As it’s the start of a new decade, Quality Spanish Translations Director, Philip Plested, has taken some time to reflect on his last 20 years in work. Like most people of his age, it has been a period filled with achievements, challenges, setbacks, and changes of direction, set against births, deaths, marriages, sorrow and joy. He discusses working in telesales in the early noughties and how his experiences have led him to do what he does today, as a director of a translation and language services company.
Sales droid in the noughties
20 years ago, as the new millennium dawned, I was in my twenties and working as a sales droid (as it was dubbed by the not-so-appreciative tech guys). I sat at a desk and hammered out cold calls to build up my pipeline of suspects that I had to close to achieve my monthly target.
Email marketing didn’t really exist, at least not in the way it’s used now. No-one had broadband, smart phones were a decade away. The way to win business was to make the calls or rack up the miles on the road. In other words, you were either telesales or field-based. It was decidedly lo fi, but it was a proven way of doing business and quite straightforward in most respects, compared to today’s complex sales funnels and processes.
I found it a horrendous way to work. A brutal day-in-day-out search for the next lead. You were only as good as your last sale and the next one could only be found by calling another 80 people per day.
No wonder we were called droids, we needed to be, to get through the repetitive, brain-numbing battles with gatekeepers and calls to people who’d already been tried 20 times that day and had little patience for our opening ‘hot button statement’.
Nowadays this emotionless, unrelenting aspect is best left to machines but in the early noughties, real people still had to do it. Did I mention it was brutal? The turnover and burn out rates were huge.
Some though, like me, managed to do it for quite a few years, driven mainly by fear and the need for money. I was pretty good at it too, I got promoted to a manager and got on a different treadmill before I too succumbed and burned out. But it wasn’t burnout in the classic sense, where I was physically exhausted or couldn’t perform. Yes, I was a cliche in some respects: smoking 20 a day and drinking a fair bit but I was still in my twenties, so the effects of this were yet to show and I could shake off hangovers. It was the more subtle changes to my behaviour that really did it.
In a short 2-year period, after I became a sales manager, I had to personally fire over 30 people who came into the business as sales people. In that process, people lost their identity, at least in my eyes, I started to care very little about why they didn’t succeed or their personal circumstances. All I cared about was pushing people through the system and getting my performance bonus.
I took that attitude home to my wife and family and I vividly recall how cold and calculating I was when people told me their work stories or anything that required some advice or input. In other words, I had become quite an unpleasant person. I was shocked and deeply upset at how much I had changed in such a short period of time. It wasn’t long after that I stopped doing sales and went to work for a social housing firm, in a knee jerk reaction to somehow redress the balance.
I certainly wasn’t alone in experiencing the negative effects of working in such an environment. In the end it gets to most people in one way or another (I can think of two, out of the hundreds I met and trained who could keep going long term). It was a destructive job that ground people into paste and spat them out. As it was mostly men, they did the things that salesmen are famed for. Smoking, drinking and drugs. Burning the candle at both ends was encouraged, if you could come in and deliver the next day. Expense accounts were there to get sales people drunk and create camaraderie and we spent every penny, not for a moment thinking there was a negative outcome to any of this. We were all in our twenties and indestructible. Until we weren’t of course.
Did anyone at the company care about anyone’s mental health and the effects of doing this every day? Absolutely not, these weren’t discussions being had anywhere. It was FIFO all the way: a macho rite of passage to make the calls, get the lead, close the sale and be top dog. The only reason we did it was because the money could be excellent. If you found the right job, the rewards could be 3x your basic salary. But by god you earned it. Then you spent it. Back on the phones!
Modern approaches to mental and physical health
Now, 20 years later, we are more enlightened about these types of jobs and the harm they can cause, or at least we like to think so. We are more aware in general of our mental health and the value of our time. The Royal brothers, the armed forces and sports stars all talk openly about mental health and their struggles. Discussions about the importance and funding of mental health programs and treatment on the NHS are commonplace in parliament and in the press.
We also understand that our physical wellbeing is connected to this and that the one can feed the other. Now, I no longer smoke and I get to the gym several times a week. Even if I wanted to, I could no longer live in the way I used to, although I still love to have a drink, perhaps still a bit too much but I at least am aware. Most importantly, I have come to learn how much my early experiences affected me negatively. The unhealthy environment I was in and playing such a full part in was bad for me. Again, I am not alone in that.
Whilst mental illness does not discriminate on who it affects, man, women, young or old, the awareness around it is often directed at men and for good reason. We are proven in the field of bottling emotions and stuffing them so far away from sight that the Hubble telescope would be glad to find them. We are still the most likely to commit suicide but we are starting to understand the toll that modern life and toxic masculinity has on our mental health, and great strides have been made to try and correct that course.
That’s not to say that everything is sweetness and light now. In some places, this growing understanding is often derided or dismissed, as the tabloids, trolls and politicians (all mostly men) regularly label people ‘snowflakes’ or other derogatory terms when the ideas, behaviours and social structures that make people sad and unwell are criticised.
