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BETTER AND BETTER
By Steve Brynes
"Good afternoon, Mrs. O'Brien. This is Marketeers International. My name is Fergus."
Her throat cleared. Intuition and experience told him that very soon her phone would come slamming down.
Time to change the script.
"Help us, please! We need to know ...."
Her hesitation provided an opening, and he moved in quickly. Had she bought a personal deodorant recently? When did she use it? What about other brands? How did they compare?
Finally the last line -- 9 questions and 73 seconds later. He thanked her for answering. She complained that the questionnaire was "too damn long."
Furtively glancing around to ensure that a supervisor was not hovering behind him, he agreed, apologized, and again thanked her.
"So what the hell are you calling for? You think I smell bad or something?"
"No ... no, not at all, ma'am. The companies that make these products need information ... to improve their products ... to help you as a customer make more informed decisions...."
"Well, don't call back." And she hung up.
Fergus shook his head. She shouldn't act like that, he told himself. Her was just doing his job.
Then he felt guilty about wasting time and returned to the next call.
It was late Friday afternoon. He had reached his quota of "completes" the day before.
After that came "override," a commission above the base salary. Last month he had reached the upper fourth of "phoners," this month the top 10 percent.
When he started, Fergus had mixed feelings about the job, but soon put then aside.
He felt it benefited society.
"I'm not religious," he told co-workers, "but I have faith in information. Without information, there's not much point to anything."
They looked blank at first. "Oh yeah," one finally said with a sour expression, "you used to be a computer programmer."
Like himself, they had recently been laid off from "something better." They distrusted his enthusiasm and thought him a nerd.
He was used to this. Short, slight of build, and cross-eyed, he had long ago retreated from people and into a separate space.
The eyes did it. Since childhood he had hated the sympathetic looks and averted faces that accompanied his handicap. He avoided contact, staring just over the shoulder, reading faces with little darting, almost imperceptible glances.
The telephone gave him privacy. People couldn't see his eyes, and he had naively expected that the public would welcome his calls and eagerly questions. But they were often surly. Timing, a deep voice, "command presence," and a brisk, overbearing manner would overcome this, the company's training program emphasized.
Sympathy brought a reprimand.
"Don't try to be a nice guy," said a supervisor sharply. "You're not selling vacuum cleaners."
This harshness made no sense to him, but he followed orders. They also disliked his soft, weak voice and almost fired him after two weeks.
Fergus had discipline. He worked hard and improved his timing. He began speaking from the "back of the throat" as the manuals recommended and exercising his stomach muscles to give his voice greater resonance. His completion rate improved rapidly. More completions meant extra money, and a little was now coming his way.
He couldn't help sympathizing with those on the other end of the line, but grew clever at concealment. He was sure flattery kept people from hanging up. Why did the company so rigidly insist on following the script to the letter?
To ensure "scientific accuracy," the manual said. But he worried about getting enough "completes" and shrugged at procedure.
The script was stilted and awkward, but also sacrosanct. It was written by the Marketing Director, a slender ascetic-looking woman with a pin-striped suit and an MBA. On rare occasions, she nodded to him in the corridors, though they had never spoken. Supervising the "phone room" from day to day were various underlings who listened in on the lines or skulked past the cubicles with a furtive and harried air.
The company often used follow-up letters or calls to ensure that completed interviews were genuine. It was quick to fire people who didn't follow orders. A merger of two huge companies in the area had increased unemployment, and there were always many new applicants.
Fergus had been a programmer with a now bankrupt defense contractor. The government had concelled a grandiose software project to "made every soldier into a system." The pay had been much higher than market research telephoning, and he felt bitter about losing the job. His skills were specific to the defense industry.
Short of going back to school and learning a new computer language, there seemed no way out.
So he read the script with one eye and watched for supervisors with the other. Luckily, there was a very faint hum on the line when another phone was off the receiver. Cautiously, but with the exhilaration of a misbehaving schoolboy, he improvised, stroking egos, telling people over and over that their opinions were interesting, that they were interesting, and that he enjoyed talking with them. And he did -- as long as they answered the questions!
Once into the questionnaire, resentment often flared. Why did so many take it personally? Sometimes he forgot about his eyes and wished he could read the questionnaire face to face. Did they feel he was a voyeur, peeking in windows, watching their naked bodies, making them feel ashamed? He was too inhibited to ask. Cope with their sadness and hostility. Accept or get out.
He needed something -- a philosophy or a religion, he wasn't sure which -- to guide the daily round. The newer self-improvement guides didn't help.
Much better was an old book called "The Practice of Autosuggestion According to Emile Coue." For example:
"Take a piece of string and tie in it 20 knots. By this means you can count with a minimum expenditure of attention, as a devout Catholic counts his prayers on a rosary. The number 20 has no intrinsic virtue; it is merely adopted as a suitable round number.
