We are nervous, my thirty classmates and I. We’ve been escorted to the windowless Juniper Room which maybe got its name from the scent of vomited gin that hits us as we walk in. We are given laminated ID badges that feature a photograph. I have a friendly, close-lipped smile in mine—genuine, giving, open, honest. I’d just listened to the ten-minute audiocassette about sexual harassment when the picture was snapped.
We meet our team leaders. They are fully outfitted in the company’s mail-order clothing. They look crisp and outdoorsy. They welcome us to Customer Service Training Week where we’ll learn how to take phone orders for items found in the company’s nationally distributed catalog. This season, they’re emphasizing Personal Touch over Cool Efficiency in an attempt to regain the top spot in the mail-order industry. They emphasize how important we are, the part-time Peak Employees who are only here through the holiday season when call volume goes through the roof. We are vital and much appreciated, they say, we are the Voice of the Company, and we will be missed when New Year’s rolls around.
Most of us have not been in a classroom setting for at least ten years, some more like thirty. I have trouble finding a comfortable sitting position and an expression that shows both a willingness to learn and a refusal to be talked down to.
We watch a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’ on a boombox. We learn about the history of the company, which is long and smooth.
We take a tour of the call center (aka ‘The Floor’). For a gigantic room housing hundreds of people on the phone, the noise is surprisingly subdued. It is a vast expanse of cubicles, the biggest I have ever seen. So big, in fact, that it requires laser-printed street signs to orient the employees. We will be sitting in Aisle C and/or G.
We relocate to the Computer Room where we each get a practice terminal, phone, and headset. Our team leaders hand out our own personal headset foam cushions, called the cookies (for the ears) and the olive (for the mouthpiece). Every day we have to install these foam cushions on naked headsets since we’ll always be sitting in different cubicles. Peak Employees are nomads, journeymen, forced to take whatever desk happens to be available when we show up, carrying our own disease-free foam cushions from aisle to aisle.
I am queerly fascinated by the overview of the company’s most popular products. The team leaders go over fabrics, high-tech heat-retention and water-resistance, stitching, sizing, low end vs. high end, membranes, flaps. But I soon learn that there’s no way to become a pro on all 7,000 products. Instead we have to use the computer system, letting it feed us small tidbits as necessary (‘That’s actually a dark gray with just a hint of green,’ ‘You bet, that girl’s jumper is totally flame-retardant’). The trick is to make it all sound natural to the customer, as if you had utilized the item yourself on many occasions in the past. ‘Those are fantastic pants and I am wearing them right now.’
This is the first job I’ve had that requires me to actually punch a timeclock. You can clock in no more than seven minutes before your scheduled start-time. Tardiness results in a docking of our points, and Peak Employees only get three to work with. Being 1-15 minutes late results in a loss of 0.25 points.
Today is role-playing with our classmates. We are assigned a partner and call each other on the phone, taking turns playing the Customer Service Representative and the Customer. We work on our Warm Openings (‘Good morning, thank you for calling, my name is Josh, how may I serve you today?’) and Powerful Closings (‘I hope you have a great time on your camping trip—and please let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you, Mr. Calhoun!’). I try to get my initial greeting down to the bare minimum while still retaining Friendliness and Branding. I quash Awkward Silences with Courtesy Phrases or, more often, wordless murmurs as I hunt and peck: ‘Tch-tch-tchhhh.’
I am a dick when playing the customer. I demand to be called ma’am. I ask about Braille monogramming. After the order’s been placed, I decide I want the Sunset Orange rather than the Taupe Heather, which I know is a hassle. I give them The Sigh.
No one likes to speak up in class except the woman who worked the holiday rush last year. She is the master of unnecessarily verbose speech, an essential tool of the trade. We defer to her. She is the only one who finds a new seat every day, throwing everyone off. Peak Employees are desperate for stability and consistency, which doesn’t come. This is the lesson she is teaching us, I think.
We only get half an hour for lunch and instead of going to the cafeteria I drive up the street for fifteen minutes and then turn around and drive back. In the car I polish my theory about why the Brief Warm Opening is ultimately better than the Complete Warm Opening. The team leaders are going to listen in on some of our calls and if there’s a problem that needs to be discussed, a purple card will be placed on our desk. I want to be ready when that purple card appears.
The team leaders are tense and refuse to admit when they don’t know the answer to a question. ‘Write that down on a stickie,’ they say. ‘That’s not germane at the moment.’
We are split into groups and asked to somehow represent a Key Customer Service Attribute on a large sheet of butcher paper. My group’s attribute is Listen Attentively and the only thing we can agree on is that a large, realistic-looking ear should be the centerpiece. The chosen artist is finicky and refuses to implement any of my ideas, which all rule.
The team leaders tell us that someone from each group has to present the completed work to the rest of the class, and that the presenter will be the person in the group who has the most feet at home. After some discussion, we decide this means that you count all the people that live in your house, pets included, add up the total number of legs, and the person with the highest number will be the presenter. No one wants to win this contest, so we all mutter our totals under our breath, trying to make sure someone has a higher number before declaring our answer. I figure these people either have a million kids or a million cats, so feel confident saying eight. Then they all suddenly backtrack and say they have four, as if there was nobody back at the ranch except their live-in lover, which I’m not buying for a second.
‘Note the arrows going in the ear, but also coming back out,’ I say. ‘We are listening attentively, but also providing verbal confirmation and asking questions to make sure we’re understanding exactly what the customer wants. The arrows coming out of the ear symbolize … questions. That we’re asking.’
Later that day, the other teams’ papers have been taped to the wall but ours hasn’t. Theirs are really good.
Graduation day. They surprise us by announcing we’ll each be taking two live calls today. No role-playing, no practice—real people calling with real orders. The room fills with hot tension. No one is happy to hear this.
I log in to the phone system and there’s a thirty-second wait before my first call comes in. Those thirty seconds are the worst of my life. I go over my Warm Opening too many times and the words get jumbled in my head. I forget the Stalling Tactics. I forget what to say when We Cannot Provide That Particular Item. I forget which number is in the blue box and which is in the yellow, there on the back of the catalog.
The phone rings and the caller is there without me having to press anything. I feel naked and sick and my Opening is harsh: ‘GOOD MORNING THIS IS JOSH.’ Where are they calling? Does Josh want to help them today? How may Josh serve them? My Opening answers none of these questions.
I have no fucking idea what this customer is talking about. The item number she gives me doesn’t correspond to anything even close to what she wants, and anyway she thinks it should cost $10.99 when the computer insists it’s $29.99. This customer is a lunatic, and cruel, and incoherent.
The next one only wants things that are out of stock. My Casual Joviality has little to no effect. I get The Sigh. She wants it in eucalyptus, how hard is it to make a few extra eucalyptus-colored fleece hats? It’s a Christmas present, I say, who cares what color it is. I am not a Christian, the customer says. I force a Personal Connection, trying to save the situation. I pepper the customer’s name throughout the transaction, as instructed. I add l’chaim to my Powerful Closing. She hangs up without placing an order. I didn’t get a chance to ask for her blue-box number, the one that tells us more about her than any one company should know.
I get the purple card right then and there. I get the purple card and I’m not even on The Floor yet. I get the purple card and try to palm it but it’s too late, my classmates have already seen it and are averting their eyes.