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A Merchant of Change
A wide shot of a lively call center. Not as rowdy as a Wall Street trading floor. No yelling or running around. Less urgency. Most people are in seats, eyeballs locked onto screens and gesturing with their hands.
An over the shoulder first person shot: Our character is walking from the parking lot into the building. Sunny morning in late May. Birds chirping. Cars are pouring into the lot. A mix of college shitboxes, newer entry level sedans, and a few fancy German cars.
Our man passes someone outside in the smoker’s nook having a quick cigarette at 8am. They exchange nods. He swipes his badge at the reader, ducks through a single glass door and heads up two flights of stairs.
There’s a proper main entrance and lobby out front but it’s never used by these folks. The camera follows our character onto the main floor of the call center.
General setting notes:
Leafy suburb an hour southwest of Boston. The company is a giant corporation that built a sprawling, 10 building campus here. The buildings are huge glass boxes that look like ice cubes.
Our scene is filled with mostly early to mid 20s kids who went to quality universities. A couple of 30 and 40 year old folks doing a career restart. Management is a bit older. Eighty percent men.
This floor is a sprawling footprint of beige cubicles as far as the eye can see in all directions. There are private offices and a couple of conference rooms around the perimeter. There are ugly columns scattered throughout the floor that hold the roof up. Drop ceiling tiles to hide the IT equipment. The perimeter offices have maple colored wooden doors with name tags and skinny glass windows on either side of the door. Gray corporate carpet everywhere. The cubicle walls are neck high. If you and your neighbor stand up, you can see only each other's heads.
There’s a break “room” (open area really, near the stairs) of 2-3 round tables with chairs and a Keurig. There’s typically an open donut box next to the coffee machine. The donuts are getting crusty from exposure to recirculated corporate air. No one ever sits at any of these tables. There are no breaks and no time to savor a dusty donut.
Voices. The nearby ones are loud and you can hear every scripted word from this side of the chat. The further away voices hit your ear as a low mumble. You can pick up bits and pieces of well rehearsed value propositions and objections being handled. A rare sound would be a ringing phone. 99.9% of phone calls are outbound from this office.
More scene setting:
People walk purposefully up and down the aisles. Places to go, people to see. Plastic employee ID badges dangle from belt loops on retractable strings. In 2006 these are worn proudly. Dudes are spinning footballs in the air and catching them. Others hold golf putters in their hands testing out different grips.
Most of the people that work here carry themselves with a swagger. It’s a motivated bunch of people. This is a training center for future high powered business people. The type of people who are motivated by a public scoreboard that ranks them among their peers.
The more senior kids wear wireless headsets and wander freely while chatting. The brand new kids with leftover college acne use headsets with wires. They are tied to their desks like dogs on a short run line. You have to earn those cordless headsets.
Men are dressed in dry cleaned button down dress shirts. Safe colors. Pale yellow, two or three shades of blue, and standard white. Khaki colored slacks from Mens Wearhouse or Joseph a Bank. Once a month someone will take a big risk and wear lavender or some kind of checked pattern.
**I can remember going to Men’s Wearhouse (my mom might have been there) for the aspiring business person starter kit. 4 Shirts, 4 ties, 4 slacks, 2 belts (one to match each pair of shoes), a 6 pack of dress socks, and the two pairs of shoes. One black, one brown. 89 dollar shoes. Square toe box on the brown pair. Probably Bostonians.**
The women are dressed in business casual. Earth tones and navy blues. No cleavage, no skin. Longer skirts and sweaters or slacks and blazers.
Most of the guys are clean shaven and groomed. The bosses are telling us to dress for the job you want. Yuck.
There’s a slow zoom to one cube. It’s one of the 22 year olds (Terry). He’s standing up with his wireless headset on. He’s looking at the screen of a black Dell computer with a separate monitor (laptops were rare in 2006). He’s got 2 day stubble. His clothes fit awkwardly. He’s stocky and in decent shape. He’s been here 11 grinding months.
Terry’s character detail:
He feels lost. He doesn’t know how he ended up here. Everyday on the one hour drive to work, his anxiety ramps up. It starts out mild at home and ramps up the closer he gets to the office park. On the drive home, it unclenches slowly but never fully goes away.
