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I was a soldier of misfortune in the telemarketing trenches

JOREN CULL/The Globe and Mail

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

When I join the telemarketing ranks I expect an easy job, a casual atmosphere of camaraderie, and generous commissions. As I get my feet wet, though, I find that I'm a combatant in a zero-sum game without prisoners. It's me, the caller, against you, the called.

Sure, the work's easy if you dislike the act of thinking. I am expected to mindlessly repeat a script that's supposedly been perfected to maximize my chances of landing a sale. The less I deviate from it the better. Thinking is for closers, the officer class who have already proven themselves.

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And the commissions are easy if you don't mind the motivational effects of envy and relentless competition.

All around us are screens displaying our performance. Rewards are thrown at the overachievers like garlands on victorious Caesars, while the meek and considerate soon find themselves abandoned in no-man's land. I'm given little leeway to play nice if I want to get ahead.

We are told the average business person gets more than a dozen telemarketing calls a day. The industry's answer to overstimulation is escalation. I am to hit hard and fast, and unless you hang up I'm not to back off. No matter how adamantly you plead, the only way I can permanently take you off our list is if you threaten legal action – and even then managers will record everything and wait to see who slips and shows empathy.

My dialling software (the meanest drill sergeant there is) doesn't help: It spits calls, one after another, until you are just another number to me.

Thus hardened, we are sent out, my fellows and I, wave after wave, like sharks after blood.

Four hundred calls later, and the day done, I am exhausted. I have barraged bewildered Hispanics and elderly Filipinas with salvoes of my personal brand of nervous, hurried pitching. I've learned that in New York you have to fight savagely for the smallest gains, but that there really is such a thing as Southern hospitality – even if they are merely politer at refusing. I have newfound respect for good secretaries who, like the finest bodyguards, deflect my sharpshooting and save their bosses' time and, more importantly, nerves. I have been yelled at in ways that I masochistically relish recalling afterward.

Shell shock comes after the shift ends. I question my choice of employment. I can't find a single meaningful consequence that comes from it. I've become a human flow chart, memorizing rebuttals and lines.

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At the end of day 2 I begin to adapt to my environment. I start questioning myself instead. As a co-worker says, pointedly, I am working for nobody but me, and it's getting me nowhere. The problem, then, must be with me. What is wrong, I ask myself, with being persuasive and determined? These are skills everybody needs, and telemarketing is giving me the opportunity to hone mine.

Perhaps it's my voice – which I have always found monotonous – or my foreign-sounding name? Cold calling is first impressions on steroids. Since my regular self isn't helping my numbers I contemplate adopting a pseudonym or a more ruthless alter ego.

Meanwhile, the cold-dialler continues peppering me with fresh targets. Sometimes the list is really outdated, and I'm asking for business that closed decades ago.

Once in a while, amid the chaos, I land a sale. I won't lie: It feels great, like I've just won a duel. After one such victory, with 10 minutes to go on day 3, I begin to think perhaps I do have what it takes to make the big bucks. My numbers, though still low, are rising, and there's nothing to say I can't improve. The first rule of success is fitting in, I tell myself. It's time to make friends, study the pitches, be a team player. Time to grapple for sales and earn my stripes.

The recruiting manager calls me over.

She tells me I haven't been displaying the fight she's looking for, or sticking to the script, and that I'm letting people off the hook too easily. She suggests I apply elsewhere to get experience, and reapply later if I'm keen. She'd be willing to reassess me because I'm a "really nice guy," even though we both know that's the reason why I'm getting fired.

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If this is some test where I'm expected to challenge the decision and reveal my inner aggressiveness, I fail it by bowing out gracefully and compliantly. She's been here for a long time. I trust her to know who has it and who doesn't in three days or less.

I go back to my seat and log off.

"Calling it a day?" my neighbour asks.

"Calling it fired."

She shrugs. She's the last one of her group still standing. Attrition is high. I'm just another casualty who's been given his papers and honourably discharged.

I'm handling it well. Some people, I decide, are made for this, and thrive on the hunt. Me, not so much. I'm meant to bring something to the job, not have the job change me.

I am a veteran of the telephony wars with my share of war stories, and I'm very much looking forward to returning to civilian life.

Milos Kovacevic lives in Montreal.

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