Telemarketers find it's a tough calling

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Things got rough at Anthony Russo's work when the economy slowed down.

Sitting in his cubicle, Russo was like a batter in a cage, facing one pitch after another for eight hours at a time.

During the past year or so, it has been getting harder to not strike out.

Russo, who has worked in call centers for almost four years, has a stressful job, something acknowledged by the lowest-level employees and people at the highest levels of the industry. The tightening economy hasn't made it easier. Call center employees, sandwiched between money-conscious consumers and company fiscal goals, are more hesitant to leave increasingly difficult jobs.

"In an outbound center, you have to be making so many calls an hour. You can't just be sitting there," said Russo, who spent more than three years working in credit card account collections at Metris Companies Inc.'s 600-employee White Marsh call center before leaving for a customer-service job at Comcast Cable Communications Inc. in February.

Metris employees sit in asterisk-shaped cubicle pods, where they're permitted to have one or two personal items per desk. They work in a well-lighted, sterile room, which Russo described as comfortable.

As at other call centers, employees work against the clock with an automatic phone dialer. During an eight-hour shift, an employee in Russo's department might place about 120 calls, he said.

"You've got to be on that dialer," said Russo. "When you pick up the phone, somebody's there. ... It's like, bang! And there's the information - the person's name - on your computer screen. Meanwhile, the person on the other end has said, 'Hello?'"

The number of calls an employee makes varies according to the calls' difficulty, said Mike Smith, vice president of corporate communications at Metris. Employees work out payment plans for customers or collect money.

"The responsibility of the collections employee, obviously, is to meet their goals, collect the dollars" and keep customers out of delinquent status, Smith said.

Outbound call centers have 26,600 employees in Maryland, according to the Direct Marketing Association. The industry also has a sizable attrition rate. In urban regions such as metropolitan Baltimore, call centers turn over 20 percent to 70 percent of their employees each year.

The money is good, said Russo. At 30, he is married with a 3-year-old son and a daughter due next month, and is working toward a bachelor's degree in computer programming through Strayer University.

Starting pay for telemarketers ranges from $21,000 to $30,000 annually, and incentives often bring employees an additional $500 to $1,000 a month.

No easy money

Russo said the incentives can be unlimited but that the money isn't easy.

"The job is stressful, and it does take a unique type of person to consistently work in that type of environment," said Michael Faulkner, senior vice president of segments and affiliates with the Direct Marketing Association.

Russo said, "It's a mentally draining job. You're more tired emotionally because, it's like, ugh, I didn't do anything, all I did was sit in a chair."

When the economy gets tighter, new pressures arise. People are less likely to part with hard-earned money over the phone, making bonuses and goals difficult for callers.

"You have the pressure of not just making incentive, but hitting a certain goal," said Russo.

"Telemarketing is great when the economy's good ... when people have money to spend. When the economy's bad, don't even bother calling," said Brian Bader, 29, who worked at the MCI Group's Hunt Valley call center for 4 1/2 years until his department was eliminated last year. Bader, like Russo, is a customer service associate for Comcast.

Along with setting a minimum number of calls, company policy frequently requires employees to take in a certain amount of money in collections or sales.

Missing a goal can mean getting fired. Although some companies, such as Metris, say they adjust goals to reflect the realities of the market, Bader said he has observed that more people are terminated for missing goals when the economy is slow.

In an industry where making a monthly goal can be a matter of luck, employees are less able to help out struggling co-workers by sending them extra sales or collections during tight times, said Russo.

The company has about 1,000 employees at its Hunt Valley call center, according to a representative.

Teleservices, which includes telemarketing, bill collecting and customer service, has a large impact nationally and locally.

Nationally, the outbound telemarketing industry has 1 million employees in call-related jobs, Faulkner said. Each day those workers place about 104 million calls, of which 40 percent are to consumers and 60 percent are to businesses. The industry generates $650 billion in annual sales, $270 billion of which is from individual consumers, he said.

The jobs might be difficult, but they're always available. With an attrition rate comparable to that of the food-services and retail industries, and an 8.5 percent annual growth rate during the past 12 years, the industry is constantly hiring, said Faulkner.

National companies including MCI, Metris, MBNA Corp. and Comcast operate call centers in Hunt Valley and White Marsh.

Keeping morale up

Maintaining morale is an important task, especially now that the market is sour, managers say.

"The psyche of the American consumer has changed. [Telemarketers are] talking with different people with different mindsets and different attitudes," said Joe Hoffman, Metris' executive vice president of consumer lending, marketing and operations. "Taking more rejection is a lot more difficult."

The Minnesota company's White Marsh call center is responsible for customer service and collections for Metris' subsidiary credit card company.

Metris and neighbor Comcast, which has a 400-person customer-service facility in White Marsh, try to maintain employee morale through contests, theme days and free food.

Comcast encourages employees to decorate their cubicles, said Doug Sansom, general manager of the White Marsh facility.

Said Bader: "It's a difficult atmosphere, but those who succeed do well."

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