My worst job was a case study in Internet-boom corporate misogyny and a toxic masculine sales strategy
This is what working for Fiberphonophobia reminds me of Giant shark’s jaws. Image by Jan Hrasko from Pixabay
“This is my letter of resignation.” I pushed it across the desk. My boss glanced at it — there wasn’t much to read, just short impeccable corporatespeak saying, in essence: “I’m fucking off now. Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish.”
I don’t remember what he said. Probably, “Okay.” Maybe there was a relieved look in his eyes. He’d no longer have to worry about baby rattlesnakes in his desk or yellowcake uranium doughnuts.
“I know you haven’t been happy here.” The understatement of the year. He wasn’t solely responsible for my unhappiness. He was more like the cursed caboose in a long miserable train ride through hell.
“I think it’s best for all concerned,” I said. “Now, I can give you two weeks’ notice as standard corporate procedure dictates, but if you want I can leave today.”
Companies don’t usually want severely pissed-off almost-ex-employees hanging around. Not only aren’t they productive, but managers are afraid you might blow up the printer room or plant a virus on the network.
“It’s best if you leave now,” he said. “I think we both understand why.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” I replied. “Because I leave for Mexico in three days.”
He looked a bit surprised.
“Oh, I knew what you were going to say,” I replied.
“Where’s my computer?”
The new Fiberphonophobia job sounded great — despite the crappy starting salary, mitigated by three initial monthly ‘bonuses’ to get us going, but the commissions promised were good. It was a new fiber optics phone company, founded in the wake of the recently-passed Telecom Reform Act in the United States. It opened up local phone service competition for the first time, allowing ILECs (Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers, i.e., the traditional Baby Bells) to compete on long-distance service.
The new sales team’s territory was the state capital and thirteen regions surrounding it. Juniors and seniors could sell everything: Dialup, long distance, and high-speed Internet services like T-1s and frame relay. At least, that’s what we were told when we got hired.
On the first day for the all-new sales team it became apparent something was not right with this company. I found a lonely phone on my desk. “Where’s my computer?” I asked my new boss.
“Oh, you don’t get one yet. You have to earn it. When you start closing deals you get a computer.”
I stared at him like he was freaking insane.
“How am I supposed to close deals without a computer?” I asked. I was surprised they weren’t making me ‘earn’ my phone either. What was this, 1982?
The Glengarry Glen Ross School of Sales Management. Do everything you can to prevent sales.
Everyone with a sales career has known this asshole.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and a few days later we all had computers.
That was the first shot over the crippled bow of the most dysfunctional ship of state I’ve ever worked for. Our shoes had barely hit the pavement when they began restricting what we could sell, one corporate diktat at a time.
“Junior salespeople may no longer sell data services.”
“Junior salespeople must bring a senior salesperson with them to sell an account with ten or more dial-up lines.” Because, you know, local dial tone is friggin’ rocket science.
“New accounts must be five lines, minimum.”
“No more free installation. Flat $65 per line one-time installation charge.”
Yes, Mr. Customer, for just $650 we’ll switch over your ten phone lines to our service and charge slightly less per line! You can expect the ROI sometime late next year! (Wait’ll you see the bang they got for that buck.)
“New accounts must be five lines, minimum.”
None of these aligned with the expectations they’d outlined during the interview process. Exactly the opposite.
All this to sell our new competitive services to local companies who’d been served by the Baby Bell forever and didn’t trust these newfangled CLECs (Competitive Local Exchange Carriers).
Their mistrust was well-placed, since the customer service team responsible for transitioning service from Baby Bell did so with all the finesse and success of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite promising the customer a seamless transition over a weekend, Monday morning us salescritters would receive rage-filled hysterical phone calls as our new clients opened up to no functioning phone lines.
Their businesses depended on them and none of them fucking worked, in direct contrast to what we’d promised them in good faith: That we were a phone company who knew something about, you know, like, phone service.
Shortly after, big surprise, we’d bring in a new account only to be informed by sales engineers there was some obscure technical reason why we’d never be able to provide service.
Meanwhile, our Crack Customer Service Team On Crack was on the blower daily to the Baby Bell, the only entity which could fix the problems. There was little our company could fix ourselves, so it got done when the Baby was damn good and ready, which was right after their own customers.
Yeah, there was a business model for the ages: New competitive companies who relied on their traditional, monolithic competitor to provide the product without a lot of grief.
There was nothing I hated more than selling a shitty service I had no power to fix. At least as a computer reseller I could get a computer fixed in a day or two. Back then businesses didn’t rely on computers as much as they do today.
I’d go home in tears, convinced I was a failure and wondering how I’d make quota when management kept cutting back what service we could sell or provide, where, how much, and under what circumstances.
