September 2007 - Customers Gone Wild

Tales of the weird, the funny and the spooky from DR veterans who have seen it all-they hope!

By Jack Gordon

Customers are the lifeblood of the direct response industry, and thank heaven for them. Without people who respond to DR advertisements, where would this business be?

But not all customers are created equal. Some of the people who call that 800 number are pretty peculiar. Some are deeply confused. Some are funny. Some are scary. Some make you wish they would please, please go be somebody else’s customer and leave you in peace.

These are their stories. If there is a moral to be drawn from them, it is only this: Maybe it’s not such a great idea that everyone should have access to a TV set and a telephone.

Call centers and fulfillment houses are ground zero for interactions with DR customers of all types. So in an effort to compile a sort of catalog of weird experiences, we asked a number of them to tell us about their all-time strangest or funniest customer moments. It must be said that most didn’t want to touch this article with a 10-foot pole. But three bold industry figures stepped forward to provide a rare glimpse of life on the bizarre side of the DR world. (Special thanks go to Hal Altman, of Motivational Fulfillment & Logistics Services, for reasons that will become clear.)

We ruled out run-of-the-mill prank calls, stories that can’t be repeated in print, and phenomena that, however odd, have become almost passe to veteran phone agents and fulfillment reps. So you won’t hear about the lonely callers of both sexes who propose marriage to agents-seriously-after speaking with them a few times. Or the late-night responders to commercials for male-enhancement products who think (sincerely) that they’re calling a 900 number, where they will pay by the minute for someone to talk dirty to them. Or the cookware returned to the fulfillment center for a refund-with most of a fried egg still stuck to the pan-by people who insist they never opened the box.

No, we asked about the unusual stuff. Here are the stories we heard.

Hal Altman
President and co-founder
Motivational Fulfillment & Logistics Services
Chino, Calif.

Years ago, it was much more common for direct response advertisements to include the address of the fulfillment center for buyers who wanted to pay by check. So everybody knew where we were. A lot of people showed up in our lobby to buy products without paying the shipping charges.

We once handled fulfillment for a TV campaign for a breast-enhancement product called Silhouettes. They’re silicone pads that fit inside a bra. At the time, they came in two colors and three sizes. Women would drive to our office and try out the different sizes and colors, right in our reception area. Off came the shirt, off came the bra, and they’d be checking themselves out in the big mirror that used to hang in our lobby. Sometimes, we’d have two or three women in there advising each other: “Which one do you like?” Our receptionist would knock on my office door and say, “There’s a woman out here who won’t leave until she gets a man’s opinion.”


Last year, we did shipping for a colon cleanser. These products basically do what they say-clean your colon-but they can have side effects, like stomach cramps or internal bleeding. This cleanser came with a guarantee: return the product for a full refund. One woman came to our office for the refund, but instead of bringing the product she brought a stool sample in a big glass jar. It was perfectly logical to her: “See? Here’s why I want my refund.” We returned her money and told her it wasn’t necessary for us to keep the jar.


We once did fulfillment for a line of dog vitamins. It was a continuity program where people received regular shipments of vitamins for their dogs.

Our customer-service agents handled a number of different products, and they began to get calls from people who didn’t immediately mention the product they were concerned about. Instead they would start telling our rep these heartbreaking stories about how their partner just died-the partner got leukemia, or went blind, got weaker and weaker, finally couldn’t even drink water… And our poor operator can’t hang up. She’s involved. She’s listening to this terrible story about a tragedy in the family and the awfulness of the death vigil. This could go on for several minutes before the person explained that the dead partner was a dog and the point of the call was to tell us to stop sending the vitamins.

Tim Whipple
Vice president of agent services
Palo Alto, Calif.

Our home-based agents get prank calls from people who assume that the agent is sitting in a big call center. Some of them are pretty imaginative, but when our person is alone in a home office, they don’t quite work.

The other day, an agent named Sonya answered a call by giving her name and the product-script opening. The guy on the line said, “Sonya, it’s Mike. I’m a few cubicles down, and I can’t find the stapler.” Sonya said, “Sir…?” He said, “Sonya, it’s Mike! I need the stapler! I’m three cubicles down from you. Stand up, and you’ll see me waving at you!”

On the tape, another person starts to giggle in the background, and you know that somebody is having a great time imagining that he’s Bart Simpson, yanking Sonya’s chain, and she’s standing up to look around at a big forest of cubicles. All you can think is, better luck next time, buddy.

Lee Swanson
InPulse Response Group
Mesa, Ariz.

Some calls sound like pranks when you describe them, but the person is absolutely serious-he or she just doesn’t grasp the concept. Several times over the years we’ve gotten calls from people who want to order a product, but when the operator asks for a credit card number, they say they don’t have a credit card-and ask to borrow the operator’s.


We handle a product called Attacking Anxiety. It’s a self-help program for people suffering from anxiety and depression. About two years ago, one of our agents took a call from a man who was depressed. She ran through the pitch for the program. He told her she had a very calming voice, and asked her to read the pitch again. Then a third time. Finally, he said, “Listen, I don’t think I need the program, I just need you. How about if I call you once a week?” He wasn’t kidding.


A lady called to order a product. The agent asked her to spell her first name, which turned out to be “Jacqueline.” When she got to the “Q,” she said, “Q as in cucumber.”


A woman who had bought the Hooked on Phonics reading program for her daughter called us to demand a replacement program. Why? She had just gotten a divorce. She had custody of her daughter, but her husband took the Phonics program with him when he left, and he wouldn’t give it back. So she wanted us to send another one free.

The agent put me on the phone with her. I said, “Lady, I can’t get in the middle of a divorce.” But she just kept after me. We went round and round. At one point, I said, “Listen, give me your ex-husband’s phone number, I’ll call him.” No, that was no good. Finally she just wore me down. I sent her another program.

Hal Altman
(The adventures continue)

We were handling fulfillment for an exercise treadmill. Every shipment had a packing slip with a number to call for customer service. One day we got a call from a hysterical woman who said, “My husband just fell off your treadmill and hit his head on the coffee table. He’s lying here bleeding! The piece of paper says I should call you. What should I do about my husband?” We suggested she call 911.


One of our most grim and appalling customer episodes happened about 10 years ago. We did a campaign for the Los Angeles Times Book Club. It was a series of coffee-table books that would retail for $49 to $79 in stores after publication, but they offered a special pre-publication price if you ordered months in advance. For one of these books, called “Great Recipes from the Los Angeles Times,” you ordered by filling out a postcard in the spring for delivery in November.

So come November, we ship the books. Lo and behold, a husband and wife show up in our lobby. The husband is giving our receptionist all kinds of grief: He never ordered this book, he’s canceling his subscription to the L.A. Times, he’s going to notify the Better Business Bureau-on and on. The receptionist called me out front to quiet him down. I said, “We keep all of the order cards on file. Let me have yours pulled out, and we’ll see if there has been a mistake.”

It took about 10 minutes for somebody to find the card. All the while he continued to berate us while his wife just stood there quietly. In retrospect, I wish I had read the situation better.

Finally, someone came out with the card. He looked at it. He said, “This is my wife’s signature.” We said, yes, it seems to be. The man changed demeanor instantly. He said, “I’m sorry I bothered you, Mr. Altman.” And without another word or any warning, he turned and punched his wife in the mouth so hard that he knocked her through the glass entrance door. He then walked out through the broken door, picked her up, dragged her to his car, and drove away.

Of course, we called the police immediately to report the incident. I mean, we had the guy’s name and address right on the postcard.

Jack Gordon is editor at large for Electronic Retailer magazine.


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