“If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?”
I’m sorry, what? What kind of a question is that? Until this, the interview had been normal. Standard questions answered with feigned confidence, an overplaying of my importance in previous jobs and not knowing who to look at or what to do with my hands. Slightly excruciating and a bit shit. What you’d expect, it’s a job interview. They are not meant to be fun. I am firmly against trying to make things that are not, and never will be fun, fun. I’d been caught off guard.
“Um, a penguin.”
Shit. Is a penguin even an animal? Is a bird an animal or just a bird? Is a fish an animal? My mind was racing.
“Why?” Jasmin, the interviewer and business owner asked. She was a well-dressed Indian lady not much older than me.
“Um, I like them I suppose. Everyone likes penguins, don’t they?”
What the hell was I talking about? I’d bought a new tie for this and now I was making sweeping generalisations about the popularity of penguins.
“Okay, but why would you be a penguin?”
Make this stop.
“Well, they always seem to be having a good time, don’t they? And they are cute.”
Did that sound like I was calling myself cute? Why hadn’t I composed myself, said “Lion” then spouted some bullshit about strength and leadership? Damn.
“Okay, thanks, Andy. We’ll be in touch.”
I was stunned when, a few days later, Jasmin called me back and I was offered a job with Jazz Solutions. The other candidates must have been weak. Or non-existent. I accepted. The job was in recruitment. If you can’t beat them, join them. It’s always “in” recruitment.
Jazz solutions was a tiny company with my only colleagues being the entrepreneurial Jasmin and a muscular bloke from Bradford called Wesley. Is a tiny company a start-up? Start-up is an irritating term, isn’t it? I was sceptical from the offset but down at heel and in need of money. No income is unfortunately not sustainable.
Training for the role consisted of three days spent wearing headphones and watching motivational videos where a middle-aged American woman in a trouser suit shouted at a crowd of disproportionately overweight people. The gist was that they could be anything they wanted to if they put their minds to it. At one point, she started talking about how great her husband was in bed, which didn’t seem relevant at all.
After the training, I still had no idea what my job entailed. I’d also never used an Apple Mac before and had to do that awful thing where you ask a question you should know the answer to, then immediately afterwards have another question that you should definitely know the answer to. When this happened — three times — I sat staring at my screen for ten to fifteen minutes in hope that my first question had been forgotten, plucking up the courage to ask something else, while Jasmin emitted silent exasperation. This was long enough for a tight knot to form in my stomach and beads of sweat to start forming on my temples.
When my duties became apparent, I longed for the training days of headphones and the loud American woman. Jasmin gave me a script which confirmed that this was a cold calling gig. Ring people up that you don’t know, ask them if they want any number of the dreadful commission-only sales positions, then try to book them in for a superfluous telephone interview. On the script, there was some nonsense about building rapport with the strangers you were badgering using the acronym, FORM. The idea was to ask people questions about their family, occupation and recreational preferences before delivering your message (“do you want a shit job?”) I was unconvinced by the method. Does a conversation about any of these topics make a commission-only door-to-door sales role seem more attractive? If a man I didn’t know rang me and asked me about my family, I would think, who the hell is this guy? hang up and consider changing the locks on my doors.
I gingerly made my first call and a man from Eastbourne picked up. Through gritted teeth, I asked some introductory questions. He was oddly receptive and after we’d discussed his golf handicap for a few minutes I bit the bullet and asked if he was interested in selling massage equipment on a commission-only basis. To my astonishment, he said yes and I booked him in for a telephone interview. That was easy, I thought. Maybe there is something in the FORM method after all? I was pleased but unnerved. Something about saying the average earnings are £35k but top reps are getting £100k didn’t sit well. It seemed a tad unrealistic. How many vibrating neck supports would you have to sell?
With that said, I cannot deny the buzz of adding the man from Eastbourne to the interview spreadsheet. I got a high-five from both Jasmin and Wesley and started thinking about the possible £40 commission I’d get if he landed the job. Awesome. All I have to do is loosen my morals ever so slightly and I could become rich! Had I found my calling in cold calling?
After two weeks, I realised that no, I had not. Although the man from Eastbourne had passed his telephone interview with flying colours and I’d got my commission, it had been a false dawn. Most people were less enthusiastic about working in bad jobs and many hung up on me, even after I had established that they had two children and liked tennis. This was difficult. Jasmin and Wesley seemed to have a constant stream of people booked in for telephone interviews. How were they doing it?
Over the first few months I managed to just about scrape my targets, but I wasn’t enjoying myself. Cold calling a hundred people a day isn’t fun. Who knew? My enthusiasm was waning.
“Andy, a word,” Jasmin asked one afternoon without looking up from her screen. I’d been pretending to work while mindlessly scrolling up and down the master spreadsheet in a bid to finally teach myself where M, S and T came in the alphabet without having to go through it in my head from the start. I’d also been clicking refresh on my phone to check the scores in a Finnish football game as I’d wagered £20 on HJK Helsinki to beat FC Haka. They were losing 1–0.
At hearing my name, I panicked before attempting to turn my phone off, in the process hitting the lever on my chair with my elbow, sinking me to the chair’s lowest level.
“Come over here,” Jasmin said.
Adjusting the chair’s height in conjunction with wheeling it over proved impossible and I found myself at Jasmin’s desk, sunk in the low chair with my long legs unsure where to sprawl.
“I need you to explain something,” she said, typing furiously.
“What’s the problem?” I asked. It could have been any number of things.
“How did Mr Akhbal pass his telephone interview last week?”
“He seemed like a good candidate,” I said.
I had no idea who Mr Akhbal was.
