Cyborg Telemarketers

by infraredbiped

A long article in The Atlantic about cyborg telemarketers caught my eye the other day. What is cyborg telemarketing? Says the article:

Such conversations happen millions of times a year, but they are not what they appear. Because while a human is picking up the phone, and a human is dialing the phone, this is not, strictly speaking, a conversation between two humans.

Instead, a call-center worker in Utah or the Philippines is pressing buttons on a computer, playing through a marketing pitch without actually speaking. Some people who market these services sometimes call this “voice conversion” technology. Another company says it’s “agent-assisted automation technology.”

Well that was disappointing. I was hoping to learn that futuristic hunter/killer terminators were being put to work hard-selling car insurance. (“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever.”) The reality is that non-American telemarketers are now using a touch-screen response matrix to talk to Americans in pre-recorded American English. This apparently lessens the chance that Americans will prematurely interrupt a telemarketing call from the Philippines with a string of racist invective, followed by hanging up in the rudest way possible.

One interesting thing about the article is how the author finds it really creepy that telemarketers might be cyborgs. The uncanny valley effect may be at work here. Perhaps it is bothersome to think that the sexy baritone on the other end of the line could be a 70-year-old Filipina punching a touch screen while sipping a Diet Coke. I can understand that point of view, though my desire to make a human connection during a telemarketing call is basically nil.

In contrast to the author of this article, I think the cyborg call center is a great idea, at least in part. Allow me to explain why.

During the long, miserable summer after my first year of college, while my friends worked in research labs or paid internships, I worked as a low-wage telemarketer. (The reason for this is a long story that I won’t go into.) Strictly speaking, I was engaged in “market research,” which involved cold-calling people in glorious burgs like Columbia, South Carolina and Battle Creek, Michigan and asking them where they bought groceries and did their banking.

It was physically easy work, but pretty much everything else about the job was repugnant. Calling began at 5 pm ET and lasted four to seven hours, depending on the time zone of our target area. The goal was to catch adults during dinner time. The surveys would last 20 to 40 minutes, and when an adult answered the phone, I had to jump right into the questions. I was told to never ask the person on the other end of the line if they actually wanted to do the survey, because the answer would inevitably be “I’m too busy,” or “How long will this take?” followed by a quick hang-up. So, the technique was to launch the questions and count on the fact that enough people (not most, or even many, but enough) would be too polite to simply hang up once we started. If asked how long the call would take, I was instructed to answer, “Just a few minutes” no matter the length of the call. If the poor slob on the other end of the line got bored and asked how much longer we had to go, the answer was always, “Just a few more minutes.” I learned how to string people along extend a call indefinitely this way.

The worst part of the job was the call completion requirement. If we got 39 minutes into a 40-minute survey and the person on the other end decided to hang up before the last question, the entire survey would be tossed out. The mixture of homicidal rage and self-loathing that welled up when this happened is hard to describe.

Now here is the weird part: I was great at this job. I managed to be a consistent leader in the weekly list of completed calls, and at the end of the summer I got a performance bonus. But under no circumstances was this because I enjoyed the work. (I apparently have a pleasing voice and women really liked talking to me.) In reality I was quite depressed about the shittiness of what I had to do just to earn money to pay my college loans. It was the saddest and most alienating work I have ever done, and hopefully will do.

So when I read about the cyborg call centers, I thought it would be an absolutely fantastic idea — for the callers. This turns calls into a kind of video game, and even better, if the caller gets yelled at or disconnected, they don’t have to take it personally. They are not selling themselves over the phone. A cyborg caller is just pulling levers and turning cranks, powering the Great Telemarketing Oz. So for the mental and physical health of anyone who ever has to do this kind of work, I think cyborg telemarketing is an outstanding idea.

For the schnooks out there who still use a landline, this is probably bad news. Happier, more efficient telemarketers probably means more telemarketing calls every night. And if you like that sexy woman on the other end of the line, just remember that it might well be a 20-year-old man fielding two other calls simultaneously. Progress!