Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

January 2019

My mother, Anna Vinti Edmonston, would be 108 this week were she still alive. But she died (this time of year) at 90.

She was agoraphobic. For most of my life she refused to ride in a car, or to walk beyond a three-block area of Allston. Since she became our family’s only bread winner when my father got sick, finding work was a problem.

She solved it by working as a telemarketer from our dining room. She had one of those phone books that listed everyone by street number and she would call an area her employer wanted to cover.

One of the two main products she helped sell on the phone was Timken oil burners. Starting after World War Two, New England slowly replaced its coal furnaces with oil. Gas was available, but there was no pipeline from the Midwest production fields, and all gas came from coal made in local factories. It was inefficient and expensive.

Her pitch was that the Timken had a silent rotary flame that was a lot quieter than the standard gun-type oil burner which shot fuel into the burn chamber (all true). What she didn’t say was that Timkens were complicated pieces of machinery that often broke down.

One day a house in Woburn served by gas, blew up. We saw it in the news. No one was hurt, but the house was destroyed. Anna spent the next couple of weeks calling homes in Woburn, and had a much higher hit rate than usual.

Her other staple was aluminum, later vinyl, siding. The company she worked for would get a job, and when it was over she would call the whole neighborhood, invited them to walk by the house, and offered to make an appointment with the sales people. She was paid a small commission on every sale.

Her employer was not honest, however and she was suspicious that he did not use the correct sales price in calculating her commission, so she called some of the completed jobs as if doing a customer satisfaction survey and found that she was right. He was cheating her. But what could she do? She knew of no other siding company that wanted telemarketers.

One of her clients in later years was a national research firm, Trendex. She supervised a small crew of “girls” who worked out of their houses as she did. One would think that doing research would require people to call from a central office under supervision, but Trendex saved a lot of money using contract labor around the country, keeping all calls local, and avoiding the cost of business lines.

At the time, the phone company required business lines for the kind of work my mother did, and charged ten cents a call (about a dollar today). My mother and her fellow workers were always worried that the phone company would be suspicious of all the activity (they often made over a hundred calls a day). So they all did some volunteer work for political candidates, and they would tell anyone who asked that they were “mending political fences.”

Trendex had a system for selecting names at random from the phone book. For every survey they gave a starting page, a number of pages to skip, and a selection of names from the selected page (third name in first column, last name in second column, etc).

One day they decided to upgrade the selection system to make it more random. The new system used inches and a ruler, and required addition and subtraction. My mother was trained in it over the phone and passed her training on to her “girls”. All of them hated it, so they simply didn’t use it. My mother finally complained to her supervisor about it and was told “Don’t worry Anna, none of us uses it. But don’t tell any of the men.”

So instead of getting more randomness, Trendex got less. Reaching for perfection ended up with something less than the good system they had.

Some of the surveys my mother did were quite interesting to me. For example in one survey she asked people to match the name of an airline with the slogan they used in their commercials. The winner, “Fly the friendly skies of United,” was correctly matched by only 23% of the people in her sample. Second spot wasn’t even close (under 10%). All that ad money spent and so little result.

Anther time she had to do a survey of beer drinking preferences of women under 30. But back in the early 70s young women didn’t want to admit they drank beer. So she called me at the ad agency where I worked at the time and asked me to bring all the women under 30 to the phone. We had five and they all willingly talked beer to my little old lady mother.

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