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Thursday, July 20, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Telemarketing: The Selling Points

Washington Post

WASHINGTON - You know who they are.

They're high school students trying to finance their senior prom by hawking cemetery plots over the telephone; they're college kids peddling bottles of hair tonic for balding men. They're homemakers and business professionals strapped for cash.

They're the perky ones who interrupt your dinner; the ones who insist you must act - right now! They're telemarketers: the lowest on the retail chain.

They're the people you love . . . to hate.

But behind that well-rehearsed script and overeager "Hello there!" is someone with feelings. Someone who listens. Someone who cares . . .

"I'd ask, `Is Mr. Smith in?' and they'd moan, `No, Mr. Smith died two months ago,' and I'd spend the next hour consoling them," says Jim Polfer, a 24-year-old Georgetown law student who financed his undergraduate education selling frozen pork products - among other things - in Orlando. "Or they'd think I was their grandkid. They'd say, `Johnny? I haven't heard from you in so long!' and I'd say, `No, ma'am, I'm not Johnny,' and they'd yell, `Johnny!' "

Someone with a conscience . . .

"I'd just feel bad for those people who weren't good-looking," says Maina Tran, a 24-year-old assistant export operations manager for Washington Consular Services who once telemarketed a video dating service. "(People) would join the service, pay all that money and then not get any dates. Once I had to call this guy who used to make a lot of appointments and try to get him to come back. He sounded like he really had low self-esteem, and I had to encourage him and tell him that it's not the looks that count."

Someone who thinks the stuff they sell is junk, too . . .

"I was really horrible at it," admits Polfer. "People would say, `Hell no, I don't want to buy that,' and I'd be like, `Yeah, I wouldn't buy it, either.' I kept on getting fired, but I interviewed really well, so I'd get another job, like, the very next day."

But no matter how rude their customers might be, they pick up the phone and dial again.

Many agencies concede one in 10 workers quits within the first month, but Larry Pentler, owner of Market Motivators in Mequon, Wis., believes that statistic is generous.

"It seems more like one in 10 quits their first day! What a normal sales associate does in one day, we do in an hour," says Pentler, who has been in telemarketing for 20 years.

With new technology, telemarketers can talk to up to 20 people an hour, Pentler says. Telephones are automated so that seconds after one call ends, a new potential customer's phone is ringing.

Stress undoubtedly intensifies after four or five hours of continuous calling, but Pentler says he has found the cure: "I'm a big fan of sponge and rubber toys. No one knows what you're doing at the other end of the line, and you can squeeze that Nerf football and all the stress just goes away," he says with a laugh.

The stress factor can be lessened. The "I-feel-like-a-dork" factor cannot.

"I went to an orientation and there were four or five of us, all in our twenties. So we sat down, and this woman showed us a book that had the whole conversation planned out," says Heidi Goldstein, who barely made it through an introductory meeting before deciding telemarketing wasn't for her. "And it said, like: `Hello (UPBEAT, FRIENDLY)!' And if you called during dinner, you had to say, `When can I call you back?' not "Can I call you back?' because if you asked that, they'd say never. And if a wife answered and said she couldn't buy theater tickets because her husband traveled a lot, you flipped to the section that said `Husband Travels' and read her that. I mean, they had an answer for everything!"

Telemarketing has become immensely profitable in part because overhead is low. To recruit students and homemakers (who make up the bulk of telemarketers), agencies run a newspaper ad or post a flier.

The hours are flexible. Starting salary is almost always a couple of dollars higher than minimum wage, and many telemarketers work on commission - although usually not exclusively.

There are two ways to telemarket. Outbound callers are the infamous bunch who catch you in the middle of "Seinfeld." They have the distinct advantage of being able to call from either an office or their homes.

Inbound callers sit on the receiving end of 800 numbers and thus generally work in offices. This is the more common, as well as more prestigious. They talk to people who actually want their product.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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