From March through August 2009, I was a telemarketer. Well, that’s not entirely correct. My title was Student Development Representative, which is a seriously flawed description of my main responsibility, which was to tele-beg.
I represented student development for my university by calling alumni and soliciting donations. It took weeks to be acceptable at it; and only with exceptional performance would the job get easier. See, the new-hires are assigned to call the less profitable major pools. The more donations you were able to scrape together, the more “generous” alumni you were given. In my tenure, I mostly called liberal arts majors of varying poverty levels. Only the Golden Gods of the call room were given access to the business graduates and Phi Beta Kappas.
The training period was essentially two weeks of holding my hand to my face and saying, “ring, ring!” With the trainer, I would practice responses to any conceivable justification that an alumni might give for their stinginess. “I’m sorry to hear that you’ve lost your job. Remember, any donation you give is tax-deductible.” “You’re still paying loans? Try to consider the students who will have to pay loans of their own.” “Oooh, cancer? Shoot…” and back in the six-month rotation they went.
The supervisor would tap into our conversations at random to make sure we were appropriately moving through the stages of persuasion. Somebody whispered to me once that you knew you were being monitored when the screen froze for a split second and the font enlarged by a half-size. I seized this knowledge with aplomb. The majority of our five-hour shifts were filled with Sudoku puzzles or working our way through coloring books, as studying was strictly forbidden on the grounds that it clouded our concentration. When my eyes happened upon a bizarre shift on my computer screen, I would shoot up in alarm and adjust my headphones, suddenly very in tune to the conversation. You’d always know who was being monitored by their abrupt jump in their seat, like a stray fart had tunneled its way through the rectum and released itself without so much as a gurgle of a heads-up.
I did manage to have some success, and I actually earned SDR-of-the-Week one time. My prize was a boxed set of kitchen tools. The spatula would melt and recede a bit every time I flipped a grilled cheese. The gifts were commonplace, a consolation prize for having to sell your soul three days a week. The turnover at this place was remarkable.
Some phone calls still haunt me. The horror of accidentally conjuring memories of a deceased spouse, the fury I had to soothe over some op-ed piece written by a liberal professor 30 years ago (“You can direct your feelings toward this online forum”), the odd feeling of success when I got a $500 donation. There is one phone call I remember in particular. After about fifteen rings, an elderly warble came through the line. I quickly checked the Donor Information Box on my screen. He was a WWII vet and simply categorized as LAS. I made a mental note to ask about his major if his interest should wane.
“Hello? Who’s there?”
“HELLO MR. SMITH. THIS IS SARAH, CALLING FROM YOUR ALMA MATER. HOW ARE YOU DOING TODAY?”
And so on. From experience, I knew this wouldn’t be a lucrative phone call. When people can’t hear you, they generally don’t give you money. But, to my surprise, I got the message across and Mr. Smith agreed to go find his wallet. I settled back in my chair and put the finishing touches on my portrait of Miss Piggy ice skating with Kermit.
But he took his time. “Oh, no,” I thought to myself. “Now I’m imagining things about him.” I pictured him in a brown, plaid lazy boy chair. I imagined that it took him a few rings to hone in on the telephone and then a few more to properly adjust his hearing aid. I imagined his Purple Heart framed and resting on the windowsill. This was not good. A successful SDR viewed donors as wallets, not humans.
I sat on the line for a solid ten minutes before he returned. It wasn’t protocol to hang up, so I sat staring blankly at Miss Piggy’s muff and convinced myself that he wasn’t on an oxygen tank. When he finally picked up the phone again, his voice was noticeably winded.
“Hello, Sharon? I’ve got my wallet.”
“That’s good to know, sir. Any contribution you can make is gladly appreciated.”
“How about…” loud pant, “$5.”
My heart sank. At this point, we were supposed to ante up and suggest how doubling that amount could impact a student indefinitely. My supervisor would see the amount on the spreadsheet and view it as a failure. But I couldn’t do it. I wanted him to take that money and buy, I don’t know, his pills for a month.
“$5 sounds perfect.”
My supervisor called me into her office. Apparently, they had installed a new phone service system. I didn’t know my conversation had just been tapped.
She made a bridge with her fingers and squinted.
“Sarah, I was listening in to your conversation. I know it’s hard, but he seemed receptive. Why didn’t you ask for more?”
To my horror, I burst into tears. We were equally freaked out by my reaction. Excuses came flooding from my mouth as I frantically wiped my cheeks.
“My grandmother died last week and I’ve been busy catching up on work, I’m tired, I have a lot of homework, I don’t feel well, I’m sorry, did I mention my grandmother died? So, I’m crying.”
She handed me some tissues and told me it would be better if I left for the day. I walked out of her office and back to my seat, where I gathered my purse and tried to hide my red face.
I left and walked straight to the library, where I furiously searched for jobs on the virtual job board for the next hour. I laughed aloud at the ad for a Student Development Representative, a perpetual offer for its frequent turnover. I thought about how there would be another one below it the next day, because I wasn’t going back there.
Last week, I got a phone call from someone wanting to know if I was available. Using a piece of insider knowledge, I informed the woman that no one by that name lived here. She cheerfully asked if I, then, would be interested in donating blood. I said no, thank you, and hung up the phone with mixed feelings. I knew that she would just toggle to the next person, and maybe get hung up on, or perhaps finally land on a person who would give part of their insides over the phone.
But it sure as hell wasn’t going to be me.