Sham On You!

A snake's-eye view of high-pressure phoner baloney

Earn "big bucks" . . . work in "a nice air-conditioned office" . . . "have fun" selling photocopier supplies over the phone. Little wonder that a certain central Phoenix telemarketing firm promised new employees that they were about to embark on "THE GREATEST JOB IN THE WORLD!"

"It was more like the greatest con job in the world," counters Jill, a former employee who bailed out of the Central Corridor phone room after only one day. Far from being the dream job described in the classified ad, she claims the gig was actually less honorable than just shoving a gun in people's ribs and hollering, "Stick 'em up!"

"At least an armed robber is up-front about what he's doing," she says philosophically. "That place was just running a scam."

No dummy, Jill had sized up the situation at "Main Warehouse"--a clever name, as it turns out.

According to U.S. Postal Service Inspector Larry Johnson, the company, based in Santa Ana, California, is a classic example of an office-supply "boiler-room" operation--a reference to the days when phone hustlers operated out of the basements of office buildings. Johnson contends that Main Warehouse is one of at least 130 companies suspected by his agency of specializing in wrongful telephone sales of photocopier toner and related office supplies--a nationwide racket that currently rakes in more than $350 million annually. Main Warehouse closed its Phoenix office at 110 West Camelback Road in early June after more than a year in that location. The company, which until recently also had a Texas office, is described by Johnson as the nation's second- or third-largest office-supply boiler room.

But maybe not for long.
Johnson expects that Main Warehouse owner David Jenkins will soon sign a "consent agreement" with the government--a document in which Jenkins will agree to close up shop and steer clear of all forms of telemarketing for the next five years. Johnson adds, "If he [Jenkins] breaches this agreement, he still [would face] the possibility of prosecution for what he previously did." Pointing out that the agreement carries no outright admission of guilt, Johnson says, "If he thinks of himself as operating a legal enterprise, why in the world would he sign such an agreement?"

Jenkins would not return a reporter's phone calls. But his lawyer, Alan Pick, tells New Times that his client will sign the agreement.

"I'm clearly not going to tell you or anybody that there was any fraud involved," says Pick. "I will tell you that it appears the people in Arizona and Texas were not monitored as closely as they should have been."

Postal inspector Johnson says phone hustlers often blame their problems with the authorities on their out-of-state satellite offices.

"The Santa Ana location, where Mr. Jenkins is on-premises, has generally been run in a very businesslike manner," Pick contends. "Unfortunately, Mr. Jenkins has found out recently that the Arizona operation hasn't been run as tightly as it should have been. The Arizona operation has indeed been closed down. Mr. Jenkins has been thinking about getting out of the business anyway, so he closed down the Arizona office."

The lawyer for Main Warehouse insists that Jenkins' decision to shut the Arizona office "was done independent of any discussion with the postal authorities."

LOOKING BACK, JILL (she asked that her real name not be used) says it didn't take her long to suspect that her new employer was not a charter member of the Better Business Bureau. "The people seemed flaky, very unprofessional," she recalls. "I got the impression they'd hire just about anyone who walked in the door."

She herself landed a job just minutes after walking into the Main Warehouse cluttered office suite. "I told them I was interested in making lots of money," she smiles. "I figured that's what they wanted to hear--and I was right." (She says employees were paid small salaries with the promise of big commissions after a one-week training period.)

Showing up for work the next morning, Jill and another new employee were greeted by a hyperactive young sales manager who bounded into the room babbling about the joys of selling toner (the black powder that's the lifeblood of office photocopiers).

"He came in with this talk about how great--really great--it was to sell toner over the telephone. Then he told us he loved selling toner so much that he hadn't even taken a vacation in two-and-a-half years," Jill laughs. "Right off the bat, I knew something was wrong. Nobody who's on the level gets that jazzed about selling photocopier toner."

The pep talk was followed by a "briefing session"--in reality, a crash course in the finer points of telephone tyranny. Jill learned, for instance, how to sound more vocally imposing on the telephone--a tactic that involved holding the phone right up to her mouth and talking very loudly. There was instruction in the dynamics of telemarketing time-management. ("Time is money, don't ever put your phone down, don't ever hang your phone up, don't ever take your phone out of your hand.") And after scanning a variety of scripts used in different stages of the sales pitch, she was coached in the proper way to authoritatively deliver such immortal dialogue as "Why don't you grab a pen and let me explain what's happening?!"

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