Tim WhytePauline HartePatti RasmussenRichard RiouxLeon Worden

Black N Whyte

No more telemarketing for a long, long time

Tim Whyte · July 20, 1997

It reminded me of my old telemarketing days. There I was, with a phone glued to my ear, asking people for money.

It was one of those "jail-a-thon" fund-raisers, where they "arrest" local movers, shakers and people who have trouble saying no, then "jail" them until they raise X amount of dollars for one charity or another.

In this case, it was the Muscular Dystrophy Association -- a worthy cause if there ever was one -- and I, at least on this occasion, had fallen into Category Three: People Who Have Trouble Saying No.

Back when I was, oh, 21-ish, I took a job selling office supplies over the phone. I would drag my weary rear end into an office at 7 a.m. and get on the phone to the east coast, calling office managers right out of the phone book and acting as if we had a long-standing business relationship. If they placed an order, they received a free 35mm camera!

The office had a high rate of turnover, and a manager whose primary job was to be a sort of schizophrenic cheerleader/butt-kicker, looking over our shoulders as we made our pitches and keeping the coffee coming. Lots of coffee and smoke in that room. It would not have withstood today's politically correct workplace standards.

I did OK at the selling. I sold my share of orders (6 dozen BIC pens, I believe, went for $56.88; you do the math). It paid the rent, and some school bills. It was high-intensity selling, though, and I honestly didn't believe we were giving our customers a good value for the price, if you know what I mean. Not all telemarketing operations are like that, but this one was. So after six months or so I ended up pushing pies and drinks at a local eatery instead of office supplies. It was a good career move, one that provided me with bartending skills that prove valuable to this day.

Nearly ten years would pass before I would again be in the position of asking people for money on the phone.

So there I was, in "jail," which consisted of some black PVC piping in the bar of T.G.I.Friday's at, like, the mall. The MDA people were very nice, and Friday's deserves a kudo for hosting the event. Here's how it worked: They gave us each a cellular phone, and we had one hour to raise our "bail," the goal for which was set at $2,000 per person. We got a free lunch, regardless of how much we raised, and the atmosphere was fun.

But, more than when I was selling overpriced BIC pens, I had trouble "asking for the order" as I called people to seek pledges to bail me out. That's strange, really, because the "product" I was selling from my cell at Friday's was much better than those pens with the free camera -- it was a bona fide, respectable charity. I was asking people to contribute to an organization that seeks to improve the health and well-being of thousands of people, especially children, who have muscular dystrophy.

So why did it make me squirm in my chair?

I think it's because, unlike my unwitting office supply customers in New Jersey or South Carolina, I knew these people. I called people I know in the community, the likely suspects who weren't, like me, incarcerated in the bar. I called friends, co-workers, movers and shakers and news sources. The only phone book I used was my personal address book. (Upon arrival, I discovered that the real jail-a-thon pros, unlike myself, had already done advance work and had raised hundreds of dollars in pledges before even setting foot in jail.)

Everyone was very nice, and I raised something like $1,200. This included a few donations from people who offered to pay extra to keep me in jail, hardy-har-har.

But it was tough for me to close the deal, so to speak. In fact, I think it would have been easier if I were asking for an order to buy something tangible, like a vacuum cleaner or a sport-utility vehicle or a newspaper ad. In this case, I was asking not for a sale, but a tax-deductible donation. In exchange for their hard-earned money, they would get . . . well, the satisfaction of helping others.

When it was over, I had a feeling of accomplishment, a bit of pride in having helped raise money for a worthy cause -- and relief in the knowledge that, barring an unforeseen career shift, I would not have to ask people for money over the phone for a long, long time.

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