Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Zen of Telemarketing

In the fall of 2001, I couldn’t get a job. The economic slump, which hit San Francisco particularly hard, meant that there were no jobs. I tried phone sex, but it didn't pay. Then I tried phone sales. Five evenings a week, I attempted to sell season tickets for the San Francisco Symphony, calling anyone and everyone who had ever attended a concert there. I worked at a plastic desk in a windowless room with fluorescent lights and, this being California, a plug-in Zen garden in the corner.

But despite the soothing sound of trickling water, selling tickets was a tough job. Michael Tilson Thomas, the director of the Symphony, favored jangly modern music over classical favorites like Beethoven and Mozart, 9/11 had made people frightened to travel into the city, and because of the recession they were reluctant to squander money on symphony tickets. Morale sagged. Some of my fellow telemarketers stopped trying altogether, since even if you didn’t make sales and earn bonuses, you still got the base pay of $10/hr. In theory, at some point they would kick you out if you made no sales, but as far as I knew, this had never happened. People sat around drinking the free Swiss Miss and reading the celebrity gossip magazines concealed in their laps

Doug, our boss, was depressed too. He was a tall, pale man with fidgety hands, perhaps from punching in so many phone numbers over the course of the years. Then one day, he read a book called The Zen of Selling: the Way to profit from life's everyday lessons and had an epiphany. Everything we needed to know, he declared, was contained within this book. He insisted that we all read it. The book was written in a cryptic style that seemed very wise, with advice like: “Forget the selling. Let the customer do the buying” and “Most of the time we don’t communicate; we just take turns talking.” The essence of the book was that salespeople should stop treating customers as adversaries and start treating them like people.

I could see why Doug liked this idea so much. He was a gentle man who brought his own camomile tea to work and was incapable of firing anybody, out of place in the ruthless world of telesales. Of course he loved the book, which portrayed the relationship between customer and salesperson as compassionate and mutually enriching, and selling of any sort as a noble calling. In its last pages, the author rhapsodized thus: “When your eyes greet those of the customer as surely as a light in a reflection, and when smiles pass between you like a gentle breeze, then you know you are where you should be and want to be.”

Unfortunately, Zen was no more help with telesales than wabi sabi with retail design. Even when we started treating them with compassion and respect, people still weren’t interested in the symphony. Apathy descended over the office again, but I was determined not to give in. I went to the library and got out a book on how to sell the old-fashioned way. There was nothing in it about your eyes greeting the customer’s eyes. It was blunt and to the point. Salespeople should flatter the customer and let him do most of the talking, since people like to be listened to. Also, they should reflect back or “mirror” the customer—agree with everything they say, like everything they like. “People will see through this,” I thought. But amazingly, they didn’t.

From then on, I flattered customers shamelessly, so much so that one man asked me out. I listened to people’s stories, because some people want to be listened to so much that a telemarketer is better than nobody. But the best trick of all was mirroring. At the start of the conversation, instead of asking people right out whether they wanted to buy tickets, I asked them what music they liked. And whatever they liked, I claimed to like too. On one call, I’d agree: “Yes, I love Beethoven and Mozart too—there’s just so much passion in the classics. Modern music is dry and inacessible.” On the next call, I’d say: “Yes, I love modern classical music too. I find it so much more intellectually challenging.” One woman told me that she didn’t like the symphony because “I’m overweight and the seats are too small.” I mirrored right back: “I totally know what you mean. I’m a large person myself. But what I do is sit in the aisle, that way I feel a little less constricted.”

That was my first sale. It was pure ecstasy. No one had ever told me how incredible it feels to make a sale. Adrenalin flooded my veins and I tingled all over. Often working in the phone program, I felt a little hopeless, worrying if I would ever get a better job or even succeed in that job. But for one delicious moment, even though there were no gentle breezes and I could not see myself reflected in the customer’s eyes, I knew I was where I should be and wanted to be. Soon after, Doug quit, the miniature Zen garden died from lack of natural light, and I left to take a slightly better job.


Anonymous Alexander said...

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