Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Yeah, I got yer 'Softer Side' Right HERE, pal!" - Part IV - Exploitation

Greetings, Fans of the Persistently Ludicrous.

The strategies that "Sears" adopted in the mid-Nineties worked like gangbusters (or Ghostbusters if you're under thirty).  Customers who had grown up trusting the "Sears" name implicitly but had since grown disillusioned with the company's lack of modern appeal and organization embraced these excuses to return and they did so in droves.

The venerable but neglected catalog division became the retail equivalent of Lazarus rising from the dead.  The retail stores learned to maximize it's profits in terms of floor space (constructing a series of "Whole Home" furniture and appliance stores as a result), refurbished their presentation and began to stock popular brand names. 

It could be argued that the revival of the retail half of "Sears" was a foregone conclusion.  What no-one could have foreseen was just how dramatically the catalog division turned around.

As I detailed in a previous entry, Telephone Sales Representatives with the catalog call centers were expected to perform non-commission add-on sales when customers called to place their orders.  New staff, eager to please, often sold in excess of $10.00 of extra sales PER HOUR, effectively paying their own wages in the process.  They were also asked to promote the "Sears Charge Card" as well and were rewarded with a small dividend if they successfully signed a customer up.  It's been alleged that raw profits from the interest generated by "Sears Cards" alone was a major factor in the company's relative stability during the worst days of the recession.

"Sears" began announcing quarterly profits instead of losses again.  In 1994, the Liberal government in Nova Scotia offered an additional $700,000 in grants to "Sears" keep the operation locked in place for the time being.  Staff, bolstered by their own success, began to think of work at the call center as long-term.  This was still before the arrival of competing call centers like "Matrix" and "Convergys" and many of us were heartened somewhat by that old Maritime mantra:

"Don't complain, you're lucky to have a job at all!"

People working at "Sears" part-time, with their incomes supplemented by other negligible gigs, began investing in their futures.  They bought homes, cars, started families and pursued other avenues usually afforded to the average industrious employee.

The winning streak continued.  In time "Sears" stock peaked at $30.00 a share.  Quarter after quarter of record profits were recorded.  In 1998, Paul Walters collected a $2.84 million dollar paycheck for his insight.

For the employees that had so successfully helped to execute Walter's plans, the rewards were considerably more humble.  Very few TSR's that started with the call center eight years prior saw their hours increase beyond twenty-five a week and fewer still saw their rate of pay climb above the $8.00 mark.  The company health plan through Clarica/Sun Life was still impractical for many, often costing monthly premiums in excess of $40.00 for even the most rudimentary coverage.  

These sort of jobs led to media to christian a new segment of the population in the mid-Nineties: "The Working Poor."

Personally, I was financially afloat but little else.  A more immediate concern was nagging at me.  I was becoming increasingly bored taking one identical "Sears" catalog order after another or having bizarre interactions with customers like this one:

ME:  "Sears, David, how can I help you?


ME: "Uh, yes, sir...I can help you with that.  I just need your..."

Suddenly I hear a *SLAM* as the phone receiver crashed down on the cradle.

I sat there stunned for a moment.  This clown had called me, freaking out over what I presumed was a pick-up issue but didn't give me so much as a name, phone number or any piece of identification to bring up his file to help him.  Little wonder no-one did anything the past three times he called!  Did he think we could see him automatically with some sort of magical phone-cam or omniscient database?   

I was beginning to resent people.  Or more accurately I was beginning to resent their misplaced rage over inconsequential stuff.  I would take umbrage at their ignorance.  I was beginning to despise their propensity to haggle over the price of things I had no control over:

This was underscored in the fall of 1995 when I made the mistake of agreeing to participate in a "pilot project".  Just for the record, kiddies, "pilot project" is often code for "crap your employer can't pawn off on smarter people".  But with my Dad screaming "TAKE EVERY SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT YOUR BOSS ASKS YOU TO DO AND YOU'LL BE SURE TO GET AHEAD" in my ear I offered my assistance.  

Well, as it turned out the fly-by-night outfit that held the contract to do residential and commercial carpet cleaning for "Sears" in the United States decided to close their doors overnight.  That left thousands of royally pissed-off Americans in the lurch and without a place to call to vent their Herculean levels of pent-up rage.

Sooooo, the General Manager of "Sears Catalog Atlantic" graciously offered us polite but dim Canadian heifers up for the sacrifice. 

And it was baaaaad.   Really bad.  We knew it was going to be bad when two dodgy characters from Canway/Continental (the local Canadian wing of "Sears Carpet Cleaning") came in to try and co-ordinate the thing.  They made carnival workers look like cast members from "The Apprentice".   

And they were completely disorganized.  Essentially all we did was fill out one complaint sheet after another all day long.  I have no idea what became of the paperwork since it just sat there until the end of the day when "Boris and Natasha" finally decided to pile it all up on a rolling cart and tote it away in the freight elevator.  We had absolutely no power as "Sears" representatives to take action or promise anything to the poor, frustrated bastards that called us. 

