Note: This chapter occurs after we moved to Idaho. The chapter centers around one of the many odd jobs I had to help pay the mortgage prior to opening our restaurant. With zero experience, I became a call-center technician at a catalogue company specializing in women’s clothing.
“Good afternoon! Thank you for calling Coldwater Creek! May I have the number in the pink box on the back of your catalogue please?”
“Thank you! Now may I have the number in the green box?”
“Thank you Mrs. Bedwetter! May I have your first item please?”
Only 15 short years after graduating from a prestigious academic institution, I was sporting my very own headset, complete with foam earpieces, working in the Coldwater Creek call center, taking phone orders for a woman’s clothing catalogue company based in our tiny mountain town.
After I was laid off from the SMS, I assumed I would glide right into opening and operating the restaurant we had planned when we decided to move to Sandpoint. I was wrong. The process took much longer than expected, which included buying a building only to have it found unfit for occupation by the building inspectors. That was no problem, though; we sold it for a profit that was immediately sucked away, thanks to a clause in the loan penalizing early repayments. I am nothing if not consistent in my ability to do things the hard way. So there was about a one-year gap before we found a habitable building and broke ground, and I needed to find a job. Given my utter lack of transferrable skills, I figured: Coldwater Creek Call Center.
ColdWater Creek was a women’s catalogue and retail store chain, founded and headquartered in Sandpoint. They flirted briefly with men’s clothing, overpriced furniture, and a totally ill-conceived spa idea, but primarily they were a women’s clothing retailer. Their catalogues always contained Northwest-style tchotchkes, gifts for that person about whom you hadn’t given a single second of thought. At its zenith, when I worked there, the Creek, as it was called by locals, had hundreds of retail stores around the country. Its executives did wonderful things for our town, spending loads on our local charities.
The Creek was started about 20 years ago by a husband and wife team. It is a charming story of the owner biking the early orders to the UPS store for shipping, of growth, divorce, an initial public offering, and construction of a huge (for Sandpoint) facility. They eventually expanded into a fulfillment center on the East Coast and a large call center in Coeur d’Alene, about 45 minutes away, but they maintained a small call center in Sandpoint. I think they did this as a way to “give back” to Sandpoint when clearly the populace couldn’t produce the numbers of qualified applicants necessary to staff a larger facility. The Sandpoint headquarters was a jewel, an actual corporate campus replete with a large warehouse, an auditorium, a fitness center, and a cafeteria, which was one of the better places to eat in town.
I figured this job was perfect. Taking calls from women, shooting the shit with them a bit, and then clocking out for the day. Easy. I told myself, I am personable, I can use a computer, and having been raised by a mother and an older sister, I knew a bit about fashion and I even appreciated it. In fact, as a boy I was an avid reader of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Mom had subscriptions to both and I regularly thumbed through them, hoping against hope to find the occasional picture of a naked breast. If an issue featured an article on “Breast Cancer Self-Screening” my eyes would light up: jackpot. (If Vogue and Harper’s failed me, there was the ever dependable National Geographic for pictures of tribal women.)
However, there was one hurdle: a typing requirement, albeit a small one at 30 words per minute. This was a real problem, since I came perilously close to failing my seventh grade typing class as I was more fascinated with Mrs. Rohrs’ auburn beehive that seemed capable of holding about 36 pencils than I was the keyboard. The first test, a warm-up, did not bode well: I completed 28 words per minute. I think a foreign-born child could type faster. But on the second test, with a laser focus and warmed-up digits, I turned in a blistering 33 words per minute.
I coasted through the rest of the interview and I was hired and assigned to a two-week training program with the other 15 new hires. The training was eight hours per day for two weeks. We were to learn a computer program called Ecometry, a cutting-edge yet cumbersome retail software. In two weeks our instructors were going to mold us into cheery, knowledgeable, call center operators worthy of the Creek. They were going to make us, in their words, creeky!
But first we had to learn the rules.
