In my mind, the job was colossal, I was esteemed and rich. But no one seemed to notice

The Age’s opinion section is rolling out a fresh series of summer pieces on the theme of ‘The Summer I Went Legit’. These stories, penned by Age writers and regular columnists, range from humorous to poignant and thought-provoking tales of first jobs and finding your feet.

“Welcome to Telstra, this is Waleed, how can I help you?”

Yes. That was me, headset and all, talking to whoever was game about their MessageBank™. Or Call Number Display (the cool kids called it CND). Or trying to convince them of the merits of consolidating their various services into a single bill (“one account, one amount”). That last one we sold on the basis that it was good for the environment because it used less paper. By wild coincidence, it also saved the company considerable administrative costs.

“I do like getting into the history of the place and trying to understand what I’m looking at. Budapest has a tragic and therefore engrossing history.”
“I do like getting into the history of the place and trying to understand what I’m looking at. Budapest has a tragic and therefore engrossing history.”

There were two types of shifts – inbound (answering calls) and outbound (making the calls). Outbound was the default. “Hi, this is Waleed from Telstra, could I please speak to Mrs Bucket?” I wouldn’t have chosen Mrs Bucket, myself, of course. She was dished up by a machine, which identified her as being primed for some sale or other. Then suddenly there we were. Thrown together by fate on a phone call neither of us sought, having never known the other existed mere seconds ago.

In an instant, you’d be asking for their date of birth for privacy reasons and getting their permission for the call to be recorded “for quality and coaching purposes”. At which point, it wasn’t unreasonable for your new friend Mrs Bucket to say something like: “Hang on, you’ve called me out of the blue, and now you’re asking for my personal details and recording me?” Others would just hang up. If only they’d bought a CND, they’d have known not to answer – and for only $5.50 a month including GST!

Once, I remember a guy saying to me, with tremendous satisfaction, “You are the weakest link. Goodbye.” I couldn’t tell whether it was something he said at every available opportunity or had been waiting for the perfect moment to deploy, but I could definitely tell he thought quoting a catchphrase from a short-lived game show was the cleverest thing in the world, and not remotely hackneyed. I assume he now runs around saying “lock it in, Eddie” whenever he finalises social plans.

Looking back, it’s a miracle anyone ever agreed to talk, but you’d be amazed. In our induction we were told of one customer (not Mrs Bucket) who took the call while having sex, right up to and including the most … audible … bit, even declining an offer to be called back later. I tried to imagine how that conversation would have gone. Were there calm, dry exchanges about optimising one’s call plan? Was it a complicated discussion of how mobile, internet and landline services could be packaged so as to earn a discount? How exciting could a Messagebank™ be in the circumstances?

My first call wasn’t as eventful. Even so, I remember it vividly. All the product knowledge, all the practice calls, all the blood, sweat and tears of two whole weeks of training had led to this. Now I was about to be unleashed on a real person.

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The dialler clicked into action, signalling a call had begun. I would be speaking in less than a second, but so much would be packed into that tiny interval. The air would feel electric, my stomach would churn as though powered by some nauseating engine. Then I would recognise instantly this wasn’t helping, and summon as much energy as I could to overwhelm the nerves. The result was probably that I sounded absurdly hyped up, but anything was better than sounding scared. Nowadays, I recognise exactly what that feeling is. I was on the air.

Around me was an aura of mundane drudgery, of battery-farmed “sales consultants” stuck on repeat for months on end. But for me, it was fabulously exciting. Telstra was this huge, prestigious company, whose ads I’d watched my whole life. How did someone let me represent them? Was I an Australian icon now, by association? Not just Waleed. But Waleed from Telstra. And how did anyone agree to pay me more money than I’d ever imagined – some $23 per hour – to become one? In my mind, this was colossal. I was esteemed and fabulously rich. It’s just that no one seemed to notice.

A couple of years later, I was at a job interview for my first legal job. “Are you one of those annoying people who hassles me at home when I’m just trying to relax?” began the interviewer, scanning my CV. I probably said something stupid like, “No, I’m just trying to help you get the most out of your service,” because that’s how those annoying people who hassle you at home when you’re just trying to relax tend to speak.

These days, my colleagues and I use a different set of annoying words. Words like “caucus”, “ombudsman” or “two-party preferred”; “outrage”, “scandal” or “fiasco”.

Fools have let me represent institutions far beyond my grade – the ABC, The Age, and Channel Ten. One day, someone will find out and end this madness, but it’s uncanny how many moments resemble that first call; how many skills are the same. Sound engaged, establish rapport with people from every demographic and walk of life, convey information quickly and simply.

The air crackles, the stomach churns, reserves of energy propel you over these hurdles and on the air. The more I think about it, the more all that telemarketing resembles an extremely niche form of talkback. I’d love to you to hear it. Sadly, I forgot to ask all those customers if they were happy for me to record them for niche broadcasting purposes.

But please, if there’s anything thing else you need, then how can I help you?

This piece is part of The Age’s First Jobs summer series.

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Source: Thanks smh.com