Edit ModuleShow Tags

She's Got an Answer for Everyone


Published:

Where do you live?

“Two blocks from work. When I’m late I tell them I got lost in traffic.”

How many kids do you have?

“Let me think.”

What is your title?

“Corporate empress.”

On the last question, Clarke isn’t much stretching the truth. Since 1979, she’s been building Billie Clarke’s Answering Service, where talk is her trade and banter her calling card. The service, with offices at First and Maple on Bankers Hill, boasts some 300 clients—and a waiting list. Some businesses treat her service as a full-time receptionist; others use it only occasionally.

“In a sense we’re like lawyers. They pay us a retainer,” Clarke says. “They may call-forward when they want to have a quick business meeting. Or law firms will suddenly win a case, and they’re all gone to Fat City.”

In a stroke of luck for answering service operators everywhere, more and more people are asking to talk to human beings rather than machines. The number of U.S. call centers is expected to grow by 15 percent this year, according to the Associated Press. And according to a survey by Predatory Marketing author Brit Beemer, the number of Americans who hate or dislike voice mail has risen from 20 to 40 percent in five years.

What does this mean for Clarke? For starters, her business, which operates around the clock and employs 11 people, has increased by 30 percent in the past year. And her services are not cheap—$130 a month for 100 messages, plus $1 for each additional message and extra charges for paging—but “I earn every penny,” she says.

Her operators—who stay with the service an average of seven and a half years and call themselves “telephone secretaries”—take pains to speak clients’ names properly, connect prisoners to their lawyers without disconnecting the line, and follow specific directions on their computer screens for specific clients. Like not smiling when answering for a crematorium.

Clarke learned the business from her mother, who ran an answering service in New Haven, Connecticut, when Billie was a child. In the early 1960s, Clarke and her sister operated a service in San Diego until Billie took a 15-year sabbatical to raise her sons (two, she eventually remembers, now 27 and 37).

While playing Mrs. Mom, Clarke put her San Diego Junior College drama degree to good use, directing and costarring in La Jolla’s legendary Village Vaudeville annual amateur show. And even though she’s no longer on the stage, she says, “I’m in show biz still. My staff are actresses, my client gives me the rough draft, and we make it ours.”

Being able to keep track of San Diego and its inhabitants is Clarke’s favorite part of the job. “We

get a chance to take the pulse of a city,” she says—through the lawyers, plumbers, politicians, carpet cleaners, property managers and construction workers she represents.

And she has no qualms about showing off the results of all those years of experience. Gesturing to the sign on her desk that reads, “Billie Clarke, president,” she laughs and says, “I’m so tempted to change that to ‘Billie Clarke, expert.’”

Expert in what?

Her “extremely human, imperfect craft”—which turns out to be a little like life itself.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

More »Related Stories

Your 2018 San Diego Summer Bucket List

Here’s our insider’s guide for Memorial Day through Labor Day

The Best of North County 2018

Our annual list of what we’re loving above the 56, from bites and brews to shopping, wellness, and arts and kids’ activities galore

16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

We’ve rounded up sites with the best ocean views, mountain peaks, and desert landscapes
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. Vote Now for San Diego's Best Restaurants 2018
    From burritos to bottomless mimosas, you choose San Diego’s best eats and drinks in 90 categories
  2. Personal Stