Mary Clingman was once discussing the bushes in the neighborhood with another woman. A man came by and asked for directions. Clingman watched while the woman, rather than merely providing him directions, actually led the guy all the way to where he needed to be.
After witnessing such “customer service,” Clingman, director of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, hired the woman to talk turkey with thousands of confused cookers each year.
ConAgra’s Talk-Line’s celebrating its 25th anniversary. From November 1 through Christmas, the turkey-talkers take more than 100,000 calls, and have taken 3 million through the years.
Though the Talk-Line has become as much of a mini-American-institution as a 10-minute description of a Starbucks order, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The enthusiastic Clingman says that at the beginning, in 1981, “way back when, 800 numbers were new, we really didn?t know if people would call such a number. But they did. It has become a tradition.”
The average tenure of these ConAgra employees with telephones surgically attached to their ears is 10.7 years. They’re contractors who “have other jobs they just tweak their little schedules to come in and help us out,” Clingman says.
Clingman finds them through word of mouth–e.g., while talking about the bushes. They have to have a passion for cooking, for food, and the majority have some home economics or dietetics background. Most importantly, they have to be emphatic. “You really have to have empathy,” Clingman says, “and be willing to talk eight hours straight, and help them cook a turkey. Each gal will take 2-300 calls in a day.”
Yes, the 1-800-Butterball employees are all “gals.” (“We don?t have any men, we don?t have any of those,” she says.) Most callers are women, too, though the percent of men calling has about doubled, from 11 percent in the early years to 21 percent now.
When Clingman has a candidate she thinks could be a good turkey-talker, she takes them to lunch. It’s easier, however, just to keep the people she has. “The more experience we can get into our people, the better job they do–customers are not going to stump you with whatever situation you find yourself in.”