Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Calling America

Part 1: Call Me Maybe (Not)

My life as a working man started out in what many would consider "menial jobs" - first as the fry guy at my high school cafeteria, then as a carry-out at a couple of different grocery stores. After graduating high school with a couple years worth of work experience on my resume, I decided to trade in the rewards of life as a bag boy and move up to something a little more white collar.

Acting on a tip from a friend-of-a-friend, I applied at a Phoenix-based market research company and was hired to spend my evenings calling unsuspecting American consumers to find out their valued opinions about the crucial inner workings of our economy. For the princely sum of nearly $6/hour (more than minimum wage!) I could virtually visit the homes of demographically desirable people in a rolling sweep of America's timezones.

You might think with my pre-disposition against the telephone that I would have avoided this job the way a Congressman avoids accountability - but as the Congressman would probably tell you, you can brazen your way through anything if the paycheck is tantalizing enough. And I had frankly had my fill of bagging groceries for cranky old farts, and dodging their Buicks in 115 degree heat while retrieving their carts. If I could pull down $30+ a night sitting in a cubby and reading off a CRT screen for 6 hours a night, I was all about that.
"Good evening, ma'am, this is Tad with Thelocal Market Research qualify for our survey, how frequently do you purchase jeans? And could you please name as many brands of jeans as you can?... Thank you... and if you could, please, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 meaning "least agree" and 10 meaning "most agree" please rate the following dozen or so statements.... first up: 'Jordache jeans make me feel like a real cowboy.'... Yes, sir, that was the question.... no, I'll need a number between 1 and 10, please. Great! Now how about the statement 'Wrangler jeans make me look sexy and fashionable...'"
But keeping a straight face wasn't the hard part. No, I realized straight off that I was in a cutthroat and merciless business when our managers explained during orientation how we would be judged. The Bureau paid good money for the lists of phone numbers they pumped through our system, and they expected us to maintain a high percentage of "complete" calls. And we were closely monitored for our performance - with our jobs on the line at any time.

We all had a nightly quota to fill of actual completed surveys - meaning that the respondent qualified on the demographic questions, and then actually finished all of the survey questions.  If they didn't qualify - because, for example, they didn't wear jeans, or drink beer, or watch nightly news programs - or if we already had a large enough sample for their age, race, or gender, they didn't count toward our quota.
"Good afternoon, sir! I'm Tad with Thelocal Market Research Bureau...before we begin, I need to verify that you consume at least 3 alcoholic beverages a week... no, I don't need a full count, just more than 3? ... wow, 90?  Okay, well done. And have you been drinking alcohol for at least 3 years? For 7 years...90 a week for... no, that's just... wow. Great - last one - I need to make sure you are at least 21 years old... ah, well happy birthday! Yes, you barely made it - great timing, sir!"
Our overall performance was judged by whether we met our quota in our 6 hour shift, and by our "rejection rate." We had to track how many calls we made, and whether they were a "hangup" a "No" or a "Complete." We were not allowed to hang up on a respondent under any circumstances; if they hung up before completing a survey, that counted as a hang-up, but if they simply wanted to refuse to participate, we were required to get them to say "No" at least twice before ending the call.  We were monitored at random, so we never knew until after the end of a call whether there was a supervisor listening in, but if they caught you hanging up or leading the respondent to say "No," you could be sent home.
"Good evening, sir, this is Tad with Thelocal Market Research Bureau... why, yes, it should be about 9:30 there... since I already woke you, could I get you to answer a few quick questions about... Oh, I'm in Phoenix, sir, but could I possibly ask you... I would appreciate it if you wouldn't use that kind of language sir... if I could just get you to... I'm sure a telephone would never fit *there*, sir..."
I tried to figure out what my co-workers did to keep their numbers up, but it was tough.  We weren't supposed to stray from the script, and there wasn't really any down time for chatting between calls. Even if I could have leaned over to ask for pointers, my neighbors were rarely people I could talk to. The middle aged man with the child molester mustache and bad comb-over wouldn't make eye contact on his best day; the retired school teacher lady had her knitting and an acid tongue for every hangup; the cute girl my age couldn't decide whether to flirt or sneer at me.  The only one who even talked to me was the flamboyant Madonna-themed crossdresser who happened to be the roommate of a friend from choir.  And while I can appreciate now the rare compliment his motives paid me, at the time I was seriously put off by his not-at-all-subtle intentions.
"Good morning, ma'am! Thelocal Market Research Bureau calling, my name is Tad. Could I ask you a few questions to see if you qualify for our survey on burgers today? Great!"
The stress was surprisingly difficult to deal with. I found myself dreaming in surveys; burgers, beer, jeans, and more. I found myself answering the phone at home, "Thelocal Market Research Bureau..." And despite all my efforts, it seemed I couldn't get the hang of boosting my numbers.  Even when I had a good call, I could expect a supervisor to come out on the floor and call me out for some mistake.
"You may want to move your questions along a bit next time, Tad."
"But I got the survey done..."
"It's a 15 minute survey about hamburgers.  It took you 45 minutes."
"I couldn't help that. She was passionate about Wendy's 'buy one get two free' offer."
"I realize that, but these weren't open ended questions."
"We asked how many burgers she buys in a week. She had to average the weeks when she buys 4 dozen against the weeks when she subsists off the frozen burgers."
"But you let her ramble on."
"I tried."
"Try harder...or you go home."
In the end, I got tired. It was overwhelming, and I had other things I wanted to do in the afternoon.  Shift started strictly at 3pm, and school let out at 2:30, so if there was any traffic to speak of, or if I had to stop for anything (like maybe to use the bathroom? I'm only human!) the doors would be shut and I'd be sent home.

Finally, my supervisor pulled me aside and put it bluntly - I clearly didn't want to be there, and while he didn't want to fire me, it was going to happen if I didn't improve all my numbers: attendance, rejection rate, call time, quota. So I went home and started looking for a new job.

It wasn't even a close call.