We were to punch in and out using a computer login. We were NOT allowed to punch in early. But if we were more than a minute late, we would be marked as “late” and a certain number of late logins were grounds for dismissal. Being late was considered exactly the same thing as not showing up for work at all. What? Despite my past experience with hourly employees and my homicidal thoughts toward no-shows, even I thought these policies were a bit extreme. A one-minute window? The calculus of “late equals a no show,” however, was the real puzzler. During busy seasons, wouldn’t it be better to have an employee show up 15 minutes late rather than not at all? Here’s the real world effect of their math: one day I was stopped by a train on my way to work, a common daily occurrence here in Sandpoint. I sat there for seven minutes, watching the minute hand of my watch and its inexorable march past the twelve, the one, and the two. What did I do? You bet your ass. I pulled a U-turn and drove back home. Oh yes, I showed them: I gave up a full day’s wages to make my point.
In the first few weeks, these rules made us arrive at work a bit early, gussy up in our headsets, and then watch the clock on the computer like a falcon watches a mouse. The clock turns. Punch! As time wore on, we instead arrived at the exact time, jogged to our desks, dumped our bags on the ground and frantically started the computer. We fumbled with our goddamn headsets and plugged the fucking things in. Just before the clock turned to the next minute we punched, placing all of our faith in the Internet connection.
We were allowed breaks, but they were scheduled for you. Breaks might only be an hour into a shift, so you then had hours and hours of phone calls to look forward to. It was totally random and maddening. Also, our hours were scheduled according to the season and the traffic flow, which was understandable. Some days were longer than eight hours, and in the slow periods some days could be woefully short. If you were scheduled in the evenings, you stayed as long as there were calls. Once the calls dropped off in the evening, our taskmasters in Coeur d’Alene who oversaw the Sandpoint office in the evenings would call us and shut the place down, often one operator at a time. It was a mini Powerball each night to see who got to leave early.
As employees, albeit call center employees, we were granted access to the health club and cafeteria, just like the corporate office executives and staff. But we were not equals with the corporate staff by any yardstick. Unlike our better-off cousins, if our time in the gym strayed too long, we beat it back to the call center like vampires at sunrise to punch back in for our time clock masters. To be realistic though, very few of our ranks went to the gym. Our average ages and bodies predicted this group would not know a crunch outside of something with Nestle stamped on it.
We also learned that calls would stream-in live to your headset as soon as you hung up a call. So, during the holiday season, this was every second of every hour of every day you worked. Literally as soon as you hung up the line, or rather pushed the disconnect button, there was the benign little ping! in your ear and you were back on the line. That little ping! was not so benign after a few hundred calls. It started to drive you a little batshit crazy. Also, you were not allowed to disconnect a call—this was a firing offense. Of course disconnects happened, sometimes honestly by pushing the wrong button, sometimes not so honestly. Despite how many hits my creeky attitude took, my Catholic guilt might be the reason I never purposely disconnected a call.
Finally, there was an appropriately termed “not on call” button. We used this button when we had use the restroom, or pretended we had to use the restroom, which was way the hell out in the warehouse and provided a much-needed walkabout. “Not on call” was also used when you were filling out some internal paperwork. It prevented an enthusiastic customer from dropping into your ear. Lest we use this button willy-nilly, its use was tracked by our superiors, along with our call numbers. We often pushed that button when trying to deal with the mind-bender that was a product return. All operators dreaded these return merchandise authorizations, or RMAs, but it truly put the fear of God in newbies like me. To do it properly, you had to open two separate product screens, return the item, add the authorization, re-order the product, and waive one part of the shipping. But what really made it devious was that we were supposed to not push the “not on call” button that I just said we actively used otherwise. The ideal was to keep one of the screens open in the background and circle back to it when the calls slowed. Right. We all pushed that button. Eventually we became adept enough to do these quickly without using the “not on call,” but early on, product returns were enough to bring on what my dear old mother used to call the “G.I. shits.”
