The Magazine

The Other End of the Line

Ethan Epstein, cold caller.

Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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A purportedly funny photo ricocheting around the Internet popped into my inbox last week, apparently courtesy of the right-wing blog RedState. The Photoshopped image is a play on the famous Dos Equis beer campaign built around the bearded, debonair “Most Interesting Man in the World,” who says, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.” The “joke” version features a picture of said interesting man, only this time he says, “I don’t always talk to Obama voters, but when I do, I ask for large fries.”

Telemarketer

Dave Clark

This bothered me for a couple of reasons. For one, it equates Obama voters with fast-food workers, whereas professors, investment bankers, Hollywood grandees, and Silicon Valley cool guys are also Democrats. For another, conservatives are supposed to believe in the inherent dignity of work, no matter how humble. Why act as if there’s something embarrassing about food service work? That’s mean-spirited, elitist, and just plain wrong.

And besides, if you’re going to single out an occupation for scorn, food service isn’t the clear choice; telemarketing is. 

I should know. For a couple of years while I was in college, I worked 20 hours a week making cold sales calls on behalf of a major arts institution, pitching annual subscriptions. The sales campaign was outsourced, of course, meaning that my paychecks bore the deliciously trashy insignia of SD&A Teleservices. (That’s one of the nation’s foremost telemarketing companies, which is something akin to being the most toxic drug on the streets or the most polluting major industry.)

Our offices, which resembled a boiler room more than a little, were located in the same stately downtown building as our overlord organization, but our call room was at the end of a lonely hall, far, far away from the other administrative offices. It was a windowless, airless, soulless space. And our shifts started at 5:00 p.m., just as the real employees were going home. “You are not allowed to talk to any of the actual employees here,” our boss often exhorted, with the utmost seriousness. 

Many of my coworkers were people who are described in the economics literature as “marginally attached to the labor force.” Their life-stories could provide enough material for Charles Murray’s next opus. There was a pregnant 16-year-old who smoked and hadn’t told her ex-boyfriend that he was the father; a middle-aged man who hobbled in every day smelling like he had held up the local liquor store; and a recovering heroin addict who worked there dutifully .  .  . until he stopped recovering. On a lazy summer afternoon, a friend and I found through some research on the Internet that fully half of my coworkers were under “community supervision.” For you upstanding members of society, that means on probation.

The work was demanding. We were expected to bring in $50 of revenue per hour. With the cheapest subscription coming in at about $200, this meant we had to make one sale per four-hour shift. That may not sound like much, but it’s a challenge in a world of caller ID and the general presumption that telemarketers are scum. The people we called often cussed us out.

On the wall of our office was the infamous “board.” The board—which was a white board, tacked next to brightly colored sheets of paper bearing words like PHENOMENAL and UNPRECEDENTED (words we were supposed to use in our pitches)—had all of our names written on it. When you made a sale, you went up and wrote the dollar amount next to your name, and tried to ignore the murderous glances from your co-workers. If you failed to make the sales goal for more than a few consecutive days, you were, as our boss elegantly put it, “terminated.”

Despite all this, some of my co-workers managed to take pride in their work. There was a gray-haired fellow who had worked some 16 years in nonprofit cold calling who told me without irony that he “work[ed] in the arts and entertainment business.” There was a plainly uneducated but friendly middle-aged woman who told me how much she appreciated it when I suggested she might pronounce the composer Wagner’s name as if it began with a “V” and make the “a” sound like the one in “wan,” not the one in “wag.” Our boss, for all his bluster, was a kind-hearted, boisterous black man from Alabama who had once been homeless. He credited SD&A Teleservices with giving him the chance and the tools that he needed to succeed in life. 

Telemarketing may be a scourge; the phone may ring at dinnertime. But the people who do the work deserve respect. I dare say they work harder than some comfortable pundit sitting in his basement churning out “funny” images on his computer. I don’t always talk to telemarketers, but when I do, I do my best to be polite.

 

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