“I must learn to love the fool in me – the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self-control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries.” ~Theodore Issac Rubin

It’s the middle of the dog days of July and like many of you, I’m busy. I’m juggling kids, dogs (a moose or two – Idaho people: we have moose here), driving, hustling here to there and back again, and the phone rings…”

A second after I pick up the phone, I’m already regretting taking the call. And seconds later after the generic greeting that we all sometimes get with “unknown caller” calls, I hang up. It’s at this moment that regret turns to absolute self-loathing, as I just realize I’ve broken a 20-year old promise I made to myself.

In Don Miguel Ruiz’s fabulous book “The Four Agreements,” one is:  Be impeccable with your word.

The promises we make to others are important, to our loved ones precious and to ourselves. Sacred.  You know this. I know this. Yet with this call, I’ve broken an important one:  a promise that I would never, ever hang up on a telemarketer.

“When you start in life, if you find you are wrongly placed, don’t hesitate to change, but don’t change because troubles come up and difficulties arise.  You must meet and overcome and conquer them.  And in meeting and overcoming and conquering them, you will make yourself stronger for the future.” ~Charles M. Schwab

The Promise Made

As a college freshman needing to generate income, my options were slim. A friend of mine who managed a telemarketing firm suggested that I’d be great at sales, so the following week I started. I lasted a day and a half. Yep, after thirteen hours of, hang ups, cursing and other colorful comments,  and as I’m removing my headset, I walked over to the hiring manager, thanked him for the opportunity and walked out of there.

Prior that time, my work experience had consisted of picking strawberries during the August season, and a three-month stint at my father’s electronics plant just before I left for college, where I learned the ever-useful skill of sauntering motherboards. In one, my speed at filling a pallet of strawberries was well rewarded and at the other, my ability to precisely place the solder while listening to hours of new-wave music gave me street cred with the engineers and a real job on the resume.

In my mind, I’d experience workplace success, to enough degree that I was confident I could learn on the job, excel and get paid. The training was modest and on-the-job, just like strawberry picking and soldering motherboards, perhaps no more than an hour. In all three cases, I was with a group of other trainees who were as eager to learn and achieve as I was. The difference was that I outlasted, outpaced and outperformed the other strawberry pickers on my crew. I also completed more motherboards (with a hundred percent accuracy) than my fellow trainees. So, when I ventured into telesales, I was confident my experience would be similar.  Turns out I was wrong. I’m not used to failing; I don’t believe in the concept, and until then haven’t ever experienced defeat before.  Challenges, yes, but defeat?  Never.

My ego took a beating, my ears a thrashing and my spirit taken to it’s breaking point.

With each successive call I made, my fingers grew more numb, my chest increasingly constricted, and by lunchtime that first day, my entire body was in full-blown distress. You see, the moment you punch in, the race begins – and it’s never-ending.  Every second counted towards a segment, and each completed segment meant money in my pocket – or not.

  • Getting past the first three seconds: “hello, I’m XX from YY”
  • Beyond the first ten seconds, the elevator pitch: “you were recently a customer at WW Resorts)
  • Beyond the next ten seconds, the offer” and you have qualified for another amazing opportunity)

23 Seconds…  Success or failure measured 23 seconds at a time.

A completed call is worth the most. The heaven’s part and the angels sing when the person on the other end says: “I’m interested” (which was one level of bonus) or “Yes, I’d like more information,” (another level) and the ultimate: “I’ll buy that now, can I give you my credit card?”

For the record, I never made it past “the offer” stage. Not once. No trumpets or angels. Just a lot of really unhappy people that inspired random bathroom runs. Didn’t they know I needed the money for rent? That all they had to give me was a mere two minutes of their life, one-hundred and twenty seconds that would mean the difference between me getting paid or getting nothing?

Yet call after call, hour after hour, I watched others do better than I, and those that fared the same had an inner quality that allowed them to simply ignore the rejection and keep calling with nary a dent in their self-esteem or motivation level.

As I watched their stamina in the face of relentless opposition, my own confidence level plummeted. My inner voice (the dark, super critical voice) started to chime in and express its opinion on my failings, from:  “It’s my tone and quality of voice,” to “this script is terrible,” but I knew both were inaccurate. Other, higher-pitched, whiny tones were successful, and the script had been proven to work for dozens of well-paid telemarketers. In hindsight, what I should have been proud about was my ability to be in denial for thirteen hours until I felt like an attendee at an AA meeting.

“Hi, my name is Sarah and I’m a failure at telesales.” When I realized that my desire to win was not going to help me gain whatever vital skill it took to keep someone on the phone long enough to get paid, I packed it in.

Those thirteen hours had made a lasting impression on me. Every time a person berated, derided or hung up on me, I promised—swore on all that I believed holy—that I’d always be kind, considerate, polite and patient with telemarketers, no matter what. I would breath deep and remain quiet. I’d allow them to finish and make those dollars they so desperately needed (because if that person had any other options whatsoever, they wouldn’t be in telesales).

For over two decades, I made good on that promise, right up until that fateful July day. That morning, I was out of time and out of patience. I waited approximately eight seconds, and hung up. No word at all.

The Aftermath

In the days that followed, I was haunted by the sound of the young woman’s voice – like a bad song stuck on mental loop, I couldn’t shake it, couldn’t drown it out. Her bright, upbeat tone reminded me so much of myself. When I shared what happened with my husband, I choked up. He’d heard about my short-lived career in telesales, but until that moment, hadn’t quite understood how hard, hurtful and ultimately, impacting it had been for me. The moment I walked out that door, my ego had been decimated but my determination to succeed in life had sprung to life (like a planted seed feeling the warmth of the sun for the first time, shooting straight up into the air).

Beyond not hanging up on telemarketers, this event inspired me to one day share my experience(s) with others, the next generation of professionals. Not everyone will have the perspective of working for a telesales company, so those who have must share their insights with others. Prior that time, I’d not given a moment’s thought to the notion of mentoring, although in hindsight, I’d already begun. I showed younger teens how to hold the strawberry stem in one hand, twisting gently but quickly with the thumb and forefinger of the other. I’d demonstrated the best technique of holding the soldering iron, picking and placing the liquid metal in the right place, delicately and surely in position.

Those were techniques; useful and necessary skills .What I took away from telemarketing was a philosophy relating to how I would treat others, and in so doing, helping their lives in some small way. Years later, when I took on my first board assignment, I found my role constantly bouncing back and forth between how-to skills, process, and techniques alongside philosophy and perspective.

 “Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” ~William James

The Mentoring Perspective

I survived the experience and thankfully my story has a happy ending. Fast forward twenty years, I moved on from my 13-hour “career” and proceeded to grow into a true professional in the areas of product marketing, market development, strategic partnerships and other specialties vital to growing a business. And while my knowledge and experience increased, my interest to share the insights, and learning – and yes, perspective – remain a key passion and intention personally.

Over the last few days, I’ve been sending good energy to the anonymous telesales girl who called me, hoping her experience with me didn’t rock her, but instead sparked a desire to dream bigger. I would say this: keep calling, because all it takes is one person to listen to the first ten seconds, then the second ten seconds, and then ultimately, the offer.

And if she were to communicate feeling dejected about making each call, I’d share with her  what a mentor who once said to me. “An inch at a time,” is how I’d start, then I’d proceed to give the context. When I was feeling down about the difficulties and challenges of writing a book series and the long arduous process of having it turned into a movie, Lucas Foster, (the producer of Warp Films), said those words, “an inch at a time.” He was relating completing of a multi-year project to small segments, not unlike the segments of seconds in a telesales environment, but he was specifically talking about movie-making.