Bryant-Maddox makes war. It’s hidden under files of paper covered with legal jargon and beneath sappy 1970s love songs droning from ceiling speakers. It’s hidden under the respectability of secretaries and file clerks and men with ties who go to meetings. It’s not so hidden in the McDonnell-Douglas prints of U.S. fighter planes on the walls, or in a client list that reads like a Who’s Who of defense contractors: General Electric, Westinghouse, Rockwell, Lockheed, Boeing, the U.S. government. Bryant-Maddox has just a small part in the war industry — cables, antennas, and something called components. But it’s an important part, and they must do it well; their services are in great demand.
For five days I worked in contracts, where they made the deals. The office was small. There were six men called contract administrators who talked to customers and created documents that, in pages of legalese, said Bryant-Maddox would make five hundred Omnidirectional-VP Dipole/Collinear Arrays, or some such thing, by a certain date, and that whoever wanted them would pay the agreed price. There were five women who filed, typed, and sorted the mail.
I answered the phones.
“You never say, ‘They’re here, I’ll transfer you.’ You say, ‘I’ll see if they’re at their desk. May I tell them who’s calling?’ ” That’s the first thing they told me. “The callers will be mad sometimes, so they’ll vent on you. Their order might be late or something else might be wrong, but we just can’t talk to them. So they’ll get mad at you. Don’t take it personally. If they get abusive, let one of the contract administrators know. They have the right to get angry, but not abusive.” That’s the second thing they told me.
One contract administrator hardly ever took his calls. His voice puckered with distaste. “Him again? Tell him I’ll call him back.”
“Hello,” I’d say. “He doesn’t seem to be at his desk. May I take a message?”
The others, more often, really weren’t at their desks, but they all had certain calls they didn’t return.
I got four angry callers the first day. “Why hasn’t he returned my call? I left several messages on Friday.” And, “I’ll just wait on the line until you find him.” And, “Who’s the supervisor? I want to talk to his supervisor.” (“Never, never transfer a call to the director” was the third thing they had told me.)
Screening calls is a respectable business practice. I’d done it before. I’d never been good at it, though, because I’m not a good liar. But it was easy at Bryant-Maddox because they had a system. “He’s not in his office. May I take a message?” slipped from my mouth as easily as “Contracts. May I help you?” But the caller and I both knew it was a lie. We also knew nothing could be done; we had no power.
One man called four times in one day; there were messages stacked on the contract administrator’s desk from last Friday. I had to be soothing; it’s my dual role as a woman and a secretary. “I’m sorry,” I said, as I might have said to someone rejected by a lover. He was pretty discouraged. “Thanks,” he said.
The angry ones exploded. “I won’t get off the line,” one man insisted. That was sabotage, and he knew it. We needed the lines; someone might be trying to call in with an order or a request for a quote. I had to coax him off the line, convince him I was telling the truth. “He really is at lunch. I’ve tried paging him.” In this particular case I was telling the truth.
But he was used to being lied to. They’d lied to him before, and they probably lied to him at half the other businesses he dealt with regularly. He was defensive and hostile, and why not? He conducted business in a hostile world.
I asked the contract manager at Bryant-Maddox why they screened calls. The main reason, he told me, was to determine whether the call could be handled by the secretary. “If we let them through to a contract administrator, he will be involved in five to ten minutes of chitchat and then have to respond to a routine clerical task.”
“But,” I said, “there are times when contract administrators choose not to speak with customers.”
He paused. “Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. I might have someone in my office, and I think it’s rude to be interrupted by the phone. Or maybe a contract administrator needs an hour without interruption to get a job done. Or we might not have an answer.”
Another pause. “I want to make it clear that screening is not set up to dodge calls. It just allows us to dodge calls.”
At Bryant-Maddox they have a little pamphlet called “Your Telephone Personality: A Real Pro.” On the cover is a blond woman in a blouse and jacket, smiling and holding a red telephone. The pamphlet says, “Professionals can deal calmly and effectively with every situation — some of them unpleasant or potentially damaging to their organization.” The pamphlet offers advice on how to make the irate caller feel better: listen, sympathize, and offer praise and support. It concludes, “Reaching someone who is attentive and understanding is very important to the person who calls to complain about a problem. It shows that your organization cares enough about pleasing its customers to have the right person handling the job — a real pro.”
This pamphlet mysteriously appeared on my desk the morning of my third day, after I’d written a direct quote from one irritated customer on a message to the director: “Tell him I deserve the courtesy of a return call.” The pamphlet showed up with the phone message, on which the director had written in red felt tip, “Call him back and find out who he is and who he wants to talk to. Not me.”
I’m not sure what the angry customer had called about. Maybe a late part; lots of people called about that. Probably no one at Bryant-Maddox knew when the part would be shipped. And no one was going to talk to him until one of them knew.
I never understood why someone didn’t get on the phone and say, “Look, we know you’re upset. That part should have been there. We’re not sure when it’s going to be shipped, but we’re working on it. Is there anything we can do to help you with the difficulties this may cause?”
This is not how they conducted business at Bryant-Maddox. I don’t think it’s how business anywhere is conducted very often. What does the company think would happen? That someone would have to admit he or she was wrong? I wonder what it’s like to be someone who can crumple desperate messages, shrug, and say, “No, I don’t want to talk to them.” Sometimes at Bryant-Maddox they laughed. “He’s a pain in the ass,” one administrator told me about a customer to whom he wouldn’t talk. Later I heard him laughing about the customer with someone else. “Can you believe he’s still calling me?”
“I’m in really bad trouble,” one desperate woman told me on the phone. “My boss is riding me. I have to account for that missing part by this afternoon, or I’m really going to be in trouble.” She called every hour or two. One of the other secretaries called out to the contract administrator after the fourth call, “_____ is on the line. She’s still calling.” The administrator laughed, but at least he did start asking people if they knew anything about the shipment.
One woman from Texas was frantic. She screamed, pleaded, threatened, almost cried. I was calm, professional, promising to get this to the administrator’s attention. I told her I didn’t know why he hadn’t returned her calls, but he seemed pretty busy today. She was powerless, and she didn’t like it. If she’d been in town I don’t doubt she would have showed up at the door, pushed through security, and stormed to the administrator’s desk, a gun in her hand, demanding answers and action.
I began to understand why we make weapons.
“She’s really upset,” I wrote on the note, which I put on top of the stack of messages piled on the administrator’s desk. Soft rock pulsed out of the ceiling, the singer moaning about a love that meant everything.
Bryant-Maddox is a fictitious name for a leading defense contractor.