Wednesday, September 16, 2009

West Telemarketing, part 2 of 2

West Telemarketing called its its huge complex the "campus," even though just stepping on the grounds your IQ dropped 10 points or so.

I found the "Interviews" building. It was bland and gray and had ivy growing in small garden beds all on the outside. I imagined interviewing the building itself.

Bill: "Why are you so drab? Why do you suck all the life out of every man who walks through your doors?"
Interview Building: "I take great pleasure in reducing the pleasures and dreams of man into a mediocre rubble."
Bill: "Yes, but why is that exactly?"
Interview Building: "Not sure exactly. Maybe it was bad architecture. Maybe they shouldn't have used stucco. I'm allergic to that shit."

And so forth.

Inside, the walls were plastered with all sorts of "go get em" pep-talking posters, with slogans like "Your future is in your hands!" written under a giant pair of hands holding a wad of cash and a clock. Some sort of reminder about mortality? Or maybe just how expensive clocks can be. Time is money? I just wondered why in the hell somebody would carry that much cash in a pair of open hands. Ever hear of a wallet? And why the hell carry around a wall clock? Isn't that why we use wristwatches?

Also in the interview building hung the poster seen in so many dorm rooms, depicting a Porsche and Ferrari in the garage of a sprawling mansion. The caption read, "The Benefits of Higher Education." Now I can't necessarily argue with the supposition of the poster. But it seemed a strange place for it. West Telemarketing, after all, didn't require any higher education. In fact, the poster seemed to scream: "Get the hell out of here and get a better job! Go back to school for crying out loud!"

I bet they draped all that self-help crap in case folks were having second thoughts. It really seemed a bit ironic to me. These posters promoted initiative, ambition, and excitement, when it was the precise lack of these that would allow someone to succeed there.

Like showing up to a Weight Watchers meeting and urging the attendees to throw caution to the wind. Yeah, thanks, but a little too late. Now was not the time for ambition nor initiative nor excitement. You came to West Tele to be a robot, a paid-slightly-above-minimum-wage-earning robot.

Indeed, everyone looked like robots, especially while wearing "the headset." Sort-of like headphones except with an attached microphone. Its presence was mandatory for all employees, even when not calling customers. You could plug into various ports in the wall for conference calls and things of that sort.

The interview went really quickly. They were basically just testing to see if I was schizophrenic. I'm not even sure that would've disqualified me. I just would be cold-calling a whole different clientele. Who knows? Maybe I would've been promoted.

The following is not the actual interview transcript. But it would be a much better interview, I think, much better suited to the actual work I did at West Tele.

Interviewer: "Are you alive?"
Bill: "Yes."
Interviewer: "Do you plan on using smack, heroin or crystal meth while on the job?"
Bill: "Only in the parking lot."
Interviewer: "Are you stuck in a position in life where you will do anything for a paycheck?"
Bill: "Pretty much."
Interviewer: "So it won't bother you to practically steal money from those who can least afford to lose it? Those dumb enough to fall for our scams?"
Bill: "I'll use my paycheck to get some therapy sessions."
Interviewer: "You're hired."

Did I mention this was a telemarketing job selling overpriced life insurance plans to senior citizens in financially strapped communities? We would drape pleasantries all over these folks while stealing the crumbs off their plate. It's hard to describe the soul-crushing numbness this job makes you feel. Perhaps I should have been alarmed by their high job turnover, but I guess it was that factor precisely that allowed me to get hired.

So yes, the interview went well and I did get hired. And within an hour, I was in the call center, getting my orientation, getting a name-tag, and meeting my fellow co-workers. Frittering away my soul.

The other new employees seemed people wearing a tie for the first time in their lives. I guess I don't know much about tie wearing habits. Just seems like wearing a Tweety tie sort of defeats the whole purpose of wearing a tie or even dressing nicely? Well, everyone had to wear a tie. The content of the tie didn't matter much. I always wanted to make a tie that looked like a rippling chest full of muscles. But West Tele had a way of draining your motivation and I never did make that rippling muscle tie.

The job situation as a whole seemed neatly regimented and very sterile and mediocre. Like a tray of ice cubes allowed to melt in an unplugged microwave. There were 20 building on the campus, each building had two floors, each floor had two halves divided by a glass wall. Every building the same, every parking lot the same, every break area the same. In the main congregation area between the buildings sat always parked a taco truck and a place to immediately cash your checks. I would smoke cigarettes out there and dream of escape and watch people get royally ripped off by the "Instant Cash!" truck.

Each call floor had supervisors and assistant supervisors and even more assistant supervisors. And then just brown-nosing types who wanted to be supervisors and took it upon themselves to point our your faults. Oh, those people just warmed my heart. Like a flamethrower would, perhaps.

I think there is a special section in hell reserved for workplace folks who are not in positions of authority and never will be, but enjoy asserting their imagined superiority. I imagine that special section of hell made up entirely of all these powerless people on power trips, all trying to assert authority over each other.

But in reality some of these people did get promoted and put in positions of some authority, small as it might be. I had three different assistant supervisors.

The only one worth discussing, Ron, had a "Caesar" haircut and strutted around the floor like an angry primate. Well, I guess humans are primates. You know what I'm saying. He swung his arms around, he emphatically pointed his fingers to the sky, he was a "player." Never mind that players don't cold call senior citizens in Arkansas tricking them into buying more life insurance. Perhaps I'm just being a little nitpicky here.

No, really, Ron had skills! As he would kindly remind everyone. It seemed his greatest skill was talking about his skills.

Although he did have this very strange way to get us employees "pumped up." He would strut around the call floor and if he saw somebody who seemed a bit lackadaisical, he would hop on their desk and start doing push-ups.