When we arrived each morning for training, we traipsed through the call center where the vets were fielding real calls, on our way back to the classroom. We looked at them in awe since they had made it through training and were now chatting happily (or so we thought) with customers. What we didn’t realize was that many of these folks had only “graduated” maybe two weeks earlier as the company was gearing up for the Christmas season. During those two weeks, we learned the software through repetition, all day, every day, repeating the same tasks, eventually building up to completing full orders. It was mind-numbing and we could only proceed to the next task when everyone understood.
The people in my graduating class of November ‘07 were a mixed lot. The majority were female, with ages ranging from the mid-20s to 65 or so. There was a handful of older ladies in our class who technology had not only passed by, but left them in its vapor trail. They had absolutely no chance of learning the cumbersome, many-stepped ordering system, but they persevered. I tried to help a couple of them. They eventually got it, but moved like glaciers. It was sad, but no surprise when they were let go the first week into live calls.
Eventually the big day came. No more practice. We were going live. Let’s put this in perspective: this was not opening night on Broadway, or even opening night at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School. But it was nerve-racking. However, the crack call center curriculum and endless repetition took hold and we were able to fumble through those initial calls. The axe fell early for those who, despite 80 hours of training, displayed deer-in-headlights looks behind their computer screens. But the rest of us got into the groove. We reported to work toting those headsets that we had been assigned and gravely warned not to lose, since they cost $200 or some such bit of ridiculousness. Those cheap little pieces of shit headphones were churned out by the dozens in some remote part of the planet. And just like that, the Coldwater Creek Call Center graduating class of November ‘07 found itself staring into the maw of Christmas season.
To ensure that we were ready for Christmas, about two weeks after going live we were taped, or actually eavesdropped on by our leads. Leads were our superiors. My lead was a saucy little redhead who wore her leadership loudly and proudly. If she could have had a tiara, I have no doubt she would have worn it. Our other lead was newly promoted from our very ranks, after years of doing this. Years. She was not the field general that little red was, but was probably even more knowledgeable and very sweet. She commuted from God only knows where, in her weathered, brown, 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88. Her husband, seemingly out of work, drove with her and dutifully slept in the car during her shift, passing the time with naps, smoking cigarettes, and bringing her Subway sandwiches.
For this particular eavesdropping session we were asked to sit right next to our lead and she plugged into our calls. We knew about it. But I still screwed it up. I did so because I felt the script we had been given to recite was horribly impersonal. Since my career to this point had been rooted in customer service, I made the de facto judgment to personalize it. I managed to conveniently forget how much I adored employees whom I had trained who ignored everything I said and did what they wanted. I also did not consider that a business whose metrics include the number of calls processed in a day might frown upon extra dialogue. So, after the sweetheart on the line gave me her info, I would say, in my best creeky tone, “How are you today?” Or better, I looked at where “my lady” was from and commented on that. (The Creek actually did call them “our ladies.”) I changed a few other things, but time has benevolently erased my memory. It quickly became apparent that none of this personalized chatter was acceptable to my warden, plugged in to my left. I was made. Immediately after my first eavesdropped call, she had me push “not on call.” This meant some serious shit. Little red dressed me down but good for straying from the script. I told her I thought the script was merely a guideline and my way was better. Not smart. Little Red told me to toe the line.
I did. I had to. I needed the job.
(Fast-forward. A designated eavesdropper listened in on our calls about once a month. We saw her coming from a mile away, so we were on our toes. By my second time, I had a perfect score. It was beautiful. I piled on the shit so high you couldn’t see the horizon for the pile. I followed that script like a monkey. Every line was on time. And for bonus points (seriously), I commented on each item. “Oh Mrs. Jones! I just bought my wife that very same frock, and if anything it is prettier in person than in the catalogue!” Blech.)