The stress was unbelievable. I might have started drinking except I lived with a reformed alcoholic.
The Little Phone Company That Couldn’t
“We no longer provide service in this town. Or this town. Or this town.”
The sales team was reduced to selling in the main city.
It was a state capital, but no major metro, and we began to bump into each other prospecting.
Our new team sales territory, a few months later. Photo by Tomwsulcer on Wikimedia Commons
Almost every new account was met by the word ‘can’t’. “We can’t provide service here! There’s some really weird obscure technical reason why. Oh, this is such an unusual problem. You’ll never run into it again!” “Oh, well, maybe one other case of this highly unusual problem elsewhere in the city.” “The jack is wrong.” “The lines are too old.” “The lines are too young.” “Oh no! Copper wire! Who expected to find that in a telephone line?” “OMG! The lines run through the walls!” “OMG! These lines connect to tall poles outside with cables running between them! We weren’t expecting that!”
We were still pressured to make quota.
“Not here. Or there. Or in gray buildings. Or buildings on street corners. Or in office towers located on streets. And not in months with an ‘R’ in them. No service to neighborhoods where vengeful corporate exec ex-wives live. Nor if the business owner is prone to wearing spandex. Or owns a dog. Or a cat. Or has children. ISDN service may only be provided to people who eat eggplant. And are missing a back molar. And who watch Seinfeld.”
Can’t. Can’t. Can’t. Can’t. I’d never in my life seen a company so sales-averse that if they weren’t very, very vigilant, if they didn’t watch us like hawks, someone might sell something.
“Why don’t we go into the pizza business?” I suggested. “It may not be within our wheelhouse, but at least people want to buy it and even we can’t screw it up.”
Sales Nazis Must Die
Our Crack Management Team On Crack started to unravel.
Some asshole on the sales team (it wasn’t me) sold some phone service that actually worked, so they fired my boss and hired a Sales Prevention Assistant to ensure it never happened again. This is why, I assume, her primary objective wasn’t to enable the sales team, but to seduce the new VP of Sales.
He wasn’t particularly attractive, with eyebrows like Andy Rooney, but she had a huge crush on him.
She was a terrible ‘assistant’ from the get-go. Her thick Nor’east phone voice grated on our nerves and if we asked her to do anything — like, say, her duties — she turned combative and insisted she didn’t have time to type up proposals or make some phone calls or help us calculate some numbers.
Worse, management supported her obstinacy and insisted she absolutely had to perform these tasks and not us. Never mind that clients were waiting for proposals, the company pressured us to sell faster, and we couldn’t do that without timely proposals. Complaining that The Useless One ‘never had time’ fell on deaf ears.
It was downright sadistic the way they pressured us to make quota each month, yet wouldn’t hire someone to assist with sales, since what passed for a sales assistant was far more focused on fucking the VP and becoming his EA.
The fact that they were married — to other people, and with families — mattered not in the slightest to either.
…And then we get sold…
The technical issues may be chalked up to the earliest days of competitive phone service when no one knew what they were doing, but the sheer obstinacy in hiring someone as useless as Little Mrs. Hotpants amazes me even today. We were strictly prohibited from doing anything that might result in almost anyone making quota.
Customarily, salespeople who can’t make quota get fired, but we weren’t. The whole Dilbertesque management strategy was straight out of the Go-Go ’90s Dot-Com Hypermasculine Toxic Competition Is Good For Sales Teams Corporate Strategy handbook. Maybe it’s more effective in companies that aren’t afraid to sell.
Eventually, the sales gods smiled upon our beleaguered team and Little Mrs. Hotpants got her promotion into the VP’s bed. I mean, into his Executive Assistant position. (Which might be in the Kama Sutra.)
Senior management screwed up and hired a new sales assistant eminently capable and as easy to work with and eager to help us as Little Mrs. Hotpants was not.
We still had to watch out for The Penguin, a short squat sales team guy who did, in fact, sound like the Batman villain. He wasn’t a ‘team player’; he famously ‘account jumped’ — moved in on accounts he knew others were targeting and closed them out from under his fellow team members. Everyone learned quickly to hide their accounts from The Penguin.
Our office finally got a new sales manager. By that time, everyone in Sales was pretty miserable and no one made quota except for Top Producer, the mega-senior saleswoman who was about the only one allowed to sell anything, and who was on the edge of shagging her biggest account. (Love was always in the air at Fiberphonophobia.) Customers still called in screaming like clockwork, and word spread the company was up for sale. When the completed sale was announced, rumor had it that senior management made A PILE, and one reportedly went on a weekend-long bender to celebrate his new good fortune.