He can feel himself falling behind. His peers are thrilled about the opportunities for promotion, but not Terry. He shows up every day and if there were clocks to punch, he’d punch in at 8:30 am and out at 4:58 pm. There’s no extra effort in his work day. He’s doing the bare minimum to keep a job.
**A note about the 4:58pm departures. Seems like a reasonable time to head for home, no? In this place, as you pull your jacket on at 4:58pm, some nearby dickhead will loudly call out, “Hey Terry, you got tickets for the matinee?” **
Down the aisle comes Bill McCutcheon (Billy Cutch), a sales leader who is a VP, responsible for a couple hundred people. He’s got a huge grin on his face. The grin of a life long “wise prick”. An instigator. Someone who loves this place and the craft of sales. He’s a physically average guy with lots of sales swagger. He’s dressed like every other man in the office today. He’s got a spiky gelled hairdo and glasses.
[he cups one hand like half a megaphone and starts calling out from 3 cubes away and finishes as he lands at Terry’s cube. ]
What are you doing, man? (he snort laughs one time)
Hey Billy. You know, just plugging away.
[Terry musters up some fake positivity]
[he peeks at Terry’s monitor. He accidentally left up the local fishing and boating report from a site called “The Hull Truth”]
Eh, taking a quick five, I guess.
[Nervous laugh. shoulder shrugs]
Ya? How’s everything going?
[things are bad]
Let’s catch up in 5 minutes in my office.
[Billy Cutch resumes his stroll through the aisles, greeting every third or fourth person with their nickname drawn out (BurnsieeeEEEEEE, MuurphDog, Juiiiiiice). People are genuinely happy to see him]
[Bit Nervous. Goes for a sip of water at the bubbler, takes the long way around the perimeter with hands in pockets, looking at the tops of his shoes. Arrives at Bill’s office.]
Billy’s not back yet, but his door is open.
All of the senior leaders’ offices have the same base level furnishing and layout. A large, L shaped, dark wood colored desk with storage cabinets. An expensive looking leather chair on wheels.
On the opposite side of the desk are two hard black chairs (no wheels) set up for guests. The monitor is set up on a pivoting arm. They can easily show you what they are working on in a way that says “you know what I know. I don’t have any secret info. Same team here”.
Billy’s decorated his space with sports stuff and cute pictures of his young kids. In one shot they are standing in front of a 2800 square foot colonial on a cul de sac. He has 25 small glass trophies that represent various sales awards. He’s got a custom engraved wood sign with one of his favorite sales phrases.
Some extra context:
Billy is a solid, kind man and cares about the people who work for him. Terry and Bill have a great relationship away from the office. They play men’s league hockey together on Sunday nights. During Terry’s interview, Billy quickly shifted gears to talk hockey. They’ve had cold parking lot beers together and seen each other nude in the locker room shower.
[Billy returns to his office and paws Terry on the upper back as he passes him on the way around to his own chair. The door stays open initially.]
So what’s going on man?
Oh you know. Not much. Same old. Things are good.
[Terry is nervous. His sentences are clipped off. Short answers. Trying to say the right thing.]
Come on, man. What’s up?
[Some kind of noise but mostly a physical response. Facial expression paired with a shoulder shrug. He’s uneasy.]
Dude. I was walking by, you weren’t on the phone and it looked like you were in some kinda chat room. It’s 10am, prime calling hours. [as Billy is speaking, he starts clacking away on his keyboard and mouse for a minute.]
You’re right. Just a slow part of the day, I guess.
What about you? You never watch any B’s highlights or check box scores on the clock?
[tone is “light ball busting”]
[answer is delayed for a couple of beats as he stops typing and something loads on his screen].
Of course I check the scores, but I usually do it from my blackberry while having a seat in the men’s room.
[he turns his monitor arm a few degrees so that they both can see what’s on the screen]
[silent. Scanning the screen. It shows this week’s call report]
Slow part of the day? Lookit this.
It’s Wednesday and you’ve made 11 dials this week. You're supposed to make 80 a day.
[Feels a tightening on the left side of his neck. Starts working on it with a kneading massaging motion.]
[kind of a grunt. Unsure of what to say but needing to make a sound to try and move the conversation along]
Let’s take a look at last week’s numbers.
