When a Stranger Calls

Good evening. Is [Mr./Mrs.] [prospect name] available?” I guess I won’t be hearing such snappy salutations so often come March, when the Federal Trade Commission’s telemarketing restrictions begin to kick in.

The FTC has devised a dizzying array of rules and regulations that it says are designed to “protect consumers from unwanted and late-night telemarketing calls.” In response, the Direct Marketing Association and the American Teleservices Association have filed separate lawsuits that say, essentially, that the FTC has overstepped its authority and crafted measures robbing legitimate marketers of their constitutional right to free speech.

I, for one, hope the trade groups win. Having been on both sides of the cold call, I simply cannot imagine a world without telemarketing. I have learned priceless lessons from the telemarketing industry, lessons that helped build my character and that still come in handy almost every day.

Back in the 1980s, when the first George Bush was still affectionately known around Kennebunkport as “da veep,” I got a summer job on a phone bank at one of the country’s premier telemarketing outfits. Foreshadowing my career as a journalist, I was tasked with calling prospects from the local phone book and soliciting them to buy magazine subscriptions for charity. (Only about 5 percent of sales actually went to the nonprofits, but that fact was mysteriously absent from our otherwise meticulously crafted scripts.)

Automated dialing systems weren’t the norm back then. My 30 or so co-workers and I had to punch in each seven-digit number manually. This taught us the value of hard work and toned our wrists for endless hours of Donkey Kong and Pac Man at the arcade when the shift was over. As I write these words today, I peck away at the keyboard with fingers of steel. More important, I learned how to be resilient in the face of an endless string of hang-ups, rude remarks and blistering, often incoherent jags of profanity.

The call center also introduced me to the complex machinations of office politics. Whenever any of us made a sale, we had to ring a little bell at our desks and the manager would put a check next to our names on a chalkboard at the front of the room. For a variety of reasons (boredom, fatigue, a desire to leave early to catch the final hour of Live Aid), I performed so poorly that they took away my bell. One night I miraculously tallied two quick sales in a row, and I got so excited that I reached over to ring the bell of the woman next to me. She snatched the bell away, and we ended up grappling for it until it slid behind some filing cabinets, lost forever.

Soon after, the manager called me into his office. He told me that although I was “a nice kid,” it was his opinion that I would “never amount to much” because I had “a really serious attitude problem.” I guess he took exception to my thoughtful, frank response, because as I was peeling out of the parking lot in my parents’ Buick Skylark, Huey Lewis blasting from the stereo, he chucked his laminated sales records at my rear windshield and shook his fists in the air.

I like to think he and I both learned something about humility, decorum and conflict resolution that day. For example, in life, sometimes it’s best to provide your own bell.

Since then, I’ve been on the receiving end of countless cold calls, at home and at work. In every case I have attempted to do unto the caller as was done unto me. Not a single telemarketer makes it past word three of his or her pitch before my good-natured and candid ribbing begins.

But don’t follow my example. The next time you’re disturbed by a phone solicitation during dinner, blame the people who actually buy things over the phone, not the poor schnook making the call or the besieged and beleaguered industry behind the practice.

Thank you, [Mr./Mrs.] [prospect name], for your time.