Conversations with Telemarketers

I’ll preface this by mentioning that I haven’t actually had a call from a telemarketer in at least 10 years.  About that time, my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, and she told me that with all my technical background, I should be able to do something to ensure that no telemarketer ever bothers her again.  Or else.

Naturally I took this as an opportunity to outfit the house with a full blown PBX and auto-attendant, but that’s another story entirely.

When they do get through, telemarketers are a tenacious bunch, and if there’s a remote chance of making a sale, they’ll try almost anything.  I’ll admit to exploiting this trait for my own amusement.  As a case in point, I once received a call on behalf of AT&T:

“Hi!  We’re offering a certificate for $100 worth of free long distance if you sign up…”  I had been running to get the phone, and listened breathlessly to the entire speech.  At least it was delivered with a little penache, so I tried to be polite.

“I’m really not interested in switching to AT&T.”

“May I ask why?”

“Well, an AT&T van ran over my dog last year, and I still haven’t gotten over it.”

(Muffled laughter, then a long pause.)  “Oh, god, I’m sorry.”

“His name was Lucky.  I loved that dog.”

“Oh, umm…”

“I still can’t see an AT&T van without bursting into tears.”

“We don’t have to come to your house to become your long distance carrier.  You won’t have to look at an AT&T van.”

“The logo freaks me out, too.  I can’t see it without thinking of Lucky.”

“Our bill will appear on your regular statement, with your local bill.  You don’t even have to look at it if you don’t want to.”

“We had just gotten him back from the vet, too.  Poor Lucky.”

“What if we offered you $100 certificate, you know, as an apology?”

“Isn’t that the same thing you were offering a few minutes ago?”

“Well, yes, but you can use it however you want.  You can call Lucky’s friends to let them know you’re thinking of him.”

“His friends were mostly squirrels.  And I think AT&T might have gotten to them already, anyway.”

“Our service really is unparalleled in the industry.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Oh.  Well, we do have a very large fleet of vehicles.”

“Are you making fun of me?”

“Of course not.  But accidents do happen.  I’m sure the driver didn’t mean it.”

“Did you ever see that Twilight Zone where that woman’s dead husband called her on the phone?”

“Yes, I did.  I’m pretty sure she used AT&T, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I was wondering if I could commune with Lucky over the phone.”

“With $100 in savings, what have you got to lose?”

“Maybe it would be faster if I just stood in my driveway and you sent a van over.”

“If you sign up as our customer, I’d be happy to put in a service call for you.”
Sometimes, the tenaciousness of telemarketers borders on bizarre.  I received a call from a local newspaper, urging me to sign up for local delivery.  As usual, there was the canned diatribe that I listened patiently to, ended with the common ploy of “just tell me your address and I can sign you up right now.”

“Actually, I don’t want the paper.  I can’t read.”

“Perhaps somebody can read it to you.”

“I don’t think so.  I could just listen to news radio.”

“We’ve got pictures and comics.  You could clip them out if they interested you.”

“I don’t have any thumbs, so it’s hard for me to use scissors.”

“You could use a knife.  Or the paper tears pretty easily, you could just rip them out.”

“I’m legally blind, so I probably wouldn’t look at the pictures.”

“Do you have a dog?  You could use the paper to clean up after him.”

“I did, but he was run over by an AT&T van.”


“No, I just said that to get rid of a telemarketer.  It didn’t work, though.”

“Oh.  Have you got a cat?  It’s great for the bottom of litter boxes.”

“Seems kind of expensive to buy the paper just for that.”

“We have so many coupons every day that the paper virtually pays for itself.”

“I’m blind and I have no thumbs.  How am I going to clip coupons?”

“Well, how do you shop now?”

“I pretty much eat whatever the pixies bring by.”

“Can they read?  Maybe they can clip the coupons for you.”

“Are you serious?”

“Sure!  Perhaps they could read you the headlines, too.  There’s no better way to keep in touch with current events.”

“Well, I’d love to, but I’m moving in a week.”

“Then give us your new address!  We’ll sign you up in advance.”

“I’m moving to Bangladesh.”

“We can ship the paper anywhere in the world.  All you pay is the shipping charges.”

“I’ll be living on a mountain, miles from civilization.”

“How about weekly, instead of daily?”

“How does that help?”

“Well, our Sunday paper is an excellent source of weekly news, and you may not be interested in getting the paper every day.”

“I’m not interested in getting the paper any day.”

“What about the coupons?”

“What good are they going to do me on a mountain in the middle of nowhere?”

“Surely you’re going to need some goods and services.”

“Not for long.  I’m really going there to die.  I only have one month left to live.”

“Perfect!  Our free trial period is 30 days, so all you’ll have to pay in advance is shipping.”

“Are you suggesting that I get the paper for 30 days and not pay for it?”

“Well, if you live, I’d suggest that you pay your bill so that you can continue to receive the paper, with all it has to offer…”

“You know, I just realized, I’ve got a stack of papers by the door.  I think I already subscribe.”

“Really?  Is it our paper?”

“How can I tell?  It feels like a big stack of newspapers.  It gets bigger every day.”

