Up until a little over five years ago I had a reasonably sensible, secure job. Then, for reasons too tedious to go into, the place where I worked closed down and I was made redundant. Since then I’ve been in and out of work, taking whatever jobs were available, usually low paid and insecure, and frankly most of them have been pretty much of a slog.
I’m well aware that none of this is unique, or even particularly unusual, it’s the reality behind the much-vaunted ‘flexible labour market’ that our political leaders are so proud of. And anyway, it’s not my purpose to whinge about any of this. All I’m doing is providing a little background as an explanation of how I managed to get into a particular situation.
To continue, one of the conditions if entitlement for Jobseekers Allowance is that you have to be ‘actively seeking work’. This is not unreasonable; the clue is, after all, in the name of the benefit.
Needless to say, there is some flexibility in how you might determine whether or not someone is actively seeking work, and the exact requirement specified by the Department of Work and Pensions has varied from time to time. At the time I’m writing about the criterion was to engage in at least 20 work related activities per week. A work related activity, for those who don’t already know, could mean visiting a web site, submitting an application, engaging in some form of training or doing voluntary work if it’s likely to lead to some form of gainful employment.
So it was quite possible to meet the requirement if you were willing to put in a bit of time and effort, which, quite frankly, you should be if you’re unemployed and able to work. (The position is obviously quite different for those who are not able to work, but that’s another issue for another day).
On the other hand, whatever kind of work you’re looking for, the availability of suitable vacancies varies from time to time and sometimes you have to be a bit flexible in the kind of work you’re willing to do. And sometimes you may have to be a little, shall we say speculative in your applications. (I don’t mean by this that you should apply for jobs that you clearly and obviously aren’t qualified for, but if there are grey areas then you might as well exploit them. I think that employers who can’t or won’t be clear about the skills and experience they’re looking for have no right to complain if they’re swamped by unsuitable applications).
During one of the periods where I was struggling to find suitable jobs to apply for, I submitted an application for the post of ‘Mystery Shopper’. (I’m going to be a little vague about some of the details because I have a vague recollection of signing some kind of confidentiality agreement). The post required some knowledge of motorcycles, a basic degree of computer literacy and a confident telephone manner.
It wasn’t the kind of work I’d done before, but I’ve worked in call centres, ridden motorbikes and used computers. The post was low paid and temporary, with no prospect of advancement, but there wasn’t much else going that week so I submitted my application and moved on to the next thing.
Somewhat to my surprise I got the job.
I had assumed when I submitted my application that the job was to do with customer service and that I would be expected to declare my identity and purpose at the end of the call, since that was my previous, rather limited, experience of mystery shopping.
As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts. The purpose of the call was to find out which products were offered by the retailer, at what prices and which, if any, promotions were mentioned.
And, of course, I was not under any circumstances, to reveal that I was anything but a genuine customer enquiring about the products on sale.
There are a couple of problems inherent in all this.
The first is that the job veered a little too close to fraud for my liking. I was, after all, obtaining a service through deception. (Which is not a bad definition of fraud when you think about it). But I assumed, since I needed the job,
that my employers had looked into the matter and assured themselves that what we were being asked to do was quite legal.
The second problem is less a matter of law or ethics and considerably more practical.
Most bikers know far more about the workings of their bikes and are far more actively involved in servicing and maintaining their bikes than drivers tend to be about their cars. A car driver, for example, could quite plausibly claim to have no idea what tyres you have on your car, but it would be a very strange biker who did not know exactly what tyres he, or she, was riding on.
The inevitable result of this is that you can’t really phone a retailer and just ask what’s available. The expectation would be that you would know what products you’re using on your bike and that you will want the same again unless you’re not happy with the product you’re using. And since we were discouraged (to put it mildly) from claiming to be unhappy with any specific product, in case the distributor ever heard the call. And since we were also required to claim to be the owner of the bike, as opposed to someone calling on behalf of the bike owner; the options for getting the retailer to offer products were limited. (Non-existent in fact).
The job was further complicated by the fact that our calls had to be based on a scenario specified in the computer generated form we were supposed to use and, quite frankly, some of those scenarios were totally implausible. (For example we would be given a product to enquire about that would be totally unsuitable, sometimes dangerous or even physically impossible to fit, for the bike specified in the scenario).