Tuned up from our call monitoring, and with a few weeks’ experience, we were ready for the holidays. Christmas season meant 10- to 11-hour workdays and what seemed to be millions of phone calls pouring into our headsets. And that’s when it happened: the sea change in my attitude. My sunny, cheerful, creeky attitude was being worn down by the open fire hose of calls and the fuckwits on the other end of the phone. During the blur that was the Christmas season, we fielded lots and lots of calls trying to help lots and lots of clueless husbands hoping that they were buying the right thing from the right catalogue. We helped impatient women who had waited too long, given in, and ordered multiple items for relatives to be sent to multiple addresses. We tried our best to coax the right information out of the confused so we could place a one-item order. We took orders from Canadians who shipped their wares to relatives in the US in order to avoid the few bucks that was the VAT. And we dutifully explained the differences in sizes between an XL, a 2X and a 3X. There were a lot of those calls.
As we got closer to the actual holiday, we received updates from our superiors on the date we could guarantee our customers that their precious, under $20 stocking-stuffer! of polar bear pajamas would make it to their loved ones on time. As we got really close . . . I did the math. Were they serious? We could guarantee that they would arrive on time? In what time-space continuum? Of course, I understood. The majority would arrive on time. Some wouldn’t, and these dolts had waited too long anyway. If we told them no, we couldn’t guarantee on-time delivery, they were likely to hang up. We’d probably blame the shipping company regardless. So, we maniacally told every single customer that as late as the 22nd of December that yes, their orders would arrive in time for Christmas. Because I believe that is what UPS or FedEx or whomever told us. Now you and I both know that is utter bullshit. You cannot go into your doctor with a sprained ankle and have him guarantee, if pressed, that you will be as good as new. He might not even guarantee you’d live. Doctors don’t guarantee anything other than that you are going to wait very long to be seen, and pay a considerable fee for their services. But we guaranteed on-time delivery. It was Christmas Craps.
As fun as the pre-holidays were, post-holiday calls were drastically shittier. It’s not hard to imagine why: immediately after the holidays, we got calls from those very same people complaining that their slippers hadn’t arrived on time and where were they? We then tracked their packages. Even a few short years ago, package tracking was not what it is now. Yes, we used the Internet, but it involved many more hoops to jump through than it does now. These calls droned on until we were able to verify what part of the country their package was in. A few days later, the 6th or 7th circle of hell arrived. I am rusty on my Dante, so I’m not sure which applies here. It was not tantamount to being chewed forever by the devil, but it was certainly worse than the punishment the usurers received.
Product returns. The dreaded multi-screen circus. All of those ill-advised purchases and incorrect sizes were coming back in droves. Or, cousin Beulah, who hated what she received, called to return her item on the down-low. “Yes ma’am, we can return that and your cousin won’t know.”
In those days right after Christmas, almost every call required opening two screens, scratching down RMA numbers on a notepad to insert in the other screen. It sucked. Our days were filled with this nonsense. The afterglow of Christmas is quickly sucked out of your system when you work in a call center after the holidays. Unless you were Mason. Mason matriculated with me in the class of late November ‘07. He was the guy who would ask a million questions concerning break times and lunch times, down to the last scintilla of information. In meetings Mason would ask questions that only applied to him and no one else in the room. “I have a problem working Saturdays. Those are the only days that I get to see my kids.” Way past the point of decorum, well past the point of someone remotely giving a shit. At night, rather than waiting for the call to go home from our superiors, he would actively call them, effectively doing the most annoying thing in life, something you learn in kindergarten never to do: cutting in line. The best part, of course, was that he was completely oblivious. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Mason’s solution to all of these returns was to simply tell the customer to use the return form in the box and process it through the mail. Like hanging up on a customer, this was verboten. A serious offense. But he was comfortable in the fact that the beehive hum of so many voices drowned out his trespass. A this point in the joyous season, I entertained thoughts of wrapping the phone cord around his neck.
Soon, however, the call center settled to post-holiday normalcy. This was great, except for the fact that as the calls slowed, the hours slowed as well, and our head count slowly dwindled. But we were in for one last treat: the after Christmas clearance sale, a furious week-long period where we had the pleasure of not only dealing with nagging customers, but enduring the cheap ones on top of it.
