My first job was a little unusual, I think, as first jobs go. I worked as a summer office temp for my best friend’s dad’s mortgage company. It was full time, five days a week, just like any other office job. I was fifteen and couldn’t drive, but some co-workers happened to live nearby so they drove me both directions every day.
It wasn’t a bad job at all. I didn’t smell like french fries and because it was full time, I made pretty good money that summer. Plus, my best friend worked there, too, so we gossiped on coffee breaks and at lunch.
So I was thinking of office work – sitting down, talking on the phone – when I let my college roommate talk me into taking a job working as a telemarketer. At the time I worked in my college dorm dishroom and I thought it was one of Dante’s circles of hell, what with all the steam and the crashing noise and the endless parade of hot plastic trays. So I gladly took the telemarketing job and went to quit the cafeteria. My student boss talked me out of quitting entirely, he convinced me to keep one shift, at least. This turned out to be fortunate for me, later.
The telemarketing gig remains to this day the only job I’ve ever quit without notice. I’m one of those dorky, extra-responsible people who always does “the right thing” (is that ever tiresome) and so it was out of character. But I could not make myself go in there for one more day. Plus, my roommate had already quit and she’d gotten me into it.
Every shift we went down into this windowless basement office space under a Hallmark store, where we stood around in a circle and shouted “Assertive! Confident! Energetic!” (Get it? ACE?) and got scolded if we weren’t happy enough. Then we shuffled off to our little phone stations, which had dividers between them all as if we were going to cheat off our neighbor’s paper. There were mirrors in front of us at eye level to remind us to smile while we talked, so we were staring at ourselves all night.
We were soliciting for charities. We didn’t work on commission, but we had ‘goals’ – contact goals (how many people we actually reached), money goals, and credit card payment goals – and had to endure an embarassing public scolding if we didn’t meet the goals.
The managers would randomly sit behind us and eavesdrop. They would also randomly tape our calls (I don’t think we ever notified the people on the other end) and then haul us into a little room to give our failure a post-mortem.
I was selling memberships to the Detroit Institute of Arts when Detroit was still scary. I had one man curse me out, saying, “I’m not supporting a thing in Detroit while that (bleepity-bleep) Coleman Young is in office!” Most people just hung up on me and that was the most merciful thing to do, because I couldn’t prevent a hang-up and thus couldn’t get yelled at, but I also didn’t have to go through the excruciating task of asking three times. You see, we had to ask three times, no matter what, no matter what their reasoning or excuse. Three times. We had scripts to follow for every objection, too.
We had student and senior memberships which were way cheaper, but were not allowed to mention those – even if the person on the other line was a senior or student, clearly – unless the person asked us specifically about it or we’d already been shot down on the higher membership levels and the mark, er, person, was still on the line. And we had to start at the highest membership level, which was some absurd figure like $500.
The low point was getting hauled into the office and listening to a recording of myself sheepishly getting off the phone after this dear old lady told me, “Oh honey, I do like art and I’d love to, but I just buried my husband I can’t afford it.” I was raked over the coals for letting her off the phone, especially when she said she liked art.
No wait, the low point was when I was so sick I fainted at work and they wanted me to keep working and finish the shift.
Oh, and did I mention smokers got more breaks than the rest of us? Yes, smokers got special breaks to go outside and light up. I nearly took up smoking just for that reason.
So yes, one day I couldn’t take it anymore, went to pick up my roommate’s last check (she wouldn’t even go get it herself!) and told them I wasn’t coming in. The guy didn’t look at all surprised. Certainly not Assertive! Confident! Energetic!
I happily returned to the dishroom and picked up my old shifts again. It turned out to be fun, working with other students, having food fights with leftover Jell-O and messing around on football Saturdays when everyone else was tailgating and no one was eating in the cafeteria.
I’ll leave you with this: be merciful to telemarketers. Just hang up on them. Don’t make them walk through the spiel when you’re going to say no anyway. And hold the cursing, please.
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