"Count! Count my push-ups!"
I would count for a little bit, usually up to ten. He would thump his chest. "Doesn't that get you pumped up?!"

Um, no.

But actually he did have a skill, if you consider a lack of something to be a skill. Like his lack of intelligence, for example. This would serve him well at West Tele. Just consider a typical day there:

Slog through traffic, pull off the interstate into the West Tele campus, witness the tragic march of a thousand workers with Tweety ties and sunken eyes and little hopes for the future or self-improvement or even anything beyond next week's San Antonio Spurs game. Sit down at a computer, chair not very comfortable, but before using the chair or equipment you are required to wipe everything down with a moist sanitary antibacterial napkin. boot up your workstation, and you're connected to an unsuspecting victim, or "potential customer." You didn't have any information about the person, but within 5 seconds you could glean the victim's age, race, and financial status. The majority of folks sounded white, poor, and old.

I sold All-state life insurance to these people. Most had insurance already, so it was really quite difficult to make a sale. West Tele knew this. That's why we were rated largely on our call volume. I guess if you call enough people, you're bound to find a sucker somewhere.

"Hello sir, how are you doing today? (pause momentarily for customer answer). That's great, sir. Now I'm calling today to see if you are interested in an incredible opportunity. A way to save money for you and your family. No more piggie banks and hiding money under the mattress. This opportunity could revolutionize your life. Is this something you might be interested in?
(pause for customer response).
Now, what if something happened to you, something tragic or life-ending? You must provide for your family even if you're not there. And that's where All State steps in."

The most difficult part of the job was the automaton nature of it. Every sentence was scripted, every single one. The kind bosses had mapped out every possible rebuttal, too. I would be staring at something like this:

Customer rebuttals:
A) not interested
B) I already have insurance
C) don't need insurance / too young
D) I am covered under my spouse's plan
E) I don't trust you
F) Who is this?
G) I can't talk until I've taken my medication

And so forth. Every rebuttal had its own follow-up script. We were never, ever to go off the script. Except, of course, to interupt the customer and keep him/her on the line.

Employees used to do a drill where we interupted each other by saying, "But please sir, if I may say one last thing..." We sat there in a small room, practicing that technique for an hour. Yes, for an hour, we interupted each sentences. Eventually we would start interupting each others interuptions. We were a highly caffeinated bunch.

But I never really felt comfortable reading scripts and turning off my brain. Like any true slacker, I was looking for a shortcut, an easier way to make sales with less work.

Not long after I took the job, I started going off the script and speaking honestly to the people I was calling. You see, we were trying to sign old people up for All State life insurance. When they signed up, they received three free months of insurance with no obligation to buy more. And it was this that I focused on.

"You could have free life insurance for three months," I would tell them, "and on the first morning of the fourth month just call and cancel and you would not owe a penny."

People could hardly believe their luck when I told them the loophole. My sales went through the roof. I received a bonus check and was brought out to the front of the floor and everyone clapped at my statistics. It was a special moment. Two of my co-workers rolled a large blunt and smoked it in my honor. They told me about this later, while we were smoking a blunt in the parking lot (different occasion). Actually, I just watched them and hung out in the car. The second-hand smoke alone made me unable to complete a sentence for the rest of the day.

I remember my next paycheck after starting the scam was very large. I was being considered for a promotion. And so forth. Perhaps I had taken those posters to heart, the Interview building posters. Initiative! It's in my hands!

But the higher-ups were onto me. They started recording my calls, combing through them. Ron, one of my assistant managers, pulled me aside one day. "We know you're going off the script. That's why this hurts me so bad."

He handed me my report card. At West Tele, we received "report cards" based on our performance. Mine had "F-" written very large across the top.

Wow, an F minus. That's like failing with honors. Or should I say dishonors?

"You know what an F minus means," Ron asked, his face about an inch from mine. He was panting hungrily and his breath smelled like garbage.

"I don't know, I get held back a year," I laughed at my own joke. Ron did not laugh. He got closer, his nose now touching mine.

"It means you're history, shithead." He jumped on my desk and starting flexing his pectoral muscles. "Hit the road."

And I did, thankfully. I don't know why they didn't actually reward me for my behavior. Sure I had violated every rule they had, but I had brought in twice as many customers as my associates. Didn't matter to me now, though. With the commission bonus from my last couple of paychecks I could take a month off and live at my friend's grandmother's house and all would be well. Sneaking warm beer from her shed and trying to meet another girl who would pass me over for a monkey-brained jock-strap.

So I drove home and threw my tie out the window of my car. Freedom! But I realized about two seconds later it was a borrowed tie. I pulled over to the side of the road and ran back for the tie, by now muddy and tire-tracked.

When I arrived back at Brian's grandma's house, where we were both staying, Brian had a surprise for me.

"Dude, I made the most amazing bong! Check it out!"

He had indeed constructed a bong and it looked like a jungle gym for a mouse, all tangled tubes and duct taped pvc pipe. "Yeah, looks great Brian."

Brian smiled on his creation. "I found this long tube in Grandma's closet, it's perfect. Those tubes are expensive, too. So I decided to take advantage. Voila!"

And it worked like a charm. We both smoked from the bong and sprawled back on the couch, watching mindless t.v. and drinking Diet Caffeine-Free Pepsi. It was all his grandmother had in the fridge.

After a bit, Grandma came upstairs and saw the bong on the table.

"My God, Brian, what have you done with my enema tube?"

1 comment:

Rex said...

This story haunts me. I did the Vacation Package Telemarketing Sales in my teen years, a bad time in my life. I know exactly what you mean when you felt filthy pressuring these obvious poor, penniless people to extract their savings for a crock of bullshit. Did I feel guilty enough to give up the $500+ paychecks a week? No, apparently not.