Doing Time in the Boiler Room

How to make that "wonderful weekend in Orlando" sound like a month at the Taj Mahal

"So, I gotta know something," Larry, a 28-year-old computer technician from Philadelphia asks. "Are you blond?"

"No," I say. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, you just sound like a blond," Larry says. "It's not a bad thing," he rushes to add. "I'm blond."

"Sorry to disappoint," I say, wondering exactly where we are going with this conversation, wondering briefly if Larry thinks I might be a sex phone operator instead of a telemarketer.

Glancing at my ever-vigilant telemarketing bosses who keep a predatory eye on me and fellow workers in the telephone bank, I decide it's time to redirect the conversation to a more pressing topic: specifically, Larry and his as-yet-unrecognized desire to take a trip down to Florida.

"Lar," I say coyly, for we are friends now, and there is no need to refer to him as Larry, or Mr. Smith, as other, less experienced telemarketers might, "you say you're an edgy type of person, right?"

It's a gambit that I learned in telemarketing training at my job with Resort Vacation Marketing, a low-profile boiler-room operation in Boca Raton that peddles vacation packages. Go right for the ego. Make the would-be customer hungry to impress you with his bravado. Get his masculine wheels spinning.

"I like to live on the edge, yes," he responds.

"You know, I really don't believe that," I say flatly.

"Oh, I'm pretty extreme," Larry says. "I blew 300 bucks the other night on a trip to the Poconos," he brags.

"The Poconos, Lar?" I say with calculated disgust. "That sounds more like a place for old retired people who like to play bingo and cribbage than a place for people as edgy as you say you are. You know, at the moment, I've gotta say, you're not impressing me too much, Lar."

"I'm extreme, trust me."

"I'd like to," I say, "but you're really not giving me that much to go on. Let me ask you another question, Lar. We've been on the phone now, for what, 37 minutes?"

"I guess."

"Do you trust me, Lar?" I ask, getting down to the skeleton of the telemarketing model.

"Yeah, I guess."

"So, what's stopping you, Lar?" I say, rushing toward the moment of truth. "There are only two reasons why people do not buy this vacation package: One, they do not trust the seller, and we've just established that that is not the case. And two: They can't afford it. Are you telling me you can't afford a free vacation, Lar? Is that what you're telling me?"

There is silence on the other end of the phone.

"Let me ask you one more question. Lar, tell me, does your middle initial appear on your credit card?

And I have trapped him now. For Larry, like most people, has no idea whether his middle initial does in fact appear on his credit card. And once he takes it out to check, he is left vulnerable, like a girl caught in a storm without a raincoat. That's my hope, at least.

Welcome to Telemarketing 101, otherwise known as the "strategies for skinning the reluctant buyer." It is a brutal profession, with the highest turnover rate of any field. A Gallup poll, taken in November 2002, listed telemarketing as the profession with the least honest reputation. An unfair assumption, perhaps. But there is no question that telemarketers are among the most despised workers in America. A Time magazine millennium survey listed telemarketing as the fourth worst idea of the 20th Century. After the Federal Trade Commission approved new rules last June allowing people to place their names on a National Do Not Call Registry, a tidal wave of 50 million people signed up within months. By registering, consumers believed that at last the annoying din of phone calls from telemarketers would stop and that for the first time in modern history, they would be able to eat their pot roast and mashed potatoes in peace.

The telemarketing industry squawked like a chicken. An entire industry, employing millions, could be wiped out overnight, telemarketers complained.

But after the dust settled, experts pointed out that Do Not Call regulations, which were subsequently given the go-ahead by Congress, are so riddled with loopholes that they will have little effect on the business of telephone hard sell. "The Do Not Call list is not as no-call as you think," says Dr. Richard Feinberg, director of Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality. Among other things, Feinberg says, a prior "established business relationship" with a company trying to sell you something gives them an automatic exemption. That means, if you ever asked for a catalog or made an inquiry to a company's customer service, all restrictions are off.

Other telemarketers who don't have to worry about the list: state-based subsidiaries of national organizations, companies doing surveys with tacked-on selling promotions, charities and political organizations, not-for-profit agencies.

According to Feinberg, the new system is an invitation for companies to set up dummy partnerships and establish relationships with other businesses, subverting the federal restrictions and sometimes doubling their lists of exempted names.

The list, Feinberg concludes, is "easy to get around."

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