“Does it feel kind of jagged along the edge, with a big fold in the middle?”

“Ummm…   Yes.  Is that good?”

“That sounds like our paper, alright.  I’d better check with our subscription department, and give you a call back.”

“I may not hear the phone, because I think I’m going deaf.”

“That’s okay, I’ll keep calling until I reach you.”

Amazingly, he did call back, but I was lucky enough to be away and only hear the messages on the answering machine:

#1: “Sir?  I checked with our subscription department and they have no record of you as a subscriber.  I forgot to ask if the stack of papers had staples in the fold.  You may want to check on that and get back to me.  And you may want to call and cancel your subscription to that other paper, if you don’t need it.  Save yourself some money.  But be sure to give me a call so we can start your subscription right away.”

#2: “Sir?  You forgot to give me your address in Bangladesh.  We can get your subscription started with just a credit card, and remember, you only pay shipping.”

#3: “It’s been almost a week, and you haven’t returned my call, so you may have left already and may not be picking up your messages.  If Pixie is still living there she may want to give me a call and discuss the best value in newspapers available for home delivery today…”

One of the biggest problem with telemarketers in general, is that they soak up an awful lot of time, and I relish the occasional opportunity to return the favor.  A telemarketer representing an investment broker afforded the perfect opportunity.  As usual, first the spiel, then the question:

“All we need is your social security number to open an account for you right now…”

“Oh, I’d love to!” I gushed, “because I just inherited a huge amount of money and have no idea what to do with it.  Hang on a minute while I find where I put that check…”

I put the phone down and made a brief show of rustling papers.  I have no idea how long she waited, because I didn’t pick the phone back up until the next day.

However, I did have to appreciate a call I received from a company hocking voice mail.  They were interested in charging me about $25 per month for a glorified answering machine, with the sole (real) advantage being that people could leave voice mail if I was on the phone.  As I listened to the spiel, it occurred to me that it sounded exactly like the local phone company’s own voice mail offering, which cost about $7 per month.  For no particular reason, I walked the telemarketer through a feature-by-feature comparison of the two voice mail systems.

I concluded with, “Well, it sounds like your voice mail system has the exact same features, but costs three times as much.”

“That’s about right.”  (“Your point being?” was implied in her tone, and the fact that she hadn’t hung up yet.)

“Well, then I’d have to be some kind of idiot to sign up with you.”

“Great!  Then we’ll sign you up right away!”


Well played, madam.  Well played.


Conversations with the Phone Company

If I were inclined to be paranoid, my delusions would start with every Phone Company’s apparent desire to screw with me on a more-or-less regular basis, ever since I’ve had a phone.  This is only made more sinister by the fact that it’s nearly impossible to get away without having a phone these days, and even now, it’s impractical if not impossible to choose a different local phone company.   The choice afforded by long distance companies has complicated things further – while rates and service have improved somewhat, this is at least partially offset by having to explain to some poor telemarketing schlub that no, you don’t want to change long distance carriers during dinner.

I first got an inkling for the evil that lurks behind the friendly facade of a monopoly with a huge advertising budget when I first moved to Chicago.  I called the local phone company to arrange a connection in service to my new apartment – long distance, as I was actually planning ahead.

“I’m sorry,” the disinterested voice told me, “we can’t connect your service until you pay an outstanding bill for $245.”

This was pretty odd.  “How can I have an outstanding bill?  I’ve never even been to Chicago.”

“Well, our records show an outstanding bill for $245 for calls made by Rita Brown.”
Even weirder.  “Who the hell is Rita Brown?”

“Our records show that you live with her.”

WHAT?”  I’m not sure what was more disturbing, the fact that I was being saddled with a phantom bill for somebody I’d never even heard of, or the fact that the phone company apparently keeps records on who is living with whom in Chicago.  So I tried reason.  “I’ve never even heard the name before.”

“Well, sir,” (you always hear at least one “sir” when you start to get peeved) “we can’t just let her get a phone under your name until she pays her bill.”

“Why would I care whether or not she pays her bill?  Since I’ve never heard of her, I’ll promise you that I won’t let her use my phone, even if she shows up at my door bleeding from a gunshot wound.  Do you want me to sign something?”

“Well, actually, if you could call her and ask her to come in and sign a paper that she doesn’t know you…”

I was afraid that if I let her continue, irreparable damage might be done to my brain.  “Wait, let me get this straight: you want me to call somebody I’ve never heard of, whose phone you’ve probably disconnected anyway for not paying her bill, and convince this woman to sign a paper that says she’s never heard of me so that I can get a phone?”

“Exactly.” she said, apparently pleased at getting her point across.  After a moment’s reflection, she added, “Maybe you should write her a letter.”

Still fearing for my tender brain, I tried to remain calm.  “How can I write a letter to somebody I’ve never even heard of before?”

“Sounds like it would be easier if you just paid the bill.”

“Look, I am not going to pay her bill.  I can’t think of any reason why I would agree to pay that woman’s phone bill just to get my own phone.”

“I thought you said you’d never heard of her.”

“What?  Of course I haven’t heard of her.  What are you talking about?”