Jessie and I weathered the holidays and the clearance sale together. Jessie was not in my graduating class; I think he was a month or so my senior. Jessie was a helluva a nice guy. He was an overweight, self-taught computer wizard. He was trying to secure a job in the IT department and was using the call center as a means to get his foot in the door. It was tough sledding. Like me, he hated the call center. Whenever we could we sat next to each other, rolling our eyes in unison as our mouths spewed wax museum fakeness.
Eye-rolling had many levels. By this point I could tell within a few seconds what type of call this was going to be. Simple order? Easy: very little eye-rolling. But if the woman on the other end fumbled with the customer number, or started asking questions immediately, before we could get our crucial information, eyes really started to roll. If the customer on the other end started with “I’d like to return six or seven items,” our eyes rolled spasmodically, eyebrows arched in a way that would make Jack Nicholson proud. Depending on our mood, we would slam the mute button and pantomime “FUCK!” in an almost whisper.
Occasionally, Jessie and I would have races to see who could record the speediest call. It was fantastic. I think my best time was about 23 seconds beginning to end. That was fast, if you consider that we had to take payment as well. Jessie, however, posted an alarming 21 seconds that might be the fastest call ever. Any attempt or preamble at customer service during such calls went sailing out the window.
I still remember the call. Jessie had luck on his side as this woman needed exactly one item and was probably sitting in her recliner, clutching both her catalogue and her credit card. We had been competing against each other all morning, to pass the time. When the call came in, he spoke so fast that I could barely understand him, and I knew what he was supposed to say. If he had been monitored, I don’t think the post-eavesdropping session would have gone well. But to me, sitting in my cubicle, it was pure genius. His fingers flew over the keys like a savant. It was, simply, call center beauty.
Just prior to the big sale, since the calls had slowed down, we could actually chat before some asshole customer popped into our ears. (It really pissed us off when a customer ruined a perfectly good conversation.)
Normally, Jessie regaled me with tales of his wife. He told me she was drop-dead gorgeous and had an insatiable sex drive. That, and every day she packed him gourmet lunches with sex notes in it. Obviously, he was delusional. I loved the guy, but he was no looker. I know, I know, looks don’t matter to women. They are not as shallow as men. But I mean come on. Also, I have never never never never met a woman who was gorgeous and horny. Oh wait: gorgeous, horny, and married. That last part normally eradicates one or both of the previous qualifiers. Not that a woman like this didn’t exist; scientists didn’t think the coelacanth existed either.
I never met Jessie’s phantom bride, but I am able to give proof of two of her attributes. Yes, she did pack him great lunches, this I saw. There were sandwiches of roasted peppers, sausages and smoked mozzarella. There was freshly made hummus with naan. Bagels with lox. And then one day Jessie handed me a note from his lunch box. His wife wrote something to the effect that she couldn’t wait until he got home so she could, well, fellate him. Of course, he could have written this and packed his lunch himself. But for everyone who has ever had a dream, I refuse to believe that.
The time for the yearly sale arrived. There were two caveats to the sale that were guaranteed to cause us misery. First, not everything was available and on sale. Only certain items listed on the website were available. Confusion about this was inevitable. Second, and this was the killer, was that if someone purchased the same object, say, two weeks prior, at the time it was not on sale, they could call in during the sale and get a refund for the difference. My hat went off to the company for this policy as it cemented goodwill among their audience. They figured the number actually calling in to do this borderline nefarious thing would be small. And they were right. But for us it was huge. Creating this refund in the system was terribly problematic, worse even than a dreaded return. It drove us almost homicidal that these people were getting away with this! I could barely conceal my contempt for them. Both Jessie and I were pretty good at delivering speedy calls, but when I got one of these shameless assholes on the phone I slowed down to a just-out-of-kindergarten pace. My own little pound of flesh.
A few days into the sale, with my feet propped up on my desk, my keyboard stretched to the limits of its cord and lying in my lap, I had an idea how to turn this shit show into a bit of fun. My cubicle was at the far end of the call center near the wall, well away from prying eyes. I taped together a few open manila folders with strapping tape procured from the shipping department and created a rather unscientific-looking chart. This allowed me classify the calls I was receiving.
