Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Some thoughts on work and ‘phone people’

My new job – I’ve been there two weeks now – is a little different than ones I have had in the past. Let me start by saying that I’ve been viewing my class prejudices and am not sure if I should put them down, but I guess blogs are for saying things you might not say to people face to face.
At large companies I usually work with a team of programmers. Originally programmers were self taught, or learned on the job. The trend over the past many years has been towards programmers that have at least a BS in computer science, if not more. The team on this job is ten – but the newest guy quit yesterday so it’s now nine. We sat in our progress meeting on Monday and I looked around the room and all I saw was overweight middle class white guys. OK, maybe some were thin, but not many. At some jobs there were female programmers, but not many. I can remember only one minority programmer over the years. Most were just that, middle age overweight white guys. We do just sit around all day. My wife laughs at the programmer in the first Jurrasic Park, played by
Wayne Knight who also played Seinfeld's Newman. His computer area is surrounded by piles of junk, he survives on candy bars and coke, and works alone. Probably never had a girlfriend. Well, unfortunately, he probably is a typical programmer. Maybe a little louder than most, but I have worked with a few just like him.
The main product of the company I am working for now is a sales catalog, kind of like a small Sears book. Their main customers are people with poor credit. The sales pitch (which I haven’t heard yet) is that they get a credit card with a $8,500 limit, but it can only be used for stuff from the catalog. They have to pay $200 to become a buying ‘member’, and there is also $100 a year ‘dues’. Which means the company gets $300 right up front. (OK, so it’s only $199.99 and $99.99, what’s two cents?) Then when they buy anything they pay a 30% deposit plus shipping and handling. Now, I see the wholesale price of things, and that 30% pays the supplier up front. And the shipping is inflated, so there is some profit there. Anything collected after that is profit. I sat in on some orders, and out of four calls I heard three were surprised at the down payment angle, and either just hung up or became very obnoxious (girl says ‘let’s be pleasant to each other now’ for about five minutes of one sided conversation.) Only one ordered something. $600 in furniture, $200 in shipping, it was $400 down and $400 on the ‘credit card’, 4 to 6 week delivery. And all of the payments are sucked out of bank accounts through electronic transfer every night. If she just went to a cheap local furniture store she probably would have paid $350 and taken the stuff home clear.
The company has 500 people on phones, but I only counted 6 taking orders. The rest seem to be keeping people from canceling their membership, or talking nice to calm them down.
The main customers seem to be people who are either down on their luck, or never had any luck to begin with. Here in Vegas they probably work at the casinos cleaning up at night, or in the hotels making beds. (My prejudices coming through). Makes me sorry that it seems they are being taken. At least to me it looks like I work for a company that preys on the condition and lack of understanding of people that can’t afford it. Like those ‘money tree’ places that offer payday loans at outrageous interest rates.
Looking at the people on the phone, again minimum wage people that probably have a hard time getting a job. Most of them seem to be the type that might also be customers. (Yes, again). Turnover is high, with 25 to 30 new hires every day. That makes about 500 a month, and with 500 people on the phone it means the average employee only works a month (did I figure that out right?). The order taker I listened to has been there for three years, so she really throws off the curve, probably making the average stay at under two weeks. I know I wouldn’t last on those phones.
I asked about a web site to sell stuff, but was told that most of the customers are lucky to have phones and bank accounts, much less computers.
On to what I’ve been noticing at work. We are on the east side of town. Looking out the windows across Sahara most of the buildings have a lot of graffiti on them. A sign to me usually of economic level (yes, again). But usually minimum wage workers, at least those not working on summer break but those who have had that size job for a number of years, usually seem to communicate differently than the programmers I have worked with. Hard to explain, but do you understand?
Many of the phone workers have cell phones, and they usually walk outside to make calls. Most of the calls I overhear seem to deal with ‘I’ll have the check to you soon’ or ‘no, don’t turn it off, I’ll come by with a payment’ or ‘you can’t lock me out without notice’ or something similar.
There is a small parking garage behind the office – with spaces for maybe 50 cars. A few weeks ago they started requiring parking permits (those little white tags you hang from your rear view mirror) and only the office workers, not the phone crew, got them (yes, the programmers got them). In Las Vegas it’s a big perk to be able to park in the shade. There are large lots behind the building, and small lots belonging to the businesses to either side. When I started work I was given a map of where to park, and told to stay out of the side lots. Today an announcement came over the page about cars being towed next door, and there seemed to be a stampede of people to get out and save their cars. I looked out and saw one woman dive in her car as the tow driver was hooking it up, and everyone in the parking garage above cheered.
When I drive out in the evening it’s usually a challenge. The garage lets out on the small side street, only half a block from six lane East Sahara. Thursday it took me ten minutes to go that half block. People were double parked waiting for someone getting off, which totally blocked the narrow street. Others were trying to turn in, one woman in a big SUV talking on the phone was blocking two lanes on Sahara trying to turn from the middle lane into the side street (some intelligence there). Others just pulled over on Sahara blocking the side street instead of pulling ahead to a curb. And the music was loud, and the gestures were obvious. And the comments were also loud. On Friday a guy had his car pulled over off Sahara blocking the side street, laying a great kiss on his girlfriend. We were blowing horns, and he kept kissing, raising one hand (well, one finger) in salute to us as he kept the car there. He finished after five minutes, and they just pulled away finally freeing the rest of us.
These seem to be the same people that leave their shopping cart in the supermarket parked in the center of an aisle while they look at cans, blocking anyone else from walking by, then get mad if you push their cart aside. I’d call them Walmart shoppers, not Robbinson-May. Sorry if you shop at WalMart, we go once in a while too. (put other examples here, but maybe I have enough already)
It just seems that the ‘phone workers’ have an attitude where they care about themselves more than others. Or they don’t even think about others when they do things. You know, just throw that fast food bag out the car window, as long as it’s not in my car. I can park here, it’s near the door, so what if it’s blocking the side road, I’m not driving on that road right now. I’m in a hurry, just let me through to that register, I’m not waiting in line. That kind of attitude. Kind of like ‘let’s invade that country and save those people, who cares if they don’t want us to, it’s for their own good’ (and besides we need the oil and my old company could use the contracts).
I wonder if it’s due to upbringing or lack of opportunity or not having many goals (yes Ann, goals) or lack of ambition. It just seems to be reflected in the ‘me’ attitude as I call it.
Back to the topic, working around the ‘phone workers’ is a lot different than working around the computer people. We talk about taking classes on the new stuff, and what language to learn next, and what companies are hiring after this project is done. Again, attitude. Is it educational level, or your folks telling you that you could, or the examples of relatives?
I just see too many of the ‘phone people’ around every day. Those idiots who drive through red lights, and do 85 miles an hour down the side streets, and run over little kids in crosswalks and shoot other drivers that make gestures at them. But drivers are for another day’s topic. I run into them at the supermarket, blocking the aisles, taking a full cart into the 15 item express lane, cashing an out of state payroll check while the line behind them waits. Should I go on?
Well, lots of ranting and not much substance. I’ll probably read this tomorrow and wonder what I was talking about, and what was the point. Guess there isn’t one. But thanks for listening, no scenes of Las Vegas today, no pretty pictures.
But just for hanging on for so long,

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