Once upon a time in the Dark Ages when I was in college, I spent three months doing telephone solicitation for “The Chicago’s American” newspaper. The paper was owned by the Chicago Tribune and was the evening edition of that publication.
I remember answering an ad in the Trib which promised wealth and glory for those who “liked people, had a good phone voice and possessed a compelling ability to sell.” Well – in my opinion, that was me. So I applied for the position and was hired.
My school schedule only allowed me two nights a week when I would be able to engage in my new activity and the first Tuesday that I was free, I dutifully reported to the newspaper’s phone room to begin my new career. Their office was in the Chicago Tribune’s impressive Gothic building at 401 N. Michigan Avenue.
When I went into the room I had the impression that I had gone into a “language lab,” with little cubicles all facing a wall, a head set and a telephone key pad. In addition there was a script that we were supposed to use in selling the public on the virtues of this publication.
In the center of the room sat our supervisor, Harold – who was physically handicapped and needed a wheelchair to navigate. On the far wall from my assigned station was a very large chalkboard on which had been written the “telephone names” of the other people who were involved in solicitation.
By telephone names I mean that each of us was assigned a moniker – in my case I became “Jumping J.” But there were others such as “Rapid Rosie,” “Never Say No Nathan” and “Fearless Freddy.”
The room comprised the greatest collection of misfits that had ever been assembled on planet Earth. I felt right at home there.
While I could only work for a few hours in the evening, quite a number of the solicitors worked a normal eight hour day. Rapid Rosie, a woman in her sixties was one of those. In fact she was the maven for the room having survived at this enterprise for over two years so that she could support her invalid mother.
When I first walked into the room my opening night on the job, Harold explained that I had my choice of “working” three different populations of Chicagoans.
The first were inner city people. If I sold them a trial subscription I would be paid $2.50 for my efforts – once their subscription was confirmed by the individual who would call back after the sale to verify they had agreed to it. The reason that these subscriptions paid $2.50 was that the subscriber would probably not renew as they would seldom receive their paper which would typically be stolen from their doorstep or apartment door.
The second were people who lived in “middle-class” areas. For sales to these people I would receive $3.50 per subscription. The paper figured that about half of these people would continue their subscriptions beyond the trial period – and the other half would cancel after having made an assessment of the philosophy behind the newspaper’s content.
The third were people in the suburbs. For these people I would receive $4.50 per trial subscription. They would receive the paper with a great deal of regularity – and probably subscribed to the political and philosophical leanings that the paper represented.
At the time I was risk-averse so I opted for the second group. Harold handed me a reverse directory printout and I was on my way back to my cubicle to conquer the world.
That first night I religiously followed the somewhat stale script. “Hello, this is J. calling from Chicago’s American. I hope you have a moment to (click).”
“Hello, this is J. calling from Chicago’s American. I hope that you have a moment to hear about an exciting offer. (No click). The reason for my call is to let you know that if you accept a thirteen week subscription (click).
“Hello, this is J. calling from Chicago’s American. I hope that you have a moment to hear about an exciting offer. The reason for my call is to let you know that if you accept a thirteen week subscription to the paper, we would be pleased to send you either a beautiful lamp or a wonderful Orlon blanket. (Still no click). Which of these two gifts would you prefer?
That call resulted in the first of my four sales that night in my four hour shift. A whopping $14.00 in earnings (less deductions and the $1.50 in carfare). This was the massive hourly amount of $3.13 – far in excess of the then minimum wage. I was on my way.
I have to admit to a certain distaste for what happened after each sale. The “verifier” would call back the new subscriber to make sure that they had indeed agreed to accepting the paper. Once verified, he would come in with the completed paperwork and hand it to Harold who would then furiously ring the little school ma’arm bell on his desk and announce to the room that “Rapid Rosie” or “Jumping J.” had sold a $3.50 subscription.
Harold then wheeled himself in his chair over to the blackboard and would add an “X” next to the name of the successful solicitor. (The reason for keeping track was three fold).
First,there was a weekly $20 contest for the person who sold the greatest number of subscriptions to the paper.
Second, it gave the person who sold the subscription a little bit of recognition and momentary glory.
Third, it let the people who were not selling well that they were slackers and should be about this important task before they found themselves out of a job.
After my first week (and $35.00 in earnings) I decided that I had a goal. Despite my very limited work schedule, I was determined to win the weekly prize. But I realized that doing so following the script was going to be an impossibility. I decided to re-write my conversations with potential future clients. (Doing so was not in accordance with the paper’s rules).
I wrote out my own presentation and when I went back to work the next Tuesday I showed it to Harold. He immediately “tut-tutted” it as it was a “deviant change” – as he put it – from a formula that was tried and true. But I said to him, “Let me try it today and see how it works. It’s not going to cost the paper anything because if I make no sales you’re paying me no commission – and if it works – it can only help the level of our subscriptions.” He thought about that for a moment and agreed to let me try it that night.
Here was my presentation:
“Hello Mrs. B. My name is J. and I’m calling you from the newspaper, Chicago’s American and I’m one of those people we all dread – a telephone solicitor. But I’m also a student and I’m trying to help pay my way through school. Like you, I’m trying to earn a living. Would you have a moment to listen to the offer that the paper is making to new subscribers?”
“Great. I’m only going to take a couple of minutes of your time and I hope that I’m calling when you have a little bit of time to listen.”
“As you may know the Chicago’s American is published by the Chicago Tribune. It’s our evening edition. If you like to keep current on what’s happening in our city and the country, a subscription to an evening paper might be something you would consider. And if you take the paper for a thirteen week trial period as an expression of our thanks, Chicago’s American will send you either a free lamp or a blanket. Either of these free gifts would be a nice addition to your home.”
“Thank you so much Mrs. B. for your subscription. We at Chicago’s American welcome you to our family as a new subscriber. Another of my team members will be calling you back in a moment to verify your subscription and then we will get the paper started for you in two business days.”
“ I hope you enjoy reading the paper and your free gift. And you and your family have a great evening. Thank you so much for your time.”
Harold was impressed that the first time I used this presentation I sold twelve subscriptions to the paper. That was the largest number of any of the solicitors who had been on the phone during the eight years of his tenure. My next night, two days hence, I sold a similar number. But I fell two short of being the biggest seller and winning the weekly prize.
It took me seven weeks before I finally eked out the prize. And I was earning enough to pay my college tuition during my two night a week stint at the paper. It was pretty lucrative – if horrifically repetitive.
I would have continued but for the night that I reached a lady, made my presentation and she replied, “Thank you for your call, J. But I have to tell you that neither my husband nor I could use the paper since we are both blind.”
I remember sitting in my cubicle for a few moments after I hung up from speaking with this lady and then unplugging my earphones from their jack. I turned them in to Harold and said that “circumstances beyond my control had intervened and I had to resign my post.”
I left that evening only to return one more time to pick up my final paycheck which I donated to The Lighthouse for the Blind.
In the days before we had cell phones which told us who was calling and every call was a mystery, I received many phone solicitations. Even though I had no interest in the majority of the “offers” they presented, I was always polite to them. I knew from personal experience that it’s a hard job – filled with rejection. Sometimes I would share some of my own experiences with them – and I always wished them well.
In those days I respected anyone who was trying to make an honest living. And I still do.