The topic of the moment, at least for the woman calling from Minnesota, is baby poop. Specifically, her daughter's, which has turned green after a change of baby formulas. The mom has reached an unadorned office in Salt Lake City devoted to taking phone calls about baby formula. A college girl wearing a headset reassures the woman the color change is common when switching formulas, and only temporary.
Not far away, in a dim room nicknamed "The Jungle,' calls come in from the nation's gardeners, baffled by yellowing gardenia bushes, or irritated that the rose food has yet to trigger a bouquet, or nervous about how soon to let the dogs back in the yard after laying down a mist of weed killer.
Across a parking lot, in a long, sunny room with 10 dozen computer workstations, the air is filled with voices explaining America's health-care system: "That's right, you are responsible just for the $5 co-pay on your first visit to the gynecologist.' "Ma'am, ma'am . . . Ma'am! Let me finish. Give me a chance to explain before you ask your next question.'
These offices shelter a bemusing collection of expertise--about fax modems, garden shears, hair color that comes in a bottle. There is a group that answers questions on nothing but how to play Sony's on-line versions of "Jeopardy' and "Wheel of Fortune.' A group that handles calls on electric bills and power outages for customers of a utility two time zones away, in South Carolina. A spirited group that takes calls about toy cars and toy dolls; its office has toys propped everywhere.
These people--15,000 in all--constitute a kind of stealth society of advice. Although callers think they are reaching their health insurance provider or credit card company--and although the person on the other end of the line has access to your cell phone records or pay-per-view preferences--the people answering these phones work for a single company, Matrixx Marketing.
If any company can be said to answer the phone when America calls, it is Matrixx. Matrixx takes more than half a million calls a day, all on behalf of other companies. Even if you've never heard of Matrixx, you've almost certainly talked to its operators. If you've called Hitachi (1-800-HITACHI) looking for help running your laptop, you've talked to Matrixx, which staffs an information line and a technical help desk for Hitachi customers. If your HMO is U.S. Healthcare, you may have talked to a Matrixx employee about your co-payments. Matrixx answers all the phones for DirecTV--the number 1-800-DIRECTV goes straight to one of three Matrixx facilities. Matrixx answers some phones for Microsoft, for two of the nation's big three long-distance carriers, for makers of blenders, CD-ROMs and infomercials. Of the top 100 companies on this year's Fortune 500, 33 are Matrixx clients. If you're curious to know how Gatorade achieves its distinctly fluorescing drinks, well, Matrixx answers the Gatorade help-line, whose number, just like with the baby formula, is stamped right on the container (1-800-88-GATOR).
This is the "tele-service' business, the flip side of the telemarketing world--people who answer when we call. Tele-service is a huge, hidden universe, employing perhaps 2 million people. U.S. companies spend roughly $60 billion answering the phone each year, and the business is growing phenomenally. Most companies still handle their own calls--from the classified ad agents at the local newspaper to the clothing clerks at Land's End. But the fastest growing part of tele-service involves outfits like Matrixx that answer the phone for other companies. The number of companies in the call-answering business has doubled in the past five years to roughly 1,200. The best of these impersonate their client companies--handling orders, complaints, credit card numbers and records--without callers ever realizing they aren't talking to the company itself. (If you ask, the customer service reps on the phone are often instructed to lie and insist they are.)
Matrixx claims to have the highest revenues in the business, along with some of the most advanced technology. The company has 23 facilities in the United States and Europe. In 1996 alone it grew from 9,000 employees to 15,000, adding 100 employees a week. With revenue of $367 million last year, Matrixx provides almost a quarter of the profits for its parent, Cincinnati Bell.