All the World’s…a Phone? : The Theatricality of Telemarketing

Anthony Cornatzer

  • OnStage New Jersey Columnist

He prepares. He goes over to himself how to begin, and anticipating what might happen and what might not happen. He tells himself that he can do this, that he’s been doing this for a while. But still, he hopes it goes well—that, of course, it’s gone well in the past so why worry now? It’ll probably go great, he finally tells himself. He’s ready to perform.

Looking at this from a glance, one may assume that I’m referring to the mental preparation and self-talk before actors go on stage…well, let’s just say that this is a different kind of performance. Instead of a stage, imagine just a phone and a headset. Yep, I’m talking about working as an interviewer in telemarketing—but bare this with me, I’m seriously going somewhere with this.

This past summer, I needed to find work in my hometown of Cherry Hill, New Jersey to help with obvious expenses in college. And the one job I ended up landing was working as an interviewer in telemarketing for a local research firm that was within walking distance from my house. At first, I didn’t think much of it. It was usually always guaranteed work, you got paid incentive based on the production rate of completed surveys you completed--it seemed like very basic work, case and point.

But within my first month there, I discovered something really interesting—the last thing  I would ever expect in a job like this. I stumbled upon the epiphany that interviewing, essentially, actually had a lot to do with acting. In its most basic understanding, interviewing is very much improvised conversation. That being said, I found myself having different approaches to conducting surveys and getting respondents to complete them. I started usually just by asking how the respondent was; not just to make small-talk, but also—more importantly—to weed out and determine the current mood and mind-set they were in, which directly affected the next move I would make from there either in going through with the rest of my intro into the first question, shortening the intro and getting right to the point, or (most frequently) asking when would be a better time to call back if I could even get to that point.

Often too, I would be able to get respondents to go through at least part, or even half of the study, and then the respondent would ask how much was left, or they would hang up, or naturally complain about the length of the study. Whenever I could, I implemented what’s referred in telemarketing as “turn-around refusals”; which are, basically, implorations to keep the respondent on the line and complete the study. It would of course vary depending on the study, but overall I would always emphasize with the respondent that we would be done very soon, that I really appreciate them helping me with this tonight—which of course, was more than true. In developing myself for several months as literally a performing interviewer, I found that what worked best—especially in moments like that—was sincerity. Above anything else, respondents seemed to appreciate that the most. Who wouldn’t? And if I had learned anything in my several years of acting, I had learned that the best and only thing an actor can ultimately be is honest under their given circumstances and the role they were playing. Oddly enough, I found the same principle somehow applied in being an interviewer over the phone—who knew?

Sincerity aside, though, the job still brings in so much, too much, negativity from various respondents who surprisingly “try” to go out of their way to be rude and just overall nasty if given the right opportunity...hence, us. Like any interviewer, we’ve all heard so many comments and insults that have made the hair on the back of our neck stand up they have been that nasty (for myself, I can’t even put some of them to writing they’re so disturbing). On the plus side, however, if there’s something to be said about that, too, it serves as good practice for any growing actor—and anyone, in general—to deal with that crushing reality of rejection, negativity, and always somehow getting on at least someone’s bad side. From this experience, I’ve learned even more how much of a perfectionist I can be with everyone and with everything, and that if I don’t allow myself to let go and detach myself of things—and people—that are really so beyond my control, it’ll ultimately drive me crazy.

For respondents who would go ahead with rest of the study, the improvised conversation would then continue. Once again depending on the respondent’s mood and disposition, I had various approaches to how I would conduct the survey with them. If they were in a rush, I would get right to the point and do what I could to speed through each question reading verbatim. If they were hard of hearing or of slower pace, I would do my best not to read too fast and articulate especially well. And if they were easy-going and of a rational mind (which is so rare to find in this business, let alone over the phone, as I mentioned), I would do what I can to make small-talk with the respondent. I would do this both for myself and my own sanity to seriously talk to this God-send of someone over the phone who actually treated me like I was—you know—a person; but also it was frequently to make the respondent feel like they were having a genuine and real conversation with someone, rather than just have them arbitrarily answer so many questions and put down various ratings for things they might otherwise not care about in many cases. It was encapsulating all of this understanding of interaction and reaction—this direct application of what I’ve learned and still try to perfect in my ongoing five years of acting—that seriously proved itself to be the key to my success there, and much to my surprise it really showed.

In the course of this summer, not only did I catch notice and even praise and compliments from my monitors and supervisors there, but I also found myself being at numerous times asked to do special assignments and surveys that many of the other respondents were hardly ever asked to do, if at all. And I would actually steadily rise above the ranks and be assigned more special surveys and job opportunities within the four month period I worked there before I had to finally take my leave of absence to return to school and resume my studies. I currently plan to return in working with the firm whenever I happen to be home for long periods at a time from school.

Overall, just for this summer, I seriously felt like I left in earning the respect and recognition of nearly all my monitors and supervisors; in proving myself as someone they can depend on and trust in my efficiency to detail, and giving complete and undivided attention to each respondent and survey I had. Again, like theatre, I seriously learned all the more that that’s really just how I roll—and that people outside of the stage really do appreciate and find use in that. 

So, just when I thought this would actually be a summer in which I didn’t have anything theatre-related going on, low and behold I ended up bringing and applying it to a line of work that ended up lending itself more towards my acting skills than I ever expected or anticipated in its current success I have now in between my work in college.

And, of course—I do at least have some line of work for me if my endeavors in theatre end up not working out. But as much as I have found and enjoy my success in telemarketing, I really do simultaneously pray it’s not a sign for my future.