I used to work for a marketing research firm.
The thing people don't realize about market research is that businesses need the market to research future business.
Most of the time, that market is us.
They need to know how we feel about the little things in our lives to know what to do in the future to make more money. How do we feel about the packaging for our favorite cookies? Does it make us want to buy more cookies? If the company changes it, will we hate the new packaging so much that we will stop buying those cookies?
These are important things to companies. It’s a competitive world. And for a long time, when the phone rang in the afternoon, I’d jump to answer it, to do my part for the market in the name of research. I didn't mind taking the time to tell telemarketers exactly what I liked about what their employer is putting out there.
* * *
One night several years ago, I was preparing an early dinner when the phone rang. When I answered, I wasn’t surprised to hear the pause, then the static-y “Hello, may I speak to the person in charge of food purchases in your household?”
His name was Matt – Matthew, I later called him – and he worked for a company in the consumer food industry. They never tell you who they work for – it’s always a marketing company hired by the real company to do the dirty work – and he asked me to participate on a long interview that would take 45 minutes at the most.
“I have a little over an hour,” I said. I had to pick up my kids from school. “Plenty of time, if you’re sure it will only take 45 minutes?”
The smile was evident in his voice. “Of course,” he assured me. “It goes very quickly once we get started.”
It was a questionnaire to rival all questionnaires, one that asked very detailed questions about my last trip to the grocery store. “What section did you visit on your last visit? Produce, meats, seafood, non-perishables, bakery, etcetera?” “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes,” I answered. It had been a heavy food shopping day.
“Did you buy vegetables or fruits in the produce section?” Matthew asked. “Both,” I answered demurely.
“Okay, let’s start with vegetables,” Matthew said. “Which kinds did you buy? Did you buy carrots?” Yes. “Potatoes?” Yes. “Cucumbers?” Yes. “Green peppers?” Yes. And on and on and on.
“On a scale of one to ten, one being terrible and ten being excellent, what was the quality of carrots you bought at this last shopping trip, where you visited the produce section?” he asked. He asked every question like this. And he asked this question for every single item I had bought at the grocery store. Not for a long time had my opinion been so desired. My children were in their middle elementary years, trying out new challenging levels of indifference. My husband had been warily sidestepping me lately, as my general mood varied wildly between wasteoid zombie and frazzled bitch monster. I felt alive for the first time in months.
Matthew asked me about quality and satisfaction with the value of each item I bought, then the cleanliness of each section, layout of the store, availability and upkeep of shopping carts, among other things. There was even a section of questions about the employees in the store.
We laughed and chatted as I prepared my family's dinner. I asked him to repeat certain questions, and when I had been disappointed in an item I bought on my last shopping trip, he had a whole other list of questions about why I found that item less than satisfactory. During our conversation, call waiting had clicked twice and I had to put Matthew on hold to deal with them. Once, he had to get off the phone to do something that couldn’t wait and I waited for several minutes until he called me back.
We were practically dating by this time – I mean, we had been chatting for almost an hour already, the longest conversation I had with a twentysomething man in since, well, since I was twentysomething and my husband and I dated. As I thought about how to insert a proposal into one of my answers, having already mentally planned our life together, and how to best break it to my husband that I was running off with a telemarketer named Matthew from God Knows Where, and while I hoped against hope that he was a hot young guy with a great beard and closet full of shirts from Brooks Brothers and maybe one cat and no dogs, I glanced at the clock.
My romantic reverie snapped. It was time to pick up the kids from school. If I left now I’d be five minutes late. Worse, upon returning home I had to feed them, supervise homework, and rush them to their various activities directly after we got home. I had run out of time to finish the interview.
I interrupted Matthew mid-question: “Oh, Matthew, I’m sorry, but I have to go. I have to pick up my kids from school.”
“Really?” Matthew replied, clearly concerned that he was about to lose me. “But there are only five questions left!”
I did the math quickly in my head. The last five questions took ten minutes to finish. “I’m sorry Matthew, but I really have to go. I’m already going to be late, and they really frown upon parents who leave their kids at school for afternoon trysts with telemarketers.”
Matthew was desperate. “Can I call you to finish the questionnaire when you come back?”
I had to be firm. “I’m sorry. I really can’t. My night is full, and I won’t be able to do it until nine at the earliest. Can you call that late?”
Devastation reigned in Matthew’s voice as he replied, “No. I get off work soon. You’re my last call.”
I felt for him, really I did. But the seconds ticked by. I was getting to the stern-call-from-the-school-phase of lateness that I tried to avoid at all costs. “I really am so sorry. It can’t be helped. I have family responsibilities to take care of right now,” I pleaded, appealing to his humanity.
Now, despair: “If you leave now, I won’t get credit for you. I can’t believe this is happening.” I could almost hear the tears in his voice. “This sucks.”
I truly felt sorry for him, and although my fantasy of our life together had already ebbed, I wasn’t sure his had. He was angry with me for ruining what probably was his biggest telemarketing success ever. I can’t say that I blamed him. Telemarketers have a tough job to do. It’s not Deadliest Catch tough, but tough nonetheless.
“Oh, God. I am sorry. I have to go.” I hung up the phone, feeling a strange loneliness that can only come from letting down one who did not deserve such treatment. I felt bereft, yet heartless. He had such a nice voice, too. I imagined the tears streaming into his beard. I hoped he had a tissue, or better yet, a soft designer handkerchief with which to mop up his sorrow.
As I sped through the neighborhoods on my way to the kids’ school, I wondered what Matthew did after I hung up. Did he slam his headset down on the desk and beat his fists on its hard surface, then raise one fist into the air, cursing my name amidst his screams? I'm sure he didn't get fired; he was too good at his job. Did he drown his sorrows in a Black and Tan at the corner pub? I wanted our story to to have a better ending.
* * *
I don't answer telemarketer calls anymore. If one happens to catch me off guard, I pretend that I'm not home, saying that the person in charge isn't around to take the call. Sometimes I'll speak in a nonsensical language to discourage conversation. Or I might gag and cough into the phone, claiming the plague or accidental poisoning. It may seem cruel, and bad for the business world, but I just can't risk crushing another soul. I leave the important work to those who can better handle highly charged emotional interactions.
The heart that breaks openly is not one any of us can easily forget, and his memory lives on, if only in my mind.
And every time the phone rings, I wonder.
|Not Matthew. Then again, I'll never know.|
photo via freedigitalphotos.net / stockimages / license
This post inspired by:
Prompt #3: Describe a memorable experience you had with a telemarketer.