It was years before I found out who. Not Andy Rooney.
By Christmas I was drinking when I got home every night. Someone had gifted me a bottle of rum and I asked my partner, “Is it okay if I keep this if I drink it? If it tempts you to fall off the wagon I’ll give it away.”
“You can keep it around for awhile,” he said, “but not forever.”
No problem. Image by Social Butterfly from Pixabay
So I had a tall rum and coke every night through Christmas after I got home from work. Sometimes I had two. The world didn’t ‘look so dirty’ as Lee Remick’s character told Jack Lemmon in the last scene of the 1962 film about the descent into alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses.
Significant Other was already used to me coming home in tears, throwing my purse on the couch, pushing him away, and saying, “Leave me alone, let me do my email.” It wasn’t the personal chore it is today, and after I’d forgotten about work for awhile I could tell him how my day had gone without yelling and screaming and using language with more f-bombs than Scarface.
The following spring the new boss took away two deals I’d closed, denying me the commissions. I went home early that day, which you can get away with when you’re an outside salescritter, in one of the most blinding furies I can remember. My partner was out of town and missed all the fun, like me crying and raging on the couch and inventing violent fantasies of what I’d like to do to my boss.
I spent the rest of my time looking for a new job rather than new accounts, and found one just as Fiberphonophobia completed its acquisition by a former competitor I’ll call Big Dick Telecom.
“Now under new management…”
I went to Cozumel for a week and had one of the greatest vacations of my life, lolling on beaches and visiting parks and getting whistled at by friendly but not pervy Mexican guys.
Every once in awhile I’d think, I NEVER HAVE TO GO BACK TO THAT FIBER OPTIC SHITHOLE AGAIN! My heart would soar, I imagine, like Little Mrs. Hotpants writhing away under Andy Rooney.
I stayed in contact with a fellow co-worker who kept me apprised of all the excitement I was now missing:
Little Mrs. Hotpants got drunk at a company picnic and was all over Andy Rooney in front of both their families.
At the office, the receptionist opened the supply closet to find the lovebirds engaged in what is best described in the parlance of the time as a Bill-and-Monica.
One of the employees stole from others, got into a violent screaming match with another, and got fired; they had to alert security not to let her into the building, fearing she might get all American and return with a gun. Not an implausible scenario given the working conditions at Big Dick Telecom.
Under their even less benevolent leadership, sales morale dropped
Good times. Noun Project
from lousy to abysmal. Big Dick Telecom, it seemed, favored an even more toxic masculine style of management and proved it by merging Fiberphonophobia’s sales team with their own soulless psychopaths, who made The Penguin look like Mother Theresa. They set everyone against each other, reasoning that a highly competitive toxic work culture would juice sales. My friend reported record levels of drinking and deteriorating mental health. The Penguin showed up less and was suspected of working an alternative job — i.e., ‘double dipping’.
Someone compiled a case against him, confronted him with the evidence and — how he pulled this off remains one of the greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the closing years of the twentieth century — managed to convince the Big Dicks it was all a huge misunderstanding, and that wasn’t his voice on the other company’s phone at his suspected desk which, if you called it while he was at Fiberphonophobia, responded with a voice mail message stating his full, unusual name, in his distinctive Penguin voice.
Big Dick Telecom wilts
A few years later Big Dick Telecom went dramatically, flamingly, and globally bankrupt.
They set whole new records, including Biggest Bankruptcy Ever, a record set by a large energy company just a few months previously, and a vainglorious honor Big Dick Telecom held for several years until Lehman Brothers went belly-up during the Great Meltdown.
It was the most bizarre company I’ve ever seen, with a terror of sales, punished with infuriated customers if you sold anything. It’s possible the problems were in our office alone, as ours was one of about fifty Fiberphonophobia offices around the United States. The press release about the sale noted the value of sound performance and praised its great ‘corporate culture’.
Maybe ours was the only one run by lunatics.
Big Dick Telecom was an even more abusive employer and I’m surprised anyone stuck around for it. Maybe it was Battered Employee Syndrome. The CEO, as was customary for high-flying technology companies back then, cooked the books while covering up his own personal debt which he’d accumulated by spending other peoples’ money. The flameout of Big Dick Telecom and many other tech companies of the era are why Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act mandating the CFO was fully responsible for and would be held accountable for improperly reported financial statements. Many CFOs retired early.
With all the drama, sex, and underhanded machinations, Fiberphonophobia would make a great movie, kind of like Office Space except run by high-functioning psychos.
With Alec Baldwin playing my last boss. And Eugene Levy as the VP of Sales. Kevin Spacey as the CFO. Pedal to the medal.
This first appeared on Medium.