“Well, you seem to have some bitterness toward this woman.  Was it a bad breakup?”

If I’d had a power-horn handy, I’m sure I would have held it up to the receiver and blasted it until it was completely discharged.  I don’t even own a power-horn, but I looked around just in case.  “I’m going to say this slowly.  I have never heard of this woman.  I am not going to be your collections department.  I am not going to pay a bill that isn’t mine.  I need to talk to your supervisor.”

A good four hours and five supervisors later, I finally got somebody to agree to give me a phone without having to pay somebody else’s phone bill.  Frankly, if Rita Brown ever does happen to stop by, I’d let her use the phone as much as she wanted.

Back when I still got paper bills, I would occasionally receive a beautifully worded form letter enclosed with my bill, asking for extra money.  I won’t attempt to do the skillfully crafted prose justice, but I’ll distill the main points:

  • Some people can’t afford phones
  • Everybody on Earth should have a phone
  • We don’t want to lower our rates
  • Please pay us extra so that we don’t have to lower our rates
  • With all that money, we can give phones to people who can’t afford phones

It’s not many a company with the audacity to attempt to increase their market share by soliciting donations, but aside from being just evil, this is somewhere between brilliant and awesome — unfortunately, it really works only for products that people actually need.  “Not everybody can afford a Porsche, and we’re sure as hell not making them any cheaper, so why not pledge money now so a needy family can afford one?”

One of the stranger things my local phone company did is send me their monthly bill — but this time, for over $6000.  I found this a little unusual, especially since the bulk of the charges were listed under “miscellaneous.”  Naturally, I called to complain.

“Hello, I just received a local phone bill for $6000.”

There was a long pause, presumably while the customer service representative looked up the information, but it doesn’t appear to have struck her as unusual in any way, since she returned with a prosaic,  “Yes?”

“Well, I calculated that at even at the highest rates, if I made one phone call per second, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, I couldn’t rack up a bill nearly this high.”

She seemed unclear on what I was complaining about.  “So you want a second line installed?”

“No!  I don’t want a second line installed, I want these charges taken off my bill.”

“What are the charges for?” she asked.

I wasn’t prepared for this question, mostly because it’s what I was asking.  “I have no idea.  What could possibly be worth $6000?”

“Well, you must have ordered something.”

“Like what?  Phone company massages?  A phone company grand piano?  Perhaps that phone company car I’ve always wanted?”

“Well, these charges don’t just come out of nowhere.”

“Okay, how about this: you tell me what I’m being charged for, and if you can’t, you take it off my bill.”

(Long pause.)  “It says here it’s for ‘miscellaneous.’”

“Okay, what, specifically, does that mean?”

There was a very long pause, which I took to mean that I was getting somewhere.  While I was waiting, I was treated to some elevator music punctuated by a bone-jarring voice proclaiming that “All operators are busy.  Please continue to hold.”  And what seems slightly more sarcastic each time you hear it: “Your call is very important to us.”

The music finally stopped.  “Sir?”


“Are you still there?”  (A casual observer might have deduced this from the answer to the first question, but I didn’t want to distract her.)

“Yes, I am.”

“Miscellaneous is what they list things under that don’t go into other categories.”

I’m not sure if she’d consulted a dictionary or a corporate manual, but neither was really helpful.  “Oh, good, so they haven’t invented a completely new definition for the word.  Who can tell me what, exactly, they have chosen to bill me for, and place into this category?”

“It doesn’t say.”  (Long pause.)  “I didn’t put it in there.”

At this point, I couldn’t think of anything to say, so we both stayed on the phone in uncomfortable silence.   “Okay then,” I ventured after a while, “can you kindly remove it from my bill if nobody knows what it is for?”

“I could put you on a payment plan.”

“I don’t want to be put on a payment plan.  I don’t want to pay it at all.”

She laughed.  “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Okay, look: I have nothing in my possession, and have received no services from the phone company, worth anywhere near $6000, and I am not going to pay a bill for something I did not get.”

“Ohhhhhh,” she said, as if something had just dawned on her.  “In that case, why don’t you tell me what you ordered, and I’ll re-enter the order, and you won’t have to pay until we can complete the order.”

“You don’t understand.  I didn’t order anything.  I don’t want to order anything.”

“You want to cancel the order?” she tried.

“What order?”

“You’ll have to tell me, or I can’t cancel it.”

If you had asked me the day before how hard it would be to get an obvious billing mistake corrected, I’d have probably replied, “not that hard,” like an idiot.  I was clearly getting nowhere.  “Okay, I’ll make this simple.  Will you take this charge off my bill?”

“I can’t do that.  It’s obviously there for a reason.”

“Okay, then let me talk to your supervisor…”

A few hours and supervisors later, I was under the mistaken impression that I had finally convinced somebody to correct my bill.  However, the next month I received notice that the first installment on my six-month payment plan was due.  Yes, that’s right, instead of correcting the $6000 charge, I’d been put on a payment plan, where I only had to pay a little over $1000 each month.

Each month, for six months, I had to call and get $1000 taken off my bill.