern a beat, soft enough to not drift into the phones. It throbs in your head like the pulse of some unseen beast, always there. At night I could still feel that distant beat hours after it was off. At 9:00 the doors opened and the first morning's crew came in. Mike would stand at the front of the room as this nervous group sat down and hold up something. A video. Movie Tickets. Popcorn. The prize for the first sale of the morning. Right then, if you weren't part of it, you could see what Tel-co actually ran on: Adrenaline.
The first sale prizes would get people hopping onto the phones, jazzed to make the sale. The longer they went without a sale, the higher the stakes, as Mike would add the prizes together. First sale is now a VHS tape AND a movie ticket. When those station lights started flashing Mike would often shout at the top of his lungs, a "Whoooooooooo" that got everyone nervous and laughing. Hearts beat faster, people grew more excited, and ---there! The first sale was done, credit card was charged, order in the bag! There's a moment of silence, a down turn in the buzz. And Mike's back up, with a new "prize". Something different. Something cheap.
Now, why did the sales managers run over to your station during a call? Because if the mop couldn't make the sale, the sales manager would "help". Hard sell isn't the word for what they did. It was pure "Enhanced Interrogation Methods," ala Presidente Bush. They played good salesman, bad salesman all by themselves. Plugging into the mop's phone the sales manager would join to "help" and apply the pressure. The pressure, incidentally, spilled over.
The mop on the phone with the sales manager is a young kid. He identifies sort of with the "customer" in grandma/grandpa way. Now the sales manager is backing them into a corner, using sales techniques that leave a person feeling like the only rational decision is to buy. Buy, Buy, Buy. Every question, every answer says "Buy". Eventually they stop answering questions, because they're sure that whatever they say, the answer is going to say "Buy". People handing over credit card numbers with a sad uncertainty in their voice, like they aren't sure what just happened. A Ma-Bell style mugging. And the mop listened to it all. After a sale it wasn't uncommon to see the "lucky person" cry. Then they went up to claim their prize and something happened.
One of two somethings, usually. Either the person took their prize and quietly left...or they smiled. And they ran back to their phone. A taste of success, a tiny triumph, and the desire for the rush would have some back on the phones, looking for that next sucker. On sales where the sales managers "helped", you always made less money. Some went to the mop, some was "pocketed" by the sales manager. Often a sales manager would take his $5 portion of the sale, hold it up, and hand it back to the person. The floor cheered. Every time. Incidentally, the phone number for each sale was the only thing that I know tel-co recorded. After all, these people needed to be seeded to the top of tomorrow's list.
I watched many evolve from wide eyed criers to wild grinning sales-bots. "Every number, that's a lotto ticket, and every miss, that just gets you one step closer to a hit." That was Mike's motivational line to the crew. It didn't work at all for some people. They would leave their station in mid day and just not return. It worked for a while for others. Monday rolls around and there's slots in the bank. "You got to invest in the bank," Mike said every morning before beginning "training." For some, the drippings of fat from this barbecue of dignity were all it took. They liked the game and came back all summer long, every day. There was always a line of people waiting to spin the wheel and win a prize, hoping that next beep was the key to a tiny scratch of cash. And the prizes, the candy, the adrenaline, they kept it all flowing until the lights went down each night.