Tales from the front lines: Former telemarketers respond to Farhad Manjoo's "The Day the Dinnertime Phone Calls Stopped."

Published July 18, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

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Yes, I have been in telemarketing for almost 20 years. Evidently I also fit the demographic ... single mother and disabled. Telemarketing allowed me to work part-time hours, yet earn a "full time" paycheck because of bonuses, commissions, incentives, etc. Telemarketing allowed me to be home when my daughter arrived home from school ... so while some thought of me as the devil incarnate, I was home baking brownies, volunteering with the Girl Scouts, driving my daughter to dance class and soccer, etc. Better to have raised her as a latchkey kid I guess.

I find it odd that the most often cited reason for finding telemarketing intrusive is the oft repeated "who wants to be called during dinner?" Has it occurred to anyone that very few people actually sit down to dinner together anymore, and if they do ... who's to say when dinnertime is anymore? People eat dinner anywhere between 4 and 8 p.m. I know because I have been yelled at enough during these hours to know. And don't forget lunch. Which could be considered anywhere between 11 to 2.

So now, after being screamed at to "get a real job" ... I don't have one. I have applied for SSD and food stamps.

Congratulations for helping one more person have to turn to public assistance, rather than do gainful work.

And I also agree that allowing calls for political fundraisers is ridiculous. I'd rather make calls for legitimate companies than raise funds for politicians.

Thank you for your time,

-- C. DeSantis

The article is absolutely right regarding the sort of people telemarketing employs. I was one of them once myself. In my case I was someone in his early 20s with no marketable skills except an ability to write plays. Wait, that's not a marketable skill. So I went into it because I needed the money. I sold in that career a whole heap of different things for different employers: theater tickets, dead-hour radio ad time ("public service announcements,") some kind of unusable medical and home insurance, and much more. Mostly things I couldn't imagine anyone needing, to both individuals and businesses, from leads and from the phone book too.

I grew to despise every minute I did it and my whole life at the time because of it. There was of course just the matter of the endless repetition of the same script again and again, and trying to sound fresh and happy on each call. But there was also the anger of the person on the other end which I fully sympathized with. It's much more than bothering them at dinnertime. It's fooling them, cajoling, pretending friendship, pressuring them, making them buy just to get you off the phone -- to satisfy a boss that made the whole thing feel like "Glengarry Glen Ross." You were paid a pitiful base salary and had to generate enough sales to not only "get on the board" enough to make commissions, but to justify your very presence there. In most places I worked, if you were still on your base salary by the second week, out you bloody went. It's a cold, heartless industry that generates self-hatred in you, because you keep wondering "What is wrong with me?" and where the bosses remind you that if you're not selling, yeah, there is something wrong with you.

I acquired computer skills as quickly as possible and got admin work, which at the moment I'm out of but I would sooner die than ever sell something on the phone -- or any other way -- again. It takes your soul. Telemarketing managers who talk about the poor pitiful workers also (for their jobs depend on how you do and if you make no commission they make nothing -- and for obvious reasons a lot of these guys were on meth so they could be "on" all the time) ruthlessly bully and terrorize their employees, driving one to suicide that I recall. His reaction was that this person just didn't have any balls. Well, maybe she didn't. But to kill her self-image and esteem, and in the end her, just to sell a stupid radio ad, what kind of industry are we talking about?

Most jobs do this. That one just did it quicker and more obviously than most. Many of these places are nothing more than psychological sweatshops. So when I hear people moaning for these businesses the only ones I feel sorry for are the rank-and-file employees, not any other part of the business. Where they will go, that's a problem and a big one. But have no illusions: it's still a brutal and cruel business, and how do we feel about other ones? Nike employed lots of people in sweatshops. Does that mean we should look the other way when they treat workers like worthless trash, because at least they're employed?

-- John Roberson

Farhad Manjoo's article on the unexpected consequences of the do-not-call list was interesting and thought-provoking. In the interests of full-disclosure, I was born and raised in the telemarketing industry: I have worked the phones as a telemarketer myself, my mother runs and owns a call center, and my father works for a company that makes telemarketing equipment. Despite all that, I find Manjoo's article arguments about the horror of the do-not-call list to be unconvincing.

