Keep a smile in your voice, they said. It will make the sell easier. Always remember that first no is just an opportunity to create a yes. And the vulnerable are the easiest of all.
That last instruction, paraphrased during my “training” as a telemarketer, under a Newstart decree, was expanded on a little later in the day.
If the voice at the other end of your phone sounded elderly, or “a little slow”, you’d dialled into a goldmine.
They were the “guaranteed easy sells”, the ones you could convince to purchase an overpriced holiday subscription they couldn’t afford, to places they’d never go. But that wasn’t your problem – all you needed to do was get the bank details.
I was desperate. I had been working casually, paycheque to paycheque, when I caught a rare strain of pneumonia that landed me in intensive care, after a collapsed lung led to a whole-body collapse outside the restaurant I worked at.
But bills still need to be paid even as you lie in a hospital bed, and by the time I was conscious enough to remember my name, I was teetering on the edge of financial ruin.
Pressured into taking a job, any job, by the guardians of our social security safety net, but unable to stand for more than 20 minutes, I answered an ad calling for telemarketers, and soon found myself handed a call list and plonked in front of a phone.
The first day, after a brisk set of instructions, handed to me by a “veteran” – which meant, I soon found out, someone who had been in the job for more than a month – was my “unpaid trial”.
My group included backpackers and students and the long-term unemployed, who like me, had few options and more than their fair share of red-enveloped bills to pay.
Our phone list was hard copy – no digital traces of the numbers called – and we sat shoulder to shoulder with just a desk, a phone, two highlighters, a pen and a computer for recording bank and credit card details (no internet access) between us and the next bank.
A long termer was someone who had made it past two weeks. The hourly wage was so low to be almost negligible, with commission from sales your only chance of paying the rent.
Towards the end of the day, I reached an elderly woman, who listened beyond the first paragraph and happily allowed me to complete the script.
She told me she didn’t get many calls, and that her son had told her not to talk to people like me, but I sounded so lovely, and she was lonely, and that maybe a holiday would make a great gift for her son and grandchildren.
She mentioned she was down to her last can of baked beans until the next pension cheque came in, but if she cut down a bit she’d be able to make the fortnightly payments for the holiday plan.
She talked about her grandchildren, and how she had to give up her weekly outing to her bingo game because she couldn’t really afford the taxi back and forth any more, before shuffling to get her purse to read out her bank account details.
She came back and began giving the numbers, before I told her she should speak to her son before making a decision and quickly hung up, pretending to continue the call from my end, making it sound like she’d changed her mind.
I returned the next day with a pit in my stomach, and by mid-morning, found myself talking to a man with an obvious intellectual disability out of taking on the plan.
I spent the rest of the morning dialling the talking clock and pretending to dish out the sell.
In the tea room, a supervisor told me he had heard what I had done.
You just lost money, he said. Those are the people you want: the elderly, the lonely, the trusting. He described those with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities as having money with no life to spend it on.
It was about choosing whose table I wanted to put food on – mine or theirs? I walked out at lunch and didn’t return.