It was not hard to categorize these calls after you had taken 200 or so. During the conversation, the moment I was able to deduce which type of call it was going to be I dug my heels into the linoleum and rocketed my chair across the floor to quickly make a hash mark on my chart that was now masking-taped to the wall.
The calls basically fell into these categories:
Uptight white New York/East Coasters: These were quickly identifiable by their nasally accent, impatience, and superior attitude. Complete Bitches.
Clueless hillbilly southerners: Again, the accent gave it away. But in contrast to their northern counterparts, who were all business, these gals had that stereotypical slowness to them. Halfway through these calls, I wanted to shove a letter opener through my soft palate and end it all right there.
You-will-never-fit-in-that-so-for-the-love-of-God-please-don’t-order-it types: These were the gals who, upon being informed that we were out of their size, decided to see if they could sausage themselves into something smaller. Most times the conversation went like this:
She: “Do you have that in a 3x?”
Me: No ma’am, we only have a 2X and an XL available.”
She: Pause. Sigh. “I’ll try that.”
Me: “Which one, please?”
She: “I’ll try both.”
This got under my skin for a couple of reasons. First, I thought this was an exercise in futility. Second, I was likely to be the poor bastard who, in a few weeks would have to process the return.
Clueless shopping addict out to save a few bucks: This customer received the catalogue and made a beeline for the rotary dial phone. When this person called, she had no fucking idea what was on sale or not. All she saw was the word “sale” on the cover of the catalogue, and she sprang into action. These customers typically went item by item through the catalogue asking me to look it up in the system to see if it indeed was on sale. In 99% of the cases it was not. As I neared the now inevitable aneurism, the customer would either give up with a heavy exhale, or order something else that likely would not fit, nor be what she wanted. It would then sit in the closet, or, you guessed it: be processed in a few weeks for return by a sad sack like me wearing a goofy foam padded headset.
Cheap motherfuckers with no sense of pride: These were the customers I mentioned before. They had the item, likely purchased for Christmas at full price, and wanted a refund for the difference. Or, even better, they received this item as a gift and wanted to get a refund or gift card for the difference. I wanted to kill these people. Or have them killed. It was that simple.
By the end of the sale, my handy spreadsheet was filled with tally marks. I forget who won the contest, but it’s really not important, is it? The joy is in the doing.
After the sale, and between holidays, call volume became painfully slow. Schedules were a maximum of a few hours for the dwindling number of survivors at Call Center Sandpoint. The once-bustling center was inhabited by a few souls, with the majority of cubicles empty. Without any adrenaline, it became even more mind-numbing than normal. Fortunately, Kim and I were in the final phases of obtaining a loan for our soon-to-be restaurant. Mercifully I packed up my cobalt blue “Happy Holidays from Coldwater Creek!” Christmas bonus mug and quit.
And Jessie? He eventually found that job with the IT department, but quit a year or so later to do his own IT consulting. I still see him occasionally tooling around town in his blue truck with dual white racing stripes down the hood, and I think of the times we had, shoulder-to-shoulder, selling women’s clothes. And then I wonder how his wife is doing.
I took one call just before I quit, from my hometown of Houston, Texas. The last name was one I recognized, and was highly unusual: Veselka. I had an English teacher in the eighth grade with that very name, so on a lark I played the name game and hit pay dirt. It was indeed my teacher’s wife. After I hung up, I backtracked through the years to where I was now. I looked at my reflection in the desktop monitor and thought: at what point did I make the wrong turn? Was it obvious? Here I was, sitting in a call center in a small town in northern Idaho taking phone orders for the latest pantsuit. I reassured myself that Kim and I had simply stepped off the treadmill and chosen a different, slower lifestyle and a better upbringing for our kids, but that kind of epic rationalization does have its limits. If Robert Frost had been alive then, and I encountered him on the street, despite his grandfatherly appearance I might have punched him in the throat.