The wretched life of a telephone pollster

21:58, Jun 15 2012


Of all the strange jobs I’ve had, being a telephone pollster rates as the absolute worst.

To provide some context here: jobs I’ve had have included beekeeping, where you lift immensely heavy hives full of stinging insects which always, always find a way into your protective clothing; solid plastering, where you lift immensely heavy pails of cement and work in an endless storm of carcinogenic dust; and telemarketing, where you don’t have to lift anything, but you do get to watch your dignity and self-respect begin to resemble stray hairs clinging to a plughole in a swirling vortex of despair. All of these were entirely lovely compared to telephone polling.

I was a student at the time, and needed the money. A lot of students worked there. You could recognise them during the day: they were the ones with the dark circles under haunted eyes – to make half-way decent wages you needed to work the graveyard shift doing something like harassing already harassed UK surgeons while they were elbow-deep in diseased lungs.

I probably should have shot through at the first sign of trouble, which was at the job trial. This discovers if you have the one skill necessary to be a telephone pollster: to be able to read out loud.

The staff at the polling company were an eclectic mix of university students and some of the most breathtakingly stupid people I’ve ever had the intriguing experience of meeting. Others were just weird. One girl I met was enthusiastically friendly, if slightly unnerving with it. After we finished a shift at around 10pm one night she asked me if I could walk her home. No worries, I said. We hadn’t walked five feet from the building before she was explaining in detail her life’s sole purpose: marriage, and to have have many, many babies. I didn’t even know her name, and I never will, because I made an excuse and ran away so fast I broke the sound barrier.


As is common in such jobs, the cream of the idiot crop seemed destined for management. One manager was a greybearded fellow with the bitter look of a triple divorcee, who took immense pleasure in making people as miserable as possible – a difficult task, given the already-high levels of misery in the place. We suffered from frequent, system-wide computer crashes and when this happened you weren’t allowed to do anything. You just had to wait (sometimes hours) until the computers came back online, in silence. If you were caught chatting during an outage, a manager would come and bawl at you. One night an outage occurred, and once I’d been sitting silent and still for 15 minutes I decided to read a magazine I had in my bag. After a few minutes of reading, Beard Guy appeared at my shoulder. ‘‘Give me that!’’ he screeched. ‘‘We don’t read here.’’ After another hour of doing literally nothing, I left, forever.

Our busiest times were the single most inconvenient times for our poor clients. We would consistently call during dinner time, the six o’clock news, and important rugby games. It didn’t matter if a Tri Nations game was on: you’d still be calling. We were also encouraged to lie about the time it took to complete surveys, which didn’t help. I’m sure some people had strokes while they screamed at us, they got so angry. At least in telemarketing you had the satisfaction of bonuses and meeting targets: at the polling company you had nothing but the knowledge you were earning minimum wage for being yelled at.

Herein lies the moral behind the story of my crappy job: often, we were conducting political polls that would be front-page news the next day, which politicians and analysts would froth over. We’d see that Labour were trailing National by six points, and know that this information had been eked out of a mixture of company-starved elderly people and bored smart-arses trying to get us to go away. These calls always went like this: ‘‘And how would you rate Helen Clark as preferred prime minister on a scale of 1 to five, with five being highest and one being lowest? One? OK. And how would you rate Winston Peters, with five being highest and one being lowest? One? OK. And how would you rate John Key, with five being highest and one being lowest? One? OK.’’

So next time you see a news item trumpeting some political party or person as the next big thing, know this: that news came from a bunch of bored students and baby-thirsty lunatics whose clients only ever wanted them to go away so they could watch the news.

Waikato Times