Friday, January 11, 2008

An Actual Conversation

I was waiting in line at the grocery store last night, buying myself a frozen pizza after work. It was BBQ chicken, which turned out to be one of the best ideas for a pizza ever. Pizza has always felt like one of those foods that could effortlessly assimilate any other food into it. That's something that I really admire in foods. The other great culinary assimilator is the sandwich, which is basically what you call it when you stick other foods between two slices of bread.

Standing behind me in line were two scruffy looking men. They had that unshaved look to them, with shirts that mismatched their pants. If I had seen them on the street, I might have guessed that they were homeless, though since they were in the store and buying things I suppose they must just have been that sort of person. I've been wondering a lot lately why people stay in uncomfortable or unpleasant situations, and what I've come up with is this; there's never a good cutting off point. Things creep up on you. So the guys standing behind me probably didn't start out as people with limited social skill and personal grooming - it just happened little by little, until they were walking around with a stained shirts and bloodshot eyes, thinking that this is how life had always been.

One of them was the dominant one, because he kept talking. This is something people do to feel less lonely. It's also something that I've picked up on when telemarketing. Old people especially, as all the people they used to know have moved out of their lives and left them alone. It's a sad truth that a disproportionate number of the sales we get are old people who just need someone to talk to. That's yet another reason for me to get out of telemarketing.

The talkative scruffy guy was talking loudly, like he wanted as many people to hear him as possible. That's a symptom of lonely people who have lost their social skills.

"How can they charge two bucks for that little can of Red Bull? What's in there that makes that so expensive? Do they put gold in it?" He picks up a bottle of Pepsi Free. "You know this stuff doesn't have any caffeine or sugar? What are you paying for?" And of course, I felt obligated to respond.

"The cheapest part of the product is the syrup and carbonated water, followed by the packaging. Ingredients are maybe three cents per bottle, packaging is about ten cents.* The rest of the cost comes from transportation, marketing, profit for the manufacturer, and profit for the seller. Profit isn't that big for any mass market good, because it doesn't have to be, and because they're competing with other large companies that can increase their overall profit by lowering their individual profit per item. But you also have to keep in mind that a lot of that "profit" is from a business sense indistinguishable from "recouping investments". If Pepsi buys a new plant they have to sell a lot of bottles before they're in the black again. From cost standpoint through, the biggest cost associated with soft drinks is the marketing. And from a consumer standpoint, that's what actually matters - it's the reason that people tend not to buy off-brand products; the name sells. So when you drink a Pepsi, what you're paying for is the brand, not so much the contents, and that's one of the reasons this is called the information age; the information about the brand is more important than the physical product itself." Imagine me saying that really fast.

He just stared, and I bought my things and left.

*That's roughly correct, but not by any means exact.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Untold Joys of Telemarketing

Being incredibly broke, and not being able to find work at any other place in the great city of Duluth, I've taken up a job telemarketing. The company has one of those wonderfully generic names; Teleresources Inc. I've always been leery of any company that just mashes their description together to make their name, but the siren song of financial security is apparently enough to overcome that instinct. I don't think that I would ever go work for SYSCO though, whose name is an acronym of Systems and Services Company. It seems to me that someone must have intentionally made that name as bland and unhelpful as possible.

This isn't the first time that I've done the telemarketing thing. When I was in high school I worked for a company in my hometown called Inteleserve, which did essentially the same thing. There the campaigns were almost exclusively mortgage based. I would like to think that in some small way, I'm responsible for the current difficulties of the housing market. My job was to call people and ask them about how high or low their mortgages were, and whether they would consider refinancing through us. I was not in any way involved with getting them a new mortgage; my job was simply to get the information, which would be fed through the system to see whether we could get them one. If we could, I would hand them off to a banker.

Inteleserve had us on what's called "predictive dialing". This is where the computer calls for you, and waits until it hits an answering machine, a certain number of rings, or someone picks up the phone and says something. When there's a person there, the call gets routed to a telemarketer (in their parlance, Telephone Sales Representative). The process is efficient, but there's a lag from when the computer detects a person to when the telemarketer gets the call. By the time I heard a small click, the other person had already picked up the phone and said hello. That's one of the reasons that we stumble over last names.

I'm relearning this hatred of names. Only rarely does the computer call up someone with a name like John Smith. Instead, I get names with too many silent letters, or names that might be pronounced in multiple different ways. Alfred Moky - is this "moo-key", "mock-e", or "mo-key"? Or none of the above? It's worse when I'm not on predictive dialing, because then I have a few rings to try and puzzle out how the name is supposed to sound, only to be inevitably disappointed when I get it wrong.