Soulless Market Research

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:04

    As New Year's 1996 approached I worked as a market researcher for Quantum Research in Boulder, CO. I wore a headset, and called dozens of people a day. I didn't telemarket, I simply interviewed. But it was so invasive. Of course we called as many people as possible during dinner. Old people liked to talk to us, which is kind of sad. Sometimes I'd get really cute-sounding girls on the phone and I'd flirt with them, and entertain ideas of taking this a step further.

    I was undaunted by the fact that if I was caught asking for a phone number I could get fired, and I wasn't put off by the fact that these girls usually lived thousands of miles away, in places like Fort Bragg, NC. Okay, maybe I was a little daunted since I never actually did it. But I thought about it.

    Our largest client was the "Higginbotham" group. They commissioned the longest, most un-politic, rudest goddamn survey in the world. But they were Quantum's bread 'n' butter client, so we spent half our time on them.

    I could see why this information was so valuable. By the time it was done I knew everything you could learn about a person in 20-30 minutes?yes, sometimes the surveys took half an hour, and, still, only one person, ever, hung up on me. He was an old, cranky man. Halfway through he said I'd lied to him at the start of the survey; that it would only take 15 minutes, tops. And he was absolutely correct. I always lied at the start of the survey. I said it was a "brief" survey and that we would just like to ask a few questions about their shopping habits.

    Boy, did we ever. We asked where they shopped, how often they shopped, what they bought, how big their families were, whether they were divorced. Did they shop at Family Dollar or Caldor?

    Our surveys were to reflect the fabled "average American," so we mostly talked to middle-income-to-poor people. And I would bullshit them endlessly. If they were friendly I became just folks. If they reminisced fondly about what they bought at Family Dollar?I could never get over that place for some reason?I laughed a little, knowingly. If people got frustrated with how long the survey was I would pacify them, saying that "depending on your answers" the survey would only take another five to 10 minutes. Supervisors told me to always say that, no matter how much time was left.

    The coup de grace, however, came at the end when I asked them how much money they made. A lot of people didn't like this at all. They'd balk, justifiably, and ask me what I needed that information for. I'd say for a complete survey this has to be in there.

    Sometimes they'd say they didn't want to tell me. And then I would lie to them some more, and say the whole survey?by this point usually 20-25 minutes' worth?would be invalidated if they didn't answer this one easy question. This was put-up-or-shut-up time.

    Sometimes they sounded betrayed, because here was old, friendly, Dave?the guy who chuckled appreciatively about their purchase of Huggies at Big Green?getting down to what it was all about. Time to put out. And most of the time they did. They'd tell me. I had a hard time understanding it at first, but later it made sense. Most Americans, and likely most people, find it hard to let people down, especially if there is a relationship at stake. Even if the relationship is as flimsy and contrived as the one between surveyors and surveyed.

    And, perversely, this relationship dynamic is actually strengthened by the fact that the two people on the phone are strangers. You can let friends down, or tell them to get lost, if you really feel like it. But if someone is warming up to you over the phone you want to put your best face forward?as you do for all new friends?even though you will never talk to him again.

    I also can't underestimate the power of conviction. I needed them to answer?my (shitty) job was at stake. I would pressure them, and, mostly, they would relent.

    There were some other unappetizing things about that job. The most unappetizing, literally, was that I ate lunch across the street at 7-Eleven, every day. My typical meal was nachos, smothered in chili, jalapenos, onions and squirt-cheese. I justified it as healthy because of the cheese. The American Dairy Council had trained me well.

    I was so poor I used to pay for my $2.50 meal with a check, and write $12.50 on it so the hippie/skate-rat 7-Eleven guy would give me the $10 cash change. My friend Adam chastised me for using 7-Eleven as a bank.

    Another unappetizing thing about the job was that I was ordered to spray the screen and headset with antibacterial stuff before I sat down each time because there were virulent strains of the flu going around.

    But the worst day of my job came not during a typically endless "Higginbotham" survey, but during a short, easy one. I called to let people know of a recall on baby car seats because of a defective buckle. This was a good survey because it was quick, just four questions. Did you have this seat? Did you know there was a recall? That type of thing.

    A woman answered, and I asked her if she had the seat. She said she didn't but the couple who lived there?she was housesitting, I imagine?did. I asked if she was aware of the recall. And she told me the couple had gotten into a bad car accident, with their baby in that seat, and it had died.

    "Oh my God," I said. "I'm so sorry."

    "But it wasn't the fault of the seat!" she said, to make me feel less awful. "The seat worked fine! Really."

    I forget the seat brand now, but the woman felt so bad?for making me, a stranger, feel bad?that she reassured me the seat was quite wonderful and the couple would buy it again, given the chance. They told her so.

    Now I know that if I'm that couple I am never going anywhere near that particular brand of seat again, no matter how well it allegedly worked on the horrible day. Especially now that there is a recall. Because you can't recall a dead baby.

    And the woman had to know this, too. She was a good enough friend to answer their phone when they were away, after all. And in an interesting turn of events I was now the one being lied to, by her, about the quality of the seat?but wonderfully, beautifully.

    I told her, again, I was so sorry. She sounded heartbroken, she must have been a good friend of theirs. She told me it's all right, it's all right. The seat did its job.

    I took a few moments to collect myself. I thanked her, and straightened my headset.

    Then we completed the survey.