“Andy, you have embarrassed me.”
“For starters, Mr Akhbal can’t drive and doesn’t own a car.”
This was a prerequisite for the job.
“And he is currently under house arrest for a serious assault case, which was in the papers a few months ago.”
“Yes. Did you not ask him any of the safeguarding questions?”
“I’m sure I did. I always do.” I said, knowing that I rarely do. My voice was starting to sound like that horrible version of yourself that you hear back on recordings and think, I can’t sound like that?
“I think you need to go out and meet some clients. If you can put a face to names, it will help your efficiency.”
I was surprised by the outcome. Going to client meetings was regarded as a treat. Why was I getting rewarded for messing up? It dawned on me that this was comparable to the time that Edmund, the naughtiest kid in my school was given the lead role in Bugsy Malone. Give them responsibility with which they will thrive. I agreed to go to the meetings.
The first was with a man who sold AA breakdown cover outside a supermarket in Bradford. He was wearing a high visibility jacket.
“Hi, nice to meet you,” I said. “Am I okay to ask you a few questions?”
“Well, what kind of people do you think this job would appeal to? What should we be looking for?”
“I don’t know.”
“What are some perks of the job that I can tell candidates about?”
“There aren’t any.”
“I see. Can I stand with you and watch how it’s done?”
“If you must.”
I stood next to him.
I stood behind him.
I couldn’t drive so Jasmin had arranged to pick me up three hours later. In this time, the man didn’t get anybody to sign up for breakdown cover. It was a long three hours.
My second meeting was with a company that sold vacuum cleaners. I was sent on the road for this, my mentor a chain smoker sporting a sinister neck tattoo. He had recently left the army. He was, at least, more responsive to my questionnaire and seemed to like me although I got the impression that if I didn’t agree with his political views, many of which were questionable, that could soon change. Our first appointment was at an elderly lady’s house near Wakefield. As soon as we set foot in her house I knew something was awry. She’d been expecting someone to come and fix her vacuum cleaner, not tell her it was irreparable before flying into the hard sell. I was stood in her living room, clenching my teeth as the man unconvincingly tried to show her that the latest model could clean ceilings. I remember thinking; how have I ended up here? What decisions have I made in my life that have led to this?
As well as making me question where my life was going, the client meetings didn’t improve my figures either. As time went on, it became embarrassing how far behind my colleagues I was. My failings were broadcast to the rest of the team (Wesley) in lurid green marker on a large whiteboard which was dissected every Monday at 8 am. In a pseudo-cheery, American-style meeting, we were asked about our strengths and weaknesses then asked to set ourselves targets for the week ahead. The idea was to motivate the team and rally us, although I found it had the opposite effect, leaving my soul destroyed before breakfast.
“So Andy, really poor last week. How do you plan to improve?”
Maybe by not witnessing old ladies being fleeced in their living rooms?
“I suppose I’ll make more calls? Be a bit more enthusiastic?”
“Yes! Let’s do this, Andy!”
“Yes, let’s,” I replied.
“Oh, and I’ll be listening in to all your calls this afternoon.”
There are few things more degrading. I was reprimanded for not employing the FORM technique on a woman who couldn’t speak because she was busy. What was I supposed to do?
“Sorry, I’m at the doctors. Can you call back in half an hour?”
“Tell me about your hobbies.”
Jasmin gave me some pointers and I deduced that the route to success was: have few qualms about lying, refer to people as “yourself” instead of “you” and incorporate as many sporting analogies as possible into conversation — let’s kick off, let’s touch base, you’re in pole position, by the end of play, the ball’s in your court, a ball park figure, move the goalposts.
Two or three times a week, a man who ran a start-up in our block would strut into our office. He was my age if not younger with slicked-back hair. He wore an expensive trench coat regardless of the weather. It seemed that the purpose of his visits was to hug Jasmin then talk about how many hours he’d worked that week. It tended to be a lot of hours. I didn’t warm to him. The kind of guy who absolutely loves Movember yet told people he thought the ice bucket challenge was a waste of water.
After six months, I found myself struggling to sleep and thought enough was probably enough. I started looking for new jobs on the internet, which is arguably less fun than selling breakdown cover in a supermarket. This led to daily calls from recruitment consultants, many of who were trying to FORM me. The method must have been in fashion. My entire life had become job sites and cold calls. How had this happened? I was nearly thirty. I sought advice from Louise who assured me, “it will pick up, just stick with it.” There was a hidden message here though. No, I will not be the breadwinner whilst you sit at home playing FIFA and trying to write a book.
The inevitable happened when Jasmin invited me for a “chat” in the meeting room. I hate organised chats. I was asked via e-mail which was ominous as only she and I were in the office at the time, sitting four metres from one another. Why not chat there? I followed her to the room in silence.
“So, Andy, what do you think is the best step going forward?”
I considered my response. What should I say? If I had put a positive spin it and said things like, “Bad month. Numbers game. Enthusiastic. I’ll kick on!” I might have kept my job.
I couldn’t do it.
“It’s not for me, is it?”
“I don’t think so.”
I walked out feeling both relieved and depressed, a rare emotional cocktail. When I was out on the street I realised that I’d left my cycling gloves in the office but didn’t go back to get them. Instead, I went to the bookies and lost some money then sat in Leeds City Square looking at the pigeons wandering around, bobbing their heads. At least I’m not a pigeon, I thought, trying to cheer myself up. It must be pretty shit being a pigeon.
And as for penguins, I don’t think we have so much in common after all.
The Thing Is will be out later this year, published by Proverse. Please follow my Facebook page for book updates and blogs etc.