I Was a Teenage Telemarketer

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Years ago in Pittsburgh, I secured an after-school job begging unemployed steelworkers to contribute to the Danny Thomas St. Jude's Hospital for Leukemia-Stricken Children. Of course, it wasn't called begging; it was telemarketing. I was one of the best employees that firm ever had: I lasted three weeks. We worked for commission, and there was an unpaid training period during which I was required to memorize a series of conditional scripts.

There was an answer to every possible objection. Victim: "I'm sorry, I've lost my job." Caller: "I empathize, Mister Kowalski. Just imagine how John Smith felt. He not only lost his job, his little son Tommy has leukemia. " Victim: "I have to hang up, my pants are on fire." Caller: "I understand, Mister Bukowski, and since you're experiencing physical distress, I'm sure you can sympathize with these sick children."

Years later, as I began to design websites, I saw how the scripted replies of my failed telemarketing career applied to my new line of work. For web architects, like telemarketers, anticipate every possible user reaction. What if the user clicks here? Or there? What if the user gets confused? The newish science of information architecture has deep roots in old sales methods. Among my fellow telemarketers was an aged gent I'll call Old Joe. I wondered what sin he could have committed to end his days in a boiler room. Oddly enough, Old Joe was happy, chipper and he raked in the commissions. What was his secret? Unlike me, Old Joe believed in what he was doing, and instead of relying on canned responses, he engaged his listeners in genuine conversations. Most of these chats paid off. As the callees recradled their phones, I have no doubt that many not only felt good about helping sick children, they also believed they had made a friend in Old Joe.

Like the best marketing efforts, the best websites are conversations. I'm sure that Old Joe is in telemarketing heaven now, and it's really too bad. He would have made a hell of a web designer.

Jeffrey Zeldman (zeldman.com) is the creative director of A List Apart (alistapart.com) and the author of Taking Your Talent to the Web, to be published next month by New Riders.

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