Soul destroying jobs still exist of course, the emergence of the gig economy and zero hours contracts are evidence of this, along with a strata of society that continues to struggle to make ends meet. While I think the more compassionate aspects of ‘wokeness’ will eventually win out, leading to a more caring and considerate world, the forces against this change are making a bloody good fight of it.
The reasons behind this resistance are myriad but there is one that remains the same as when I was on the phones. Namely, that the people who run businesses don’t really care about who works for them or their welfare. They just want to make money.
This is hardly a new revelation, I grant you. Once I’d fried my circuits as a sales droid and became a sales manager (I started to hold the whip instead), my task was to find the best and eject the rest. Although there was an HR department and we acted in accordance with employment laws, they were mostly seen as a hindrance and our process did not take any account of the type of person you were or your circumstances. You (and I) had three months to learn to fit in and if you didn’t, well… FIFO.
I’m sure there are still lots of sales and other jobs like that now but at least we have begun to think more about the wellbeing of people in the process. The vast majority of jobs are still dehumanising in some respects, as our worth and efforts are reduced to targets, revenue and KPIs, but we have begun to realise there are ways of balancing this by maintaining home and worklife, building more breaks and human interaction into the working day and week, and so on. In the end just having a perspective that you aren’t your job and your identity isn’t what you do is significant. The revelation that I wasn’t that nice a person anymore, was a pivotal moment for me and, since then, I have actively tried to be different in the roles I have had.
Yet I still meet young people (i.e 20-30 yr olds) who say they are defined by their jobs, as I was, and this means that when they have set backs at those jobs, their sense of worth is also questioned and diminished, both by themselves and who they work for. I was no different and I still struggle with that instinct to this day but at least I know why I struggle, as I surely didn’t back then.
Working with compassion
Now I try to do something different, for the sake of my own wellbeing and the business I help to run. When we launched our company, my co-director and I spent considerable time discussing the type of firm we wanted to be associated with, the people we would work with and the environment we wanted to create.
The very act of creating and sharing a company vision is often met with a cynical groan, as they are often hidden away on a company’s website, only to be used at inductions and then forgotten about. However, we vowed to make a statement of intent that we would constantly refer to. Which I can honestly say we do.
As to what went into it, well that was easy, as we drew from our experiences of working for other people. We took what was great, what wasn’t (see above) and what we felt was missing. I won’t replay the vision (it is here if you are interested) but what I hope people take from it is that we try to balance the requirement to be both cost effective and excellent in our specialist areas. The only way we felt we could do that was to bring to the fore the translators themselves.
Translation itself is, at its very core, the act of communicating and understanding. Understanding the complexity of language and using it to work towards common goals together is a vital part of humanity. It is what sets homo sapiens apart from the rest of the creatures on earth.
As such, the humanity behind any company is vital to its existence. Our aim is to avoid the commoditisation and devaluation of linguistic talent in pursuit of profit and instead value our suppliers (in our case, translators). We understand that people have lives and families and goals, and we work with them to balance that split. Sometimes it’s enough to simply acknowledge it, other times we negotiate with the client on deadlines to help our translators make it to their children’s open evenings or plan around their holidays.
Through my company, I have vowed to deliver excellence and with ‘Quality’ at the very start of our name, we know we have to deliver it, or we set ourselves up for a fall. For us though, quality means much more than just quality of product or service. It means quality in our actions and how we deal with each other, in the office and with our suppliers and our clients.
In terms of our service itself, we deliver excellence by specialising. If we can’t do it well, we don’t do it. This is a virtuous circle, as the client knows they are getting an expert in their field and are happy to pay for the job to be done well. The supplier gets the work they are qualified to do and they are well paid for their efforts. What’s more, they are valued and celebrated for it and it fits into their lifestyle. We don’t tell them to do it all over again, twice as much, bigger, better, tomorrow, or else. On delivery, the client is happy and comes back with more work and we continue to use the same great suppliers to help us deliver more work.
However, this way of doing business is not without it challenges. For example, if we wanted to scale up quickly for a huge contract, we couldn’t, as it takes time to find the right suppliers, plus we try to provide everyone we take on with paid work. Often, I find myself reverting to old behaviours in the pursuit of profit but then I remember that when I hit target all those years ago and the moment of victory was thrilling, euphoric even, it was just a fleeting moment, and an empty one at that. The toll of being part of the same uncaring system was far more prevalent and long lasting and I am proud to be working towards changing that in my own business.
The vigilance and discipline to keep doing business in this way is difficult but with each new client we service and translator we pay for work well done, the responsibility and challenges of running an ethical company become more and more rewarding, both personally and professionally.
About the Author
Having worked as a sales & marketing professional for almost 22 years, Phil stopped working for other people and started Quality Spanish Translations Ltd with his wife, a chartered Spanish translator.
Now wearing many hats, from strategist through to tea boy, he enjoys not having to answer to anyone (except paying clients and his wife) and sharing his experience of working in a number of industries and seeing smart people make questionable decisions. His hope is that he can influence at least one person not to make the same mistakes he has seen and made and make the right decision first. Futile perhaps but you never know…