They're accustomed to hang-ups, but three call center workers say there are pros and cons to working on the telephone.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
Lula Green had one eye on the clock, one eye on her computer screen, as she waited for the automated calling system to connect.
It was an answering machine. Next call, another machine. Then, a voice mail.
Finally, a person answering. "I'm not interested," the woman said with irritation in her voice. The dial tone signaled a hang-up.
Green was unruffled. Peering at the computer screen through leopard-print reading glasses, she read the next name the automated dialing system had selected. "Hello, Mrs. Saunders?" she asked, smiling easily, her voice friendly, relaxed. This time she had the chance to explain.
Green was looking for someone willing to mail 12 envelopes in Mrs. Saunders' Maryland neighborhood, along with letters asking her neighbors to contribute to a nonprofit health-related agency. Would Mrs. Saunders be willing to volunteer?
"Sure," the woman said.
Another one: Triumphant, Green raised her hand over her head to sound a small, child's clicker toy as she verified the woman's name and address. It was her way of signaling co-workers that Lula Green had chalked up another volunteer.
In 15 minutes the veteran InfoCision telemarketer made 35 calls. One woman griped about her recent hip replacement surgery, another declined with the excuse that she was busy with other charity work.
Green ran into voice mails, answering machines and fax machines on 14 of the calls, and there were a few more angry rejections and hang-ups.
But she also recruited three volunteers in that time -- a total of 15 for the morning -- enough to get her name on the board as a "pace setter" for the day at InfoCision Management Corp.'s Boardman office.
At 49, Green thrives on competition. Like most call centers, InfoCision encourages it.
Pay bonuses: Employee computers include a running tabulation comparing their success rate for the day to average rates achieved by all the workers in the room. There's more to gain than just personal satisfaction -- at InfoCision, weekly pay bonuses are based on how often and how long the employee has stayed "above the room."
"It keeps you motivated," Green said, grinning broadly, "and I get a bonus check every week."
Divorced and raising four children by herself, Green worked as a nightclub manager for many years. When intruders broke into the family's home in 1996 and shot one of her sons to death, she searched for a new job that would allow her to stay home at night.
The Campbell resident joined InfoCision a year later as a communicator at $5.15 an hour and now earns $11.40 an hour, plus bonuses.
Green said she's worked in other divisions -- seeking donations for political groups or religious organizations, taking customer service calls and selling merchandise -- but she likes volunteer recruitment the best.
Volunteers are provided health brochures to mail to their neighbors, along with the donation requests, and Green likes to think that information could save a life.
New workers at InfoCision complain about the company's strict weekday dress code: Shirt, tie and dress pants for men, business casual attire for women. Green defends the dress code. "This is a very reputable business, and we like to maintain it that way."
Encouragement: She often lets a new employee or a discouraged co-worker listen in to a few of her calls.
"Some people get discouraged. I feel so bad when they cry," she said, shaking her head. "I let them see that I get the same calls they do. You can't let it bother you. You just have to keep going."
Lee Ann Plunkett was only 16 and a student at Austintown Fitch High School in 1996 when she started working at TNS Intersearch, a market research call center in Liberty.
She liked the work because, unlike many call center jobs, there's no selling involved. People aren't as likely to hang up or get angry when the call is for an opinion poll, she explained, and even when they do hang up, the TNS workers are often asked to call back.
"A lot of our studies are quite interesting," Plunkett said. "If they understand why we're calling, I think most people would like the chance to have a voice."
She remembers the O.J. Simpson poll -- would he be found guilty or innocent? She loved the political polls. Through high school and now, through college, she never looked for another job.
Through the ranks: Plunkett went through the ranks at TNS, from working on the phones to data entry clerk, to quality assurance monitor. Now, at 22, she's the night shift supervisor, working full time while attending classes full time at Youngstown State University.
She said phone workers often hear complaints about calls during dinner and late at night. "We call in the evening and at dinnertime because that's when you're home. Most people work during the day," she explained.
Career opportunity is one of the biggest advantages to call center work, she argued. "I don't know any other friends my age who are supervising more than 100 people."
Plunkett wouldn't divulge her salary, but center manager Dave Sluka said the average phone worker at TNS makes $8 an hour, many earn up to $12, and managers earn more.
Mark Soda never thought he'd like telemarketing, and the Niles native admits he was "just going through the motions" when he went through the phone worker training at the MCI call center in his hometown. It was 1999, and the center was just getting started.
A 1977 Niles McKinley High School graduate, Soda had been laid off from a beauty supply sales job and was looking for something to pay the bills short-term. He planned to return to Los Angeles, where he'd lived for most of his adult life.
He said he was surprised at how much he enjoyed the phone work, and he decided to stay.
"I'd never done telemarketing. I was used to pounding the pavement," he said. "I know there's a stigma to telemarketing, but I found out that the positive contacts you make far outweigh the negative."
Success story: One of his best personal success stories is a call he made in his early days at MCI. The woman burst into laughter at his enthusiastic greeting and chuckled for several minutes before saying: "Whatever you're selling, I want to buy it."
"I'm upbeat, I have a great product I believe in, and I know I'm going to save you a few dollars on your phone bill every month," he said.
Soda was quickly promoted into management and now supervises a team of 18 to 20 phone workers. He said he tries to make the job fun for his team, and the company helps with bonus pay, contests, prizes and other recognition.
Russ Meier, a Nebraska native and director of MCI's 1,100-worker Niles center, said Soda's quick advancement is typical of MCI's policy to promote mostly from its own ranks.
Now a Poland resident, Meier said he also started out on the phones at an MCI call center in Iowa. Even MCI president Wayne Hyard got his start as telemarketer.
"Ninety-five percent of the time we try to promote from within," said Meier, now of Poland. "It's a great place to start for people who want to stay with the company and make it a career, and it's also a launching pad for people who have other career goals."
In addition to health benefits and a 401K program, Meier said, MCI offers employees a college tuition reimbursement program of up to $4,500 a year. "It's huge here," he said.