In the fall of 1996, while between theatre directing gigs, I was employed by a telemarketing call centre in Toronto to sell long distance phone packages to small businesses over the phone. During my eight month tour of duty I was indoctrinated into the high pressure world of telephone sales and the fight for survival in that wild and woolly call centre. It was an opportunity to meet and study the people who worked in those ridiculously stressful jobs which I equated with a military unit. The pressure was intense. You had to make 150 to 200 cold calls per day. You had to get at least three sales a day, five days a week, for a total of 15 sales a week to get your commission. If you fell short, if you got 14 sales, you didn’t get your commission. It was all or nothing. In order to hit your 15 sales there was pressure to slam (con a customer by switching their telephone service without their knowledge or authorization).
The experience provided the framework for much my new novel, A Matter of Will, providing the reader with a behind-the-scenes look at the world of telemarketing fraud as seen through the eyes of Will Crosswell, an out of work actor, and the men employed by a fictitious long distance phone company provider in the mid-nineties.
A Matter of Will unfolds at a time when internet sales, cell phone long distance, and the new long distance providers like Telus and Fido were still on the horizon. The characters in the book are bound up in a dysfunctional brotherhood of isolation and competitive one-upmanship. They are Darwin’s apes battling for survival in an old technology world on the verge of extinction. They are weeds at the bottom rung of the Great Chain of Being. And so they hustle onward – bantering, zinging, barbing, and jabbing away at each other, held in time and place by the nature of their unrelenting, repetitious telemarketing jobs.
Telemarketing calls are one of society’s most irritating pet peeves. Who hasn’t received an annoying telemarketing phone call right in the middle of their dinner? Telemarketing replaced the door-to-door salesmen of the fifties. Why? You can’t shoot someone over the phone.
Telemarketing is criticized as unethical due to the high-pressure sales and slamming techniques used during unsolicited calls. Because of the volume of complaints against the telemarketing industry, the American Government responded with increased protection for consumers and regulations for telemarketers. The Telephone Commission Protection Act, enacted in 1991, stated that telemarketers had to abide by a series of rules to stop fraudulent practice and slamming. The CRTC followed suit a few years later. Even despite the regulations, unscrupulous telemarketing companies did not comply with the laws. And the slamming continued.
Jump to twenty-seven years later. Time: the present.
In a January 23rd, 2018 news article, CBC announced that its investigation of the sales practices of major telemarketing companies has prompted growing calls to hold a public inquiry. On the heels of more allegations of wrongdoing inside the industry, dozens of telecom workers contacted Go Public, revealing intense pressure to upsell customers. The CRTC responded by saying that examining sales practices of Canada’s telemarketers doesn’t fall under its mandate.
In wake of the CBC’s recent investigative report, sadly, nothing has really changed in the tele-sales industry… only the technology.
By Rod Carley