I had one night to keep my job. Four shifts without a sale and you were fired, that was the rule. Sitting in the Studio Theatre telemarketing office, I rambled on, hoping for a miracle in my final hour.
“I’m calling to tell you about our fantastic five-play season,” I read woodenly.
To my right was a meek, whispering waif, who was also in her fourth shift, waiting for the ax. After being rejected hundreds of times, her ego had flattened out and her voice was trailing off.
And to my left was James, a cherubic chuckler who used the third person with great success: “I know you,” he boomed. “You’re thinking, ‘How can I get five plays for under $100?’ Well, James will tell you…”
Time ticked away, and the pressure mounted. The burly manager stuck his head in the door, looking bothered, and pointed at the girl to my right.
“Have you sold?” he barked. The titter of sales pitches dropped to a lull.
“No,” she squeaked.
“Then you’re fired,” he said, as he ducked back out the door. The sales force paused, and resumed frantically dialing.
The message was clear enough. I became desperate, chirping my script at a quicker pace. But the more I talked, the more I was turned away.
•“No! I hate theater and I hate you.”
•“This is an outrageous invasion of privacy! I’m going to call the police.”
•“Fuck you, and go away.”
Filled with hang-ups, curses, and abuse, the telemarketer’s lot is a humbling one.
But walk into the Studio Theatre telemarketing room on most weeknights and you will be overwhelmed with good feeling. “Good evening, hope everyone is feeling great,” the chalkboard welcomes. “Let’s have a great evening and make 25 sales.” The walls are cluttered with affirmations like “Smart Thinking,” “Think Positive,” and “Smile!” The manager gives out candies and pep talks, reminding his employees of their past successes and future potential. After a subscription is sold, a bell is rung and loud congratulations are offered. The decoration of this small, windowless room suggests that it houses a support group as much as a sales office.
Remarkably, there are no sharkskin suits, skinny mustaches, or thick cologne. Willy Loman does not work here. Instead of desperate shysters and fast-talking con men, there is a diverse mixture of perky collegiates, overworked mothers, and elderly art lovers. The telemarketers tell the customers about the theater and the plays, brightly answering all questions. The younger salesmen are zany and self-deprecating; the older ones are patient and smooth. It is true, these ticket peddlers fight for commission and will occasionally stretch the truth to make a sale, but the telemarketers demonstrate surprisingly little cynicism.
“It’s nice to share something with a total stranger,” said Tanya Borchadt, a Studio telemarketer. “If people want to buy tickets they can do that, if they want to release anger they can do that, and if they want to communicate and exchange something they can do that, too.”
Borchadt moved to the States from Germany two years ago, and her thick accent and big laugh offer a distinctive phone persona. “My accent helps me,” she explains. “People need to listen carefully to understand me, and then we start talking about where I’m from, and soon they get to know me.”
Sometimes her voice doesn’t receive the desired results. “One guy told me that he was interested in theater, but more interested in me. He told me I had the greatest voice he ever heard and would like to hear it in person. I quickly saw this was going in a direction I didn’t want it to go.”
In selling to faceless customers, sexual banter and flirtation are common. “Selling is 90 percent selling yourself and 10 percent selling the product,” according to Ned Farrar, the assistant manager of telemarketing at Arena Stage. The customer must like the messenger as well as the message.
Kevin Mingo, the most successful salesmen in Studio Theatre’s history, was a renowned seducer. With a low voice and a flirtatious manner, Mingo ran a dating service of sorts. Along with a five-play season for only $96, his tone would imply, the buyer would receive a fabulous date with a smooth and handsome stud. Completely indifferent to the theater, many women signed up. New female subscribers would flock to the Studio, most of whom Mingo would avoid, leaving many disgruntled patrons.
Telemarketers have the unique experience of talking to hundreds of people each night. Very few jobs allow one to have what at times is extended contact with so many strangers in the metropolitan area. Longtime Studio Theatre telemarketer Leon Clarkson has talked to everyone from Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who angrily hung up) to Nina Totenberg (who blathered on for 45 minutes without buying a subscription).
Clarkson’s most memorable contact was with an elderly veteran. After Clarkson explained what he was selling, the man promised to buy a subscription, under the condition that Clarkson call him every day for an entire week. The salesman agreed, and for the next week, he called the man and listened to him talk about his life. The vet was recently widowed, had few friends, and had been retired for many years. He divulged that since the death of his wife, his son was the only person with whom he had contact.
He told Clarkson about his service in the Korean War, where he was imprisoned for three months. He spent hours describing the horrific conditions that indelibly scarred him. The quiet man talked extensively about his wife, describing her in meticulous detail. “I also told him about myself,” said Clarkson. “He was interested in my future aspirations and my schooling. He talked to me as if we were old friends, and I played along.” After the week had passed, the elderly man, as he had promised, bought a single subscription, remarking oddly that he would never see the plays. He thanked Clarkson for the time he had spent with him. “I don’t think I’ll forget you,” he mumbled. Clarkson called him back a few days later, but the man wasn’t home. He persisted for several weeks, eventually assuming that the man had moved or passed away.
In the past 10 years, every subscription-driven theater in Washington has taken on a telemarketing division. Since Studio Theatre started phone sales, it has increased its subscriber base tenfold. But this was no consolation to me, as my virgin ears were being thrashed by unwilling arts-supporters on my last-ditch fourth shift.
I had only a few minutes left, and I was losing hope. I finally got in touch with a patient young woman who listened to me for several minutes. Fearful of a return to minimum-wage cookieslinging at Mrs. Field’s, I tried everything. I was warm: “Please join the Studio Theatre family.”
I was flattering: “You are obviously a woman of culture…”
I was alarmist: “If you don’t subscribe, the fate of our theater and arts in the city hangs in the balance.” But all my cajoling made little headway.
She interrupted my monologue and said quickly, “I’ve heard enough. No thank you.” I paused, unable to think of any response to such a clear—and polite—rejection. The end was near. My options were slim. A second before she hung up, I made one last try.
“But you like me, don’t you?”
She laughed. We joked. She asked me about myself. Quickly fashioning a cute and ingratiating persona, I sold myself quite effectively. She bought a subscription, and I kept my job—working nights as a theater telemarketer with a heart of gold. CP