Jul 20, 2021 Society
“Celebrate your 12-year friendship with Ben Mathers.” I hadn’t seen that name in a while. The profile photo hadn’t changed, so he was either dead or just had one outfit and really good skin.
Twelve years ago, I was 21, living in the UK and working in a call centre. I was surprised I got the job considering how bad my interview was. The interviewer had asked that classic question, what my weakness was. “I’m a perfectionist,” I said. He rolled his eyes. “Pff ft . Give me another one.” I tried looking into his eyes for clues but they were locked on my CV. “I manipulate people to get what I want?” “Great. Can you start Monday?” I don’t know if I got the job because of being manipulative or honest. (I said honesty was my strength.)
On day one, there were about 10 of us. The whiteboard had the motto “Smile as you dial” and a smiley face. A guy who looked like he was 17 and wearing his dad’s suit came in and put his hands on the table. It came across like a high-school production of Glengarry Glen Ross.
“Associates! This is Quantum Synergy Marketing.” Quantum Synergy Marketing? It sounded like corporate candyfloss — looks substantial until you bite. “We’re doing B2B marketing.” None of us knew how to respond, so we clapped. “Thanks. Anyone know what B2B is?” “Back to back?” I said. “No. Business to business.”
He wrote “Step 1” on the whiteboard. His writing was slower than his speech, so he stretched out the words. “Ste-e-ep-ah 1”. I hoped he wouldn’t write everything down. “Use the database to find the name and number of the IT manager. Call them and say, ‘Hi, I’m calling on behalf of Microsoft . Do you have a few minutes to answer some questions?’”
It was a relief when he put the pen away. “What if there’s no contact name?” “Call the main number and ask to be transferred through to IT.” “What if the receptionist hangs up?” He smiled. “Call back and ask for Mr Singh or Mr Patel in IT. There’s always one of ’em.”
All of us Indians gave each other the look. I mean, he’s technically right — Microsoft HQ was based in India — but still. “First call needs to be in by 9am. Yes, we check the logs and listen in.” He handed us a copy of the survey. It was 50 questions about hardware and software. “All surveys must be completed. Call them up multiple times if you have to, otherwise it doesn’t count.”
On a bigger whiteboard was the daily target: 20. We all slumped. That was the catch. I sat in my cubicle and put on my headset. I felt like a street magician. When I turned my computer on, the Ubuntu logo flashed up. Good God. We were pretending to be from Microsoft and using Linux. The guy next to me extended his hand. “Hey, I’m Raj.” Raj had worked in an inbound call centre so he was comfortable on the phone. I avoided touching the handset for as long as I could before forcing myself. Telemarketing is a terrible job for someone phone shy.
After lunch, we were back at our desks. Raj’s phone rang. Everyone in the office froze. It’s hard to emphasise how weird it was. We were an outbound call centre with a phone ringing. That’s like the Nile flowing in reverse, the clock turning back, the South Island deciding to vote Green. It’s an unnatural phenomenon. Raj answered. “Hello, this is Raj from Quantum Synergy Marketing.” I must’ve blacked out because my next memory is of the manager yelling, “Never EVER leave a voicemail, and if you get a call back, say you’re answering on BEHALF of Microsoft .” Aft er that, Raj’s phone call was used for training purposes.
I stayed at Quantum Synergy Marketing for a month, before I found a job closer to my new fl at. In that single month, two things happened: I got divorced, and I became one of the top telemarketers in our group. The day before my divorce hearing, I was an emotional wreck. Raj called my husband’s lawyer, put on a thick Indian accent and read out the survey excruciatingly slowly before being angrily hung up on. I laughed for ages. Look, I know I’m going to hell but I’m willing to bet the friendships there are more honest than those in heaven.
My route to becoming one of the company’s top telemarketers? I had phone sex with IT managers and slipped the survey questions in between more interesting exchanges. IT departments, I learned, were male dominated, and my New Zealand accent was considered hot. No one could tell the difference between Aussie and Kiwi accents. As far as they knew, I was from Neighbours or Home and Away. If I could flirt using IT jargon, I could keep the person on the phone for at least 45 to 60 minutes. Enough time to fill in a survey.
One of the businesses I rang was called Truck Lite Movers. I told the IT manager I needed one more survey to hit my daily target, and we ended up having a 45-minute conversation. There were no euphemisms or flirtations, we just talked like friends. Before I hung up, he said, “Add me on Facebook. Ben Mathers.”
Twelve years ago, Ben Mathers was the reason that I signed up for Facebook. He was my first friend. The messaging eventually fizzled out. Now, back in New Zealand and 34 years old, I decided to unfriend him. Goodbye, Ben from Facebook, on behalf of Microsoft.