After a while, and one or two really uncomfortable phone calls, you would learn to spot these scenarios and, with a bit of research, you could adjust the details to produce something more workable.
Another problem with the job was that, after a while people start to recognise your voice. This is less of a problem with big retailers, or outlets in big cities, but when you’re calling a small shop in a small community you’re very quickly going to find yourself being asked why you called the week before asking about components for a completely different bike.
And, of course, people don’t like being deceived and having their time wasted.
Of course some of the big retail chains have staff who are employed to do nothing except answer the phone and give quotes. It doesn’t matter much to them who they’re talking to or whether or not the call results in a purchase. But there’s a real problem when you call a smaller outlet where time spent answering phone calls is time they can’t spend on doing something else and where they don’t always have a quick and simple way of providing quotes for products and sometimes have to phone their own suppliers.
So it was not, all things considered, my all time favourite job. The fact that we were also put under intense pressure to meet targets that were, in my opinion, quite unrealistic, just made the whole thing worse.
In fact, I think the only positive feature of the job (and a somewhat dubious positive) was that I learned how to be quite an efficient liar. This was not a skill I had any particular ambition to develop. As a general rule I prefer to be reasonably honest most of the time, but the circumstances didn’t seem to allow me much choice. (Bear in mind here, that if I had simply resigned from the job, I could have been considered ‘voluntarily unemployed’ and therefore not eligible for benefits. And since I’m not independently wealthy, I have to either work or claim benefits. I don’t have a third option).
So I stuck with the job until the end of my contract and I learned to lie.
The essence of being a convincing liar, I discovered is in having access to sufficient detail. This does not mean volunteering huge amounts of detail. That can be just as much of a give-away as being too vague. It’s about having the details worked out in advance so that they’re right there, in your mind, ready to be used if the need arises.
To give an example. If I had to call up about a particular set of tyres for a particular bike, I would have some idea of what kind of bike I was talking about, what it would be used for and therefore what kind of tyres would be appropriate to fit on the bike. (Hard wearing tyres for a tourer or commuter bike, softer tyres for a racing bike etc).
I would also have some sort of idea of who I was pretending to be.
Sometimes I was using the bike for day to day travel and I would have a pragmatic approach, other times the bike was pretty much of a toy and I was willing to be quite extravagant. Quite often I would have just bought the bike second hand and be looking for advice about whether or not the tyres fitted by the previous owner were suitable.
Sometimes I would be an experienced biker who was confident in servicing the bike, more often I would claim to have a friend who would help me out with these things since it allowed me to plat dumb if I had to.
There were also times, if I was challenged on something and I didn’t have the information I needed to give a sensible answer, when I would claim to be phoning for a friend who had tinnitus and couldn’t use the phone very easily. (This was frowned on by my employer, who always wanted us to claim to be the bike owner, but it was a workable scenario).
Of course quite a lot of retailers wanted to call me back with the information I had asked for. This was generally because they didn’t have the information to hand when I called them, but I think it was also, sometimes because they knew perfectly well that some of the calls they received were bogus and they were trying to see if I was a genuine caller. (A mystery shopper typically won’t want to give their phone number; most legitimate callers will be quite willing). In this situation, I would claim to be working in a call centre and therefore unable to take personal calls. I would then suggest calling back ‘on my break’. This had the additional benefit of giving me a lot of flexibility about when I called back. Call centre workers work all kinds of shifts and therefore they can have breaks at any and all times of the day.
The call centre scenario had the additional benefit that I could claim, quite plausibly, that I wasn’t allowed to have a mobile phone while I was working. Many call centres are very strict about where and when employees can have their mobile phones switched on, particularly if they have access to customer’s bank or credit card details.
So, in a nutshell, the secret to efficient lying is to have a scenario worked out in advance. To start by giving just enough information to get by but be able to provide more detail if and when challenged. Oh, and be confident. You can tell most people almost any load of old tosh provided a) it doesn’t contradict anything they already know and b) you can create the impression that you know what you’re talking about.
And don’t worry too much about the people who claim to know when someone’s lying to. The people who can actually do this are few and far between, your chances of meeting one are slim. As for the rest, they’re generally the easiest people to deceive since they’re starting off from a position where they’re already deceiving themselves.
After six months my contract came to an end. And I would have to say that I was quite happy about that.