"On getting into bed close your eyes, relax your muscles and take up a comfortable posture. These are no more than the ordinary preliminaries of slumber. Now repeat 20 times, counting by way of the knots, the general formula: `Day by day, in every way, I'm getting better and better.'" [Page 42, New York, Garden City Press, 1924.]
He followed the directions that night, and work did go slightly better the next day. Somewhat haphazardly, Fergus had been reared as a Catholic, attending a parochial school until age 12. But after his father walked out, there was no money. He and his mother were shuffled among non-religious relatives, and both had fallen away. His last Mass was a distant memory. Autosuggestion made more sense to him than plaster saints and Hail Marys.
Now he could fill in the details. The former programmer proceeded to program himself. A headset left both hands free for paperwork as he made calls and her constantly pushed to cram as much work as possible into the shortest time. He grew adept at classifying the voices, identifying with them, reading the questionnaire more slowly to the elderly, briskly to the young, softly to women, loudly to men.
Steadily pushing against constant resistance, he felt himself moving very slightly faster each day. He was, he thought, like a copier on automatic pilot, producing picture inside of picture, stepping down a size each time. What would happen when he reached zero?
As he drove himself relentlessly toward a goal he could not even imagine, each day began to blur into the next. Finally there was nothing of substance left to learn. He was the top producer in the office, steadily widening his lead over second place. The key now was alertness -- to avoid the mistakes that others made.
Then it happened. He was called into the office of the Marketing Director and commended on his performance. Pale and asexual in her tailored suit, she brought back childhood memories of nuns. Indeed, there was office gossip that she had been a nun in the distant past. But she talked like an MBA.
"I have good news and bad news," she said, studying him closely.
He nodded carefully.
"There bad news is that we're going out of business. All phoners will be laid off."
He knew the overall completion rate was declining, but had never expected they would shut down. He couldn't think of anything to say.
"The good news is that we're starting a new company,
Focus Marketing, Inc. We want you to come with us, Fergus."
"What would I be doing?"
"Running focus groups. You do know what they are?"
He did. But she told him anyway.
"We want you to do what you're doing new, only face to face and with a small group. They will be paid," she emphasized, "so there will be no problems with cooperation. Do you think you're up to it?"
Once, self-consciousness about his eyes would have intimidated him. But not now.
"I know I am."
"Wonderful! Welcome to the fast track, Fergus."
She extended a cool dry hand. "I'm sure you'll do well. You know, there's something about you I've always admired."
"You project a certain quality. Hard to describe ... what's the word I'm looking for? Vulnerability, that's it! You make people want to help you, to give answers. A definite plus in this line of work."
A look of fear flickered across his face. Had she been listening on the line, and somehow he hadn't caught it? But she only repeated "welcome to the fast track" and shook his hand once more.
The day finally came, and, wearing a new suit for the occasion, he was ready to start the questions with his first group. She had offered to sit in, but he had memorized the questions so thoroughly she begged off.
"You don't need my mentoring," she said.
A focus group of eight filed in. Three housewives, a gas station attendant, and four factory workers recently laid off. All low income, but younger than 35 and thus potentially upscale. "Value marketing" was the name of the game. Winning their loyalty now with low profit items might set the stage for upgrading later on.
Their apathetic expressions made Fergus feel smug, an indulgence he rarely permitted himself. They seemed bored and unhappy, forced by economics to show up for a question and answer session at the minimum wage. He, on the other hand, had an interesting job.
But once he got started, the smugness evaporated. Talking in front of a group bothered him. Should he stand by the blackboard, sit in a chair, or casually sit on the desk? Professors in college did all three. He compromised by standing next to the desk, touching it from time to time to steady himself.
He took role, checking names off, staring at his list. His self-confidence had been premature. It still bothered him to look at faces.
"Now then," he began, "we're talking today about deodorants. How do you feel about them? What qualities might lead you to choose one over another?"
He was genuinely curious. Low income, self-image, social class, sense of smell -- a tangled set of relationships to unravel.
"Anything that comes to mind. Mrs. O'Brien?"
Nearly everyone he talked with on the phone abruptly dropped from memory in an automatic clearing process. But he remembered her.
He had never attempted a visualization, but still she startled him. Broad shouldered and obese, with tiny eyes in a face like a concrete slab, she seemed Slavic rather than Irish, resembling those Russian women on the evening news who stood in line at the markets.
"So," she crowed triumphantly, "you think I smell bad or something."
Fergus clutched a corner of the desk with all his strength, hunching his narrow shoulders into the job. There was work to do. He lifted his eyes and stared directly in her face with a pleading expression. He knew only that he had to start all over again.