Death and the telephone-salesman: You can't sell cable TV to a corpse . . . Jeremy Smith recounts his worst night spent as a telesales rep

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE SALES manager is a relentlessly optimistic man. He motivates, chastises, congratulates and supports. It's obvious he doesn't believe a word of what he says, no one could be that enthusiastic about what we're selling, but he stands on the desks, throwing his arms around with whoops of excitement that tingle on the surface but fail to penetrate deep down, where the doubt lurks. We hear our statistics for last week, somebody wins a T-shirt, the loser receives a humiliating mention. When I started I won a sweatshirt that was a size too small, printed with a logo. I haven't worn it yet.

Every night I telephone 50 people, disturbing their evening, trying to keep them talking, trying to convince them to have cable television installed in their home.

I have a variety of opening lines, from the robotic 'Has anyone been in touch with you . . .' to the transparent 'I work in market research . . .' After I have made this pitch, I attempt to cajole and persuade these unfortunate people into at least meeting one of our representatives. I am dreadful at this. Only people who have been brought up to love cable TV would ever buy it from me.

Although most of the people whose privacy I invade are very polite, some are astoundingly rude, just as I am when a salesperson rings me. They bark questions at me: 'Where did you get my number? Why do you ring me twice a week? Don't you feel guilty interrupting Neighbours?'

Because I am paid a miserable basic salary, every sale I make means I can afford to eat for a day. Gritting my teeth I trot out the standard responses, trying to remain polite. Unknown to the voices on the line, I write horrible abusive words next to their numbers on the list. As I sit there, the phone becomes greasy in my hands and my biro stops working.

Listening to the other souls who have this job I hear the same tired repetitions of worn-out pitches over and over and over and over again. After a while the carefully worked out speech, designed to both pacify and excite the prospect, becomes a poem, then a chant, and finally an extended belch. Repetition emphasises the changing pitch of the voice, and pauses for breath become huge gaps. 'Have you ever considered the benefits of . . . cable TV?' It is company policy to introduce yourself with 'Good evening, my name's Jeremy from' and then the company name. After a while this simple phrase is spat out as quickly as possible and everyone gains an extra syllable at the end of their name. Jeremyfrom, Juliefrom.

Tonight I am definitely going to make a sale, since last week I called a gentleman who was very interested and wanted to be sent some literature. This he received yesterday and tonight I will close that sale. I listen to the ringing tone with a smug grin on my face. It looks like the T-shirt is mine tonight. A surprised voice answers and I swing into action.

'Hello-my-name-is-jeremy-from-the-cable-TV-company.

Could I speak to Mr Wilson please?' 'Err . . . hold on.' The handset is muffled and I hear voices. Everything's fine.

A different voice. 'Hello? This is Mr Wilson's son. Can I help you?' 'Yes]' I am enthusiastic, smiling to the microphone. 'Mr Wilson asked me to send him some information about cable TV, and I'm just ringing up to see if he received it, and to ask him whether he's interested. Is he there please?' Everything is still fine.

'I'm sorry, he died on Saturday.'

A thousand phrases pile up in my head, apologising, offering sympathy, excusing my crassness but mainly finishing this conversation as quickly as possible. I gargle out the first syllable, but the voice continues.

'. . . and this is his funeral.'

If the voice wasn't so serious, and I couldn't hear more hushed voices in the background, I could believe this to be a jolly prank by Mr Wilson: 'Tell him I've died or something, son.' Mr Wilson is no prankster, however. Mr Wilson is dead and I am talking to his son at his funeral. A uniquely British embarrassment fills the air, and I apologise far too much. The voice tells me 'that's all right', and the conversation is over.

I tell the sales manager what happened. On the surface he sympathises, tells me not to worry. Inside, in the part of his mind that says 'everyone must have cable TV', I can tell he is wondering why I didn't ask if Mr Wilson junior would like to hear about our service. After all, he probably did pretty well out of the will. Come to think of it, why not send a rep round, since all those unhappy people are going to need something to take their minds off the recent demise of Mr Wilson.

I cannot bring myself to make any more calls that night, which makes the sales manager try even harder to motivate me. My enthusiasm must be rekindled so despite the fact that I have sold nothing all night, I win a bottle of the cheapest possible wine and a round of fake applause. Shortly after, I resign. Two weeks later someone calls me at 6.30pm to sell me life insurance. I think of my unworn sweatshirt and its logo and ask her to send me some literature and call back in a week.

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