Essays on Technology and Culture

Notes From An Ex-Telemarketer

Recently, Marco Arment tweeted about jobs that make the world worse. Naturally, because Marco is both wealthy and coming from a place of privilege—both things I think Marco has not denied—his views are tainted. Speaking as someone who worked in one of those careers Marco demonized (hint: not Patent Enforcement), I disagree with those who call him out. Marco is right. Maybe not 100% right, but he’s right about telemarketing—well, some forms of it.

First, some background. While attending college, I landed a part-time telemarketing job with the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. I spent half the year calling subscribers to raise money for the theatre’s Angels fund, a couple months calling existing subscribers to renew their subscription for the next season, and the rest of the year calling to sell new subscriptions. I worked this job, with a few short gaps, from January 2005 to August 2012. After graduating college in 2008, I struggled to find full-time work until I was convinced by a headhunter to take a job with Market Resource Partners, a Philadelphia based “lead generation” firm—business-to-business telemarketing—and worked there from October 2008 to February of 2010.

I took both jobs because I needed money, end of story. In the annals of telemarketing, the job with the Walnut Street Theatre was actually a lucky break. It was selling a legitimate product, without a great deal of completely cold calling. The environment was supportive, the pay was good, and the free theatre tickets were a great perk. While nobody wants to be called at dinner time, as long as I was friendly, polite, and brief, most people were okay with it. [1] I made a good living there during college, and even kept with it for the extra income after I graduated. I also kept it up because I love the performing arts, and felt that I was actually making the world a slightly better place by raising money and putting butts in the seats of a 200+ year arts institution. There are few telemarketing jobs that can inspire that feeling.

Case in point: the fourteen months I spent as a business-to-business telemarketer. This is where I realized how awful the job truly was, and why B2B telemarketing as a profession will hopefully wither and die—hopefully, soon. My role with Market Resource Partners was to contact IT departments, and convince them to take a second call from a representative of one of the most beloved companies in technology at the time, Sun Microsystems. [2] As much as people hate being called during dinner, people really hate being called at work—especially IT people. When you’re trying to get work done, that is the last time you want someone to interrupt you and demand any of your time, especially to sell you on new IT hardware. It’s why large organizations established safeguards to prevent people like me from reaching the people who make IT purchasing decisions. They have enough to do.

It’s worth noting here that I sucked at my job. After fourteen months, and enough bosses tut-tutting at my lack of performance, I was shown the door. I was glad, too. Part of the reason I sucked was that my skills at dealing with “warm” calling theater fans and subscribers didn’t translate easily to calling harried IT professionals and pushing a product I didn’t believe in. Another reason I sucked was that I knew I wasn’t doing anything worthwhile. I was interrupting people to get them to take a call from an actual sales person—not even a sales person who worked for Sun, but for a Sun Value-Added Reseller—and further take them away from the actual work they had to do.

I realized pretty quickly that my role was one of an easily ditched middleman. If an IT person needed new hardware, what was stopping them from doing their own research? We have the Internet for that, and they can squeeze a Google search or two into their day easier than they can squeeze a sales call in. When I was told to pack up and leave, I did so gladly, knowing that I would no longer be debasing myself at a job that had no intrinsic value beyond the money the company made per lead generated—which I never actually saw. It’s telling that the Monday after I was let go, the company actually let go about half their employees as Oracle, who had recently purchased Sun, terminated their contract. Thus always to middle-men, though I felt bad for the co-workers who were unceremoniously shitcanned.

  1. “Dinner time,” I quickly learned, runs from about 5PM to 9PM. Shifts at the Walnut were typically from 6PM to 9PM, so any call could conceivably come as someone was sitting down to dinner.  ↩

  2. N.B.: the epithet “most beloved company” applied to Sun Microsystems should be read with as much sarcasm as the human brain can muster.  ↩