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Consumer Reports

'Do Not Call' list takes some stress out of telemarketers' jobs | (KRT) Wearing headphones and facing blue computer screens, workers seated next to one another spend their days phoning strangers - some nice, some not, some really not. The strangers live in New York, Georgia, Colorado, Arizona - as many as 35 states.

The workers at Encore, a telemarketing agency in Chesterfield, Mo., ask these strangers whether they'd like to talk to a mortgage banker about consolidating their bills. They can wipe away those debts that carry 21 percent and 23 percent interest, they tell them.

At Pisa Group in St. Charles, Mo., workers ask strangers whether they'd like a healthy discount on home delivery of certain publications, along with special gifts and perks - discounts they couldn't get if they subscribed directly.

Now and then, a young woman of 17 winces as a stranger belts out profanities and slams the phone in her ear. Moments later, the same happens to a man in his 40s. The man leans back, shakes his head and trades a short conversation with the teenager.

The contrast of generations is unmistakable. He wears a white, striped shirt and a necktie. She wears a sweatshirt with a hood that flops over the back of her chair.

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Another young woman rings a bell and raises her hand. Suddenly her head is up straight enough to be eating dinner in a military academy. She has sold a subscription - one of the 10 she'll sell on this six-hour, 300-call shift. A "verifier" walks up, takes over the conversation and completes the transaction. Seconds later, the verifier walks away and the young woman relaxes and begins a new call.

These workers make their living by calling scores of people every hour. Sometimes, they're greeted by tirades of insults and profanities. More often, they're greeted by polite people who may or may not want what the telemarketers are trying to sell.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people work in the telemarketing industry in St. Louis. Managers at sites here say there's no way of knowing how many are employed in the field because some companies contract for telemarketing services while others have their own phone banks.

The American Telemarketers Association says on its Web site that American consumers last year made as many purchases from telemarketers as they did on the Internet.

Telemarketers know they've been somewhat demonized in recent weeks over the fate of the National Do Not Call Registry. Some telemarketing advocates say the registry could put thousands of people out of work - both telemarketers and manufacturers of the products they sell. The philosophy behind the registry is to grant privacy to people who don't want to be bothered by unsolicited calls.

While telemarketing business owners are fighting the enactment of the registry, some front-line workers say they won't miss potential customers who have signed the no-call list.

"It has made it easy on us because we know who doesn't want to be bothered," one Encore employee says.

If there's despair about the no-call controversy, it's not apparent in some area telemarketing workplaces.

"This isn't a job just anybody can do," says Jesse Jahraus, 22, a supervisor at Pisa's St. Charles office. "You have to be in a good mood, and you're not going to keep (the customers) on the phone if you're not in a good mood. The people who can last here are those who know how to take rejection."

One of those is Tresa Jordan, 47, a single mother of three from East St. Louis. She has been a telemarketer with Encore for 11 months and plans to continue the work as long as she can. She has a modest smile and wears her hair in a flat-braid with jewels on her forehead. She loves the job and worries sometimes about losing it, she says.

Most of the time, when people don't want to hear her spiel, they're fairly polite about hanging up, she says. But there was the one response that still sticks in her mind. Someone exploded in a hail of profanities that ended with: "Stupid bitch, don't call my house!"

"They don't know me," Jordan says. "I'm just a voice. I feel like I help people. Someone stuck with 23 percent interest may not know there's (an alternative). And this beats the unemployment line."

Carolyn Garner, 35, sees her telemarketing verifier job at Pisa as a way of providing for her family.

"I raised four children with this job," she says, a stern pride crossing her face.

While occasional cursing doesn't bother her, the real insult that comes over the phone is the one that bothers many telemarketers.

"Some people say, `Get a real job!' " Garner said. "This is a real job. People don't understand it because they haven't done it.

At midday, the telemarketers in Garner's office get word on a new deal on subscriptions. Customers can get several weeks for free, plus a $10 gift certificate.

Minutes later, the marketers' ring their "sale" bells one after another. This is atypical. Verifiers scamper among cubicles. A manager sits in the middle of the room charting sales.

As a 16-year telemarketing veteran, Garner has noticed some trends among the people she calls. About 20 percent of the callers will be rude - slamming the phone after an insult. A smaller percentage will be abusive.

Geographically, the South is a pleasant place to call, especially Georgia.

"They're `yes ma'am' after everything," she says. "People in New York are all right, but everyone is in a hurry. Older people are nice and polite, and they'll put up with you."

Calling Pittsburgh should earn hazardous duty pay, she says, because of rudeness.

The toughest calls are to Arizona and Colorado. It's not because they are more or less rude - just detached, distant and contemplative, Garner says.

She also watches the news to know what to expect. After the Sept. 11 attacks, "We didn't call in that area for a few weeks," Garner says. "When we started talking to them again, they were nicer. I don't know what that was. It was surprising."

Rather than dwell on negative reactions, she focuses on calls that lead to pleasant conversations.

"I'm a people person," Garner says, smiling. "I love talking to people and this is a good job for that."

Garner got into the business at age 19, when she was not much older than Kelly Davis, 17. Davis is putting herself through St. Charles Community College on her telemarketing salary at Pisa. She wants to be an attorney - or a model.

She took the job hoping to make a lot of money in bonuses, but they haven't been as lucrative as she'd like.

"I'm just trying to sell," Davis says.

Local telemarketers didn't want to disclose their salaries. A supervisor at one firm says workers average about $7 an hour plus bonuses for surpassing sales quotas.

People who have long records of not making sales eventually are no longer scheduled to work, the supervisor says. Most places pay anywhere from a bit above minimum wage to about $14 an hour depending on the position and length of time on the job, he says.

Davis says she likes the flexible hours, which allow her to work and go to school. The job also has taught her not to be thin-skinned.

"I'm just a voice they hear; they don't know me," she says. "But I think people should know not to be mean to me when I'm doing my job. I don't go to where they work and be mean to them when they're doing their job."

Davis says she thought that when she got the job, she'd be surrounded by other people her age working at their first jobs.

People such as Kevin Moeller, 47, dispel that. Moeller is a large man, 6 feet tall, with a look of contentment on his face. As a telemarketer, he no longer deals with the pressures and late-night calls he faced as a district manager for a national fast-food restaurant chain for 25 years.

Telemarketing for him has been a sort of a Type-A withdrawal.

"I was motivated by the intensity of the job," Moeller says, recalling his old occupation. "Now I find it's a relief not to have that."

Even with the hang-ups, he feels better about his work and his mental health. In addition to telemarketing, he's also a dealer at an area casino. He likes leaving both his jobs at work.

Moeller hopes that with all the attention that telemarketers are getting, the public will understand that he and his co-workers are people, not simply anonymous voices on the phone. "We provide a service that helps people," he says. "A commodity they can use that they couldn't get at this price if they called the company directly. There's some good in what we do."

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© 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services