We had three possible forms to fill out: one for people calling who were upset but coherent, one form for clients who were spittin' nails and one form for callers who were threatening to "go public" with the media or claimed to know Oprah Winfrey on a personal level.

I'm telling you right now, this is no word of a lie.  You can't make this s#!@ up.

Some of these people were justifiably angry.  For example, I might be calling because I had an appointment Saturday for "Sears Carpet Cleaning" to come out and do my rugs because my house is going on the market Monday morning and I have a whole week's worth of viewings scheduled .  Now it's Sunday night, no-one showed up, and I've called what I think is the U.S. division of "Sears Carpet Cleaning" but no-one can give me the slightest idea as to when my carpets will be cleaned or if I'll get any compensation at all for the delay.

All we could do was apologize incessantly, take threats seriously and reach for form number three when the customer was calling from Chicago, Illinois mere moments away from "Harpo Studios".   

"Excuse me, ma'am, I'm just going to grab my pen and a form here.  Continue berating me with the same sort of creativity you've already exhibited and also feel free to tell me that you personally know Oprah and that Stedman used to be in the Army and he will kill me with his bare hands if he catches up to me."

It was so bad that, months later, the same General Manager that suckered into the debacle in the first place wrote what amounts to a letter of apology:

"Just a short note to thank you for your participation in the 'Sears Carpet Cleaning' insourcing project.  

"Both call volumes and Project duration were badly underestimated and some of the commitments we made to customers, in good faith, were not deliverable by Canway/Continental, and this was disappointing.  What was not disappointing, however, was Sears Associate performance.  Upon short notice and limited training, you and your team displayed your customer service skills, in handling many difficult inquiries as well as your selling skills in completing sales for Canway/Continental.

"Your performance reinforces our strong belief that we have the team that is flexible and capable to handle other insourcing opportunities in the future."

Hmmmmm, threat or promise?  

I soon resolved myself get away from the phones as much as possible, if only for my mental health.  In the Fall of 1997 I was recommended for an instruction program which would allow me to help train new hires once completed.

As soon as I participated in my first training class all of a sudden the clouds parted and the angels began to sing.  I was in heaven.

I'd found my calling.  This was reflected in an "Associate Recognition" comment card from my managers:

"David, the job you did during training was super.  Your knowledge and helpfulness will benefit all.  Thanks so much." 

In 1997 here's what they wrote in the comments section in one of my typically-stellar performance appraisals: (*Toot!  Toot!*)

"Another outstanding effort in '97, David.  Huge increase in 43's (That's Media 43's, or our add-one sales - your humble narrator) from last year and accounts are well above call center average!  David, you've proven to be a great asset to 'Sears' with super customer service skills as well as aiding in the training of new TSA's.  Thanks, David, for a super year."

Despite the head-swelling praise, my reply to this in the "Associate Comments" field clearly exhibits growing frustration with the added duties and very little in the way of compensation to show for it: 

"My part-time hours at 'Sears' are not supplemented by any other income.  I'm not living on student loans, I'm not living at home and I don't have another part-time job.  The money I make here goes to bills, rent and student loan payments.

"After three years at 'Sears', my financial prospects look discouraging.  The cost of living continues to increase and my salary remains relatively fixed.  I would like like to be afforded the same prospects as most people.  I would like to own a car some time in the future, consider living in a better place, possibly travel.

"Right now, however, this doesn't seem possible.  Having said that, I would hope that these goals are achievable here at 'Sears'.  It's still the best place I've ever worked and I love the people I work with.

"I would also like to thank those responsible to suggesting my name for training new TSA's.  This was the single most enjoyable time I've had here at 'Sears'.  I would love to be considered for future assignments and would like to take this opportunity to thank my coaches for their trust.

"Hopefully the results of my recent review will display my commitment to this company as well as show my value as an employee.  I remain hopeful and positive about the future and my prospects here."      

But it was not to be.  Training was over for the time being so I was back on the phones for every shift.

Make the best of it, in July of 1997 I received a slip of paper signed by the call center manager that read "effective June 29'th 1997 your hourly rate will be adjusted from $7.40 to $7.62."

Wow.  Now I could buy that newspaper I always wanted...

Realizing that I couldn't survive financially much longer on my current hours and wages I resigned myself to the same inevitable action that every young, upwardly-mobile company drone was expected to do. 

I would take my first tentative step up the corporate ladder.  I would be one with the "Sears".

I would become a manager. 


FAIL:  Contrary to the title, I don't think this is very funny.  On the contrary, for anyone who's been on the receiving end of customer abuse this will surely chill you to the bone, cause you to tuck into a fetal position and/or result in profuse cold sweats...

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