First of all, this regulation is just textbook democracy. In a democracy, when a small group of people are engaging in an activity that the "overwhelming majority" of the public finds to be uncivil, rude, invasive of their privacy, and just a plain-old nuisance, it is the most natural thing in the world for that activity to be regulated. That is how most people feel about telemarketing, and that is ostensibly why Congress acted the way it did. It is probably true that regulating telemarketing out of existence will cost the economy many jobs that would otherwise be occupied by poor single women. But so does outlawing prostitution. The point is that a vast majority of people really hate the whole idea of telemarketing, and they have every right in the world to agitate for it to be circumscribed.

Of course, certain kinds of activity cannot be regulated no matter how offensive they may be to the majority. On that point, Manjoo writes, "[i]t's probably true that the courts would be unwilling to uphold a law that prohibits politicians from calling voters." This is true, but irrelevant, because the law at issue only allows private citizens to opt out of being called in the privacy of their own homes. The Supreme Court has clearly indicated that homeowners have a right to opt out of receiving speech in their homes. In Martin vs. City of Struthers, the court struck down a city ordinance that outlawed door-to-door soliciting, but noted that "the city may make it an offense for any person to ring the bell of a householder who has appropriately indicated that he is unwilling to be disturbed. This or any similar regulation leaves the decision as to whether distributors of literature may lawfully call at a home where in belongs -- with the homeowner ..."

While it is possible that courts would distinguish core political speech from the commercial speech at issue in Struthers, it seems more likely that they would follow the common-sense precedent that people do not have to be forced to receive speech -- of any kind -- in their homes. What is absolutely certain is that Struthers allows people to opt out of receiving commercial speech in their homes, and that is exactly what the do-not-call list facilitates. This is not, as the telemarketing advocate Coplievitz says in the article, like being forced to deal with leafletters at the airport because our living rooms are not public places.

Manjoo also provocatively implies that people who sign up for the do-not-call list are acting irrationally. He argues that people do in fact make purchases over the phone, and therefore they must actually appreciate receiving calls from telemarketers. This does not follow. First of all, if people receive a thousand sales calls and make three purchases, it is not irrational for them to say that, overall, they would prefer not to receive any sales calls at all. Secondly, it is more than likely that people buy things on the phone that they don't actually want. Salesmen have ways of convincing people that they need and want things that they do not -- whether by fraud, trickery, pressure, or charm. Many, if not most, people are just too docile, too nice, too gullible, or too lazy to resist call after call. I know that I, for instance, have been tempted to make a purchase over the phone just so that I could get off the damn phone! So perhaps people who make these purchases and instantly regret them feel that the only way they can prevent themselves from making the same irrational purchases in the future is to make sure that they do not receive any more calls from telemarketers. Seems rational enough to me.

-- Bart Torvik

I worked in a telemarketing job for two days. Here are some things I learned:

1.) The sales script is structured to repulse sane people immediately, but entice the gullible and compulsive.

2.) Despite the drive to sell and be on target, the only people who didn't hang up on me were elderly folks who wanted to talk at length about their lives, ailments, and other topics.

Telemarketing is similar to breaking into a person's house, yelling in the living room, then leaving mud tracks on the carpet. It takes physical effort to pick up a phone call and receive a solicitation that holds no other benefits (such as magazine content or media article) for the person at home.

Of course telemarketer propaganda drag out the poor and the handicapped as people liable to lose their jobs. You know what? Hard cheese. Telemarketing is a dispiriting occupation and treats both worker and citizen like dogs.

-- Bruce Scherer

Despite everything the telemarketers may say, telemarketing is a crime; it's a form of theft, the theft of time. My time is valuable. I have better things to do with it than sort through spam e-mail or answer phone calls from people I don't know.

Many years ago my husband and I were at a low point of our lives and he took a job as a telemarketer. The quotas were brutal. He had to struggle to learn the tricks of the trade: how to be rude without feeling guilty, how to rattle off his pitch without letting the other party get a word in, how to make the other party feel embarrassed for quibbling over money, how to seem like a personal friend to a potential customer. After a few days he thought he had gotten the hang of it.

His last call was a little different. After he had given his usual pitch, there was a long pause, then a quiet voice on the other end said, "I am only home today because my father has just died." He apologized, hung up, and walked out. Nine dollars an hour is not enough money to sell your soul for.

-- Allie Griffith

If the argument is that telemarketing should be kept legal because it provides jobs, why not legalize prostitution as well? It, too, would help single moms make a living, and it is just about as ethical. In college, I worked for a telemarketing company and we were encouraged to lie outright in order to make sales (i.e., say that we were just sending "materials to look over" when really we were signing the poor person up for a new credit card on the spot). I quit when I (a woman) was asked to sell porn magazine subscriptions. Maybe there are some more upstanding telemarketing companies out there, but people still have a right not to be bothered at home. If I want to be sold to, I'll go to the mall. Leave me alone at home.

-- Tara Rose

The only job I was ever fired from was a telemarketing job for a window company. The job lasted five days. I was 19.

I remember 75 percent of the calls ending with someone interrupting my canned sales pitch with "Let me stop you right here. I'm not interested." One guy told me to go back to college.

I did go back to college, got a degree, a professional job and I look back at my telemarketing job as a comical failure in my beginning adulthood.

Do I have sympathy for the millions of soon-to-be-unemployed telemarketers who call my house after working 10 or 12 hours a day to sell me crap I don't need?

Not in the slightest. I have four words for them.

"Go back to college."

-- Michael C.

I just had to respond to a few of the points made by Farhad Manjoo in his article detailing the "other" side of the argument regarding the National Do Not Call List. The article is interesting, and it is fascinating, albeit a bit pitiful, to hear telemarketers defend themselves.

But to claim that the jobs lost due to the Do Not Call registry are anything to worry about seems ludicrous. While I'm sure there are some legitimate, full-time telemarketing positions out there, I have first-hand experience working for a telemarketer, and it was not a good experience.

Graduating high school in a small, rural Idaho town, one of the few jobs I could find to supplement my summer income was telemarketing. Unfortunately, I never received a paycheck in the two months I spent at the job. I should have known something was wrong when the manager asked me on my first night if I had any friends who wanted to work phones, too -- I've never been hired at a job that has immediately asked me to recruit other employees from my pool of personal acquaintances. I was supposed to make minimum wage, no benefits of course, plus a bonus ("spiff," they called it) for each sale (we were selling coupon books). I could work as many hours as I wanted, although I was warned that I would only be paid minimum wage for the first 35 hours each week (in order to circumvent state employment laws requiring full-time employees to receive benefits). But I was encouraged to work longer, off the clock, in order to rack up "big money" in spiffs. Since working that job, I try, when patience allows, to offer some rudimentary job counseling to telemarketers who get me on the phone: A single mother or former welfare recipient doesn't need to hassle with a no-benefits, over-worked position that isn't going to get her/him anywhere in the long run.

Another issue I take with Manjoo's article is the comparison Searcy makes to TV and Web advertisements. I hate pop-ups as much as the next guy, and I edit the commercials out when I videotape a TV show, but these advertisements deliver something tangible to me. I understand that the show or Web site I am currently viewing is made possible by the advertisements that are displayed; therefore, I'm apt to be more understanding. However, I do not see an immediate benefit when a telemarketer calls. Perhaps, as Manjoo's article implies, I have reaped the rewards in low-cost telephone service, but now that telemarketers have begun ringing up my cellphone, I suppose that benefit is fairly well negated -- there's nothing as frustrating as paying for a telemarketer's call during peak hours.

On the other hand, I agree that it is hypocritical for political and charity callers to be exempt from the rules, but the number of calls I receive from nonprofit organizations and political campaigns is nowhere near the number I receive from long-distance phone companies, windshield repair businesses, and people offering me credit cards. So practically it is a huge benefit to me to have the rules made as they are -- we can work on outlawing all solicitation via personal communicators at some later date, when text messaging spam and advertisements on our video-voice watches becomes unbearable.

Manjoo points out the obvious when he describes how the telemarketing industry failed to respond to overwhelming consumer demand for them to stop (or at least cut back) the calls. Now the consumers have banded together to send a message, and that is our prerogative, our freedom to speak our minds. If America's hope for economic revival rests on the shoulders of the telemarketing industry, then good riddance to us and our economy -- but I have a feeling that we'll work it out without those billions of dollars a year. And as a former telemarketing phone grunt, I have to wonder where all that earned money is going: I never saw a penny of it.

-- Shawn Rider

By Salon Staff

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