[more clacking and mousing.]
You made 43 dials last week on a 400 dial goal. Dude. Shoot me straight. What’s up?
I guess I’m struggling a bit.
That’s fine. Are you asking for help and working to get better?
[lets out a surprised laugh that comes from his nose.]
[he was not expecting straight honesty]
I’m not asking for help or working to get better.
[without saying anything, he pops up from his desk and walks over to the door. Takes a quick look outside before gently shutting it. He’s back in his seat]
Are you happy here?
[another laugh, this one louder. surprised.]
You’re not happy here?
Billy, are you serious? Are people happy here?
I think a lot of people out there are. I love this place.
I know you do Billy.
Don’t you enjoy the process of coming in here everyday and working with prospects and customers to help them solve business challenges by implementing our solutions?
Billy, I hate coming in here everyday.
[he’s on his heels from the honesty]
Ha! Hang on a second.
[Billy is up again. This time he leaves the office.]
[to himself: where the fuck is he going?]
[returns 15 seconds later. This time, he’s followed closely by Ted Franklin. Ted is Billy’s boss and runs the entire operation. Responsible for five or six hundred people. A taller guy with some weird nervous ticks. Says “gang” a lot when he addresses a group. Struggles with eye contact, sort of skims the top of your head with his vision when he speaks to you]
Ter, you know Ted, right?
Yep. Hey Ted.
[they shake hands]
[says nothing. Grabs the chair next to Terry and crosses his legs. Settles in to listen. Seems to know he’s a spectator in this one.]
Terry. Tell Ted what you just told me.
are you happy here?
No. I hate it here.
[loud single laugh with a knee slap. Looks at Billy. They are both smiling. Like they can’t believe what this kid is saying]
Dude, why do you come in here everyday?
So I can pay my student loans and eventually move out of my parents house. I come here to collect a paycheck. I need cash.
[in a serious tone]
Jesus man. That’s not the right reason to come here.
[speaking for himself and Ted]
Dude, we come here everyday because we love this place. This place has given me a great living, it provides for my family, and I love working with our customers and prospects. I get real satisfaction from positioning our products to drive value in their organizations.
Do you feel any of that?
Billy. Right now, everyday is the worst day of my life. Each day is a little worse than the last. When I leave my house in the morning, I feel ok, but as I get closer and closer to this building, I feel like I want to die.
After I park, I walk a lap around the parking lot to convince myself that it’s worth coming inside again. I hate making cold calls. I can’t think of a single thing that I like about this job.
[looks to Ted. They are both smirking and giggling. They seem to be enjoying this]
[Smiling, but still no words. He said nothing (except for a couple laughs) during this meeting. Billy must have popped his head into Ted’s office and said “you gotta hear this”]
Do you want us to find another spot for you here? Marketing? The channel team?
[more laughter. He’s amused.]
Ok, man. Why don’t you go back to your desk and type up your two weeks notice and leave it on my desk.
Any idea on what you do want to do?
I want to open a sub shop. I’d offer only three kinds of sandwiches with salty homemade chips made to order. Super small menu, but these three sandwiches will be the fuckin best you can get. I’d partner with an artisan baker who makes bread that blows your socks off.
That’s great. You sound fired up about it. Ted and I will be your first customers.
I guess that’s all for now.
[stands up. Ted stands up also. Ted and Terry have a quick handshake before Ted ducks out. Billy and Terry shake hands with a half hug. Both grinning widely.]
[Terry leaves Billy’s office and as soon as he’s out of ear shot, he exhales what feels like 10,000 PSIs. He feels cool relief wash all over his body. He walks back to his desk and grabs a seat. He pulls up a search engine and punches in “how to write a two week notice”.
Terry lasts until 4:58 and heads outside to the parking lot. He feels 800 pounds lighter. His shoulders drop away from his ears and the sense of dread that he carries around starts to thin out.
He’s got no real plan but gets a little taste of what it feels like to listen to himself. He spends the next few days going into the office before they graciously cut him loose before the two weeks is up.
He’ll spend an additional week leaving his parents’ house in the morning pretending to go to the office. He was terrified to tell them that he quit. You aren’t allowed to quit things where he comes from. ]
Thanks for reading my stuff. I’d love to add you to the list.