When I was a kid, I remember seeing people do odd jobs and wondering to myself, “Does anyone really say they want to be a garbage collector for a career? How do they get into these jobs?” Or when I was at the mall, I asked myself what people it took to decide to be a kiosk salesperson. When I got older I realized what you already know. There are many people working in jobs specifically for the money. I’ve had several of those jobs. This is one of them.
Have you ever called up a phone number in a clothing catalog and thought about the life of the person on the other end of the line? What are their likes and dislikes? What motivates them to come to work every day? What goes on behind the scenes of a big, fancy catalog call center? Well, have I got news for you.
For approximately two weeks, I was a call center associate. They called us all that, so don’t get to thinking I was something special. Because I wasn’t. I was one of the low-level grunts without a college degree who worked for peanuts to try and make ends meet answering phone calls. And I sold stuff. I sold a lot of stuff.
I got the job through an ad in the newspaper. It said “Talbots Catalog Associates Needed. No Previous Experience Necessary.” That was right up my alley since I had absolutely no experience in the retail world to that point. But I was married, and she didn’t work, so I had to. There wasn’t much of an interview process either. I talked to a guy in a suit for about five minutes, and he told me to show up for work on the following Monday. It should have raised a red flag knowing I had the job so easily. But it didn’t.
The biggest thing about the job was the boredom. It’s what I remember the most after the fact. Associates worked in shifts, and I was given the 4 am until 10 am shift, with one fifteen minute break somewhere at the halfway point. The people in my “crew” were given a range of phones to man (er, to woman, I guess, since I was the only guy on my crew), and headsets to wear. Then we were instructed to wait for the beep.
That’s what made the job so tedious, waiting for the beep. You see, usually when you’re waiting for something you can do other things while you wait. At the Talbots catalog that was impossible, because you didn’t know when the beep would come, you had to be ready exactly when it did come, and you were possibly monitored to assure you were “on point.” So, that ruled out reading. There was no way I would be ready to answer the beep if I were in the middle of a sentence in a suspense novel, or in any book for that matter. It was impossible to carry on a conversation with another associate, as well, because you never knew when they would get the beep, and it could throw one or both of you off if the beep came in the middle of a chat.
So I stared out of the window while waiting for the ominous beep. Sometimes it would be ten minutes between beeps (we were chosen randomly by the call center to get a call sent to our phone), and sometimes it would be mere seconds. But when the beep did come I had to be ready to say… my line. “Thank you for calling the Talbots Catalog! This is Sam. What can I get for you today?” We had to ask what we could get for them because it was shown to get more and higher sales for the catalog.
Speaking of catalogs, we had about a million of them: the summer catalog, the spring catalog, the special Talbots catalog sent only to “deserving” customers, and the winter catalog. When I answered the beep, I had to be ready to get out the right catalog they wanted to order from, or in extreme cases I had to find the clothing without aid of page numbers of catalog edition. And I was warned that if there were any delays I could be called in if indeed they were monitoring that particular call for me.
I did have a favorite part of the job, however, and it wasn’t break. Breaks were just as boring as waiting for calls because everyone was so fried from the lack of real communication we were all comatose during breaks. My favorite part of the job was getting to go to the “mock” store where most of the clothes from the current catalog were stored on racks that looked like a real Talbots store. It was crucial to be able to tell the exact colors, the cuts, and the styles of the clothing, and customers asked about that kind of information A LOT. Especially since I was a guy, which was another interesting point.
Apparently, most women who call the Talbots catalog expect to be greeted by another woman, or by a gay man. Now, I don’t want to ruffle any feathers, but these women knew right away that I wasn’t gay, for whatever reasons. So, usually during one of the calls I would get asked the personal question of why I was working at the catalog call center and they would voice doubts that I could help them adequately, seeing as I was neither a woman nor a gay man. As if that meant I wasn’t “qualified” to sell clothing to women. I would allay their fears, though, knowing the Talbots sizing, the right accessories, and what would get them the best deal for their money.
What I loved were the women who would call with their husband’s credit cards and spend boatloads of money on the clothes. I mean, Talbots clothes aren’t cheap. And they would buy one of everything in every color we had available. A few of my calls ended up being for over $1000 dollars, and when I told them the final price they wouldn’t stutter when they said, “Fine.” It turns out I was actually pretty good at selling clothing to women over the phone, and I would probably still be working there now if it weren’t for the non-selling time, and the boredom that came with it.
I honestly couldn’t imagine myself staring out of a window for the vast majority of my day without any stimulation from talking to another human being even though there were at least 20 other associates in the room with me. I would be so mentally exhausted after a day of it that I would get home and just need to crash on the couch. I felt like I wasn’t living a real existence, having a fulfilling life, being so bored, wit work being so tedious. I don’t really know how I even made it through the two weeks without cracking from the foundation up. I think it was only the thought of a paycheck at that point that kept me going, but as soon as the two weeks was up I was off to another job that had “No previous experience required.”
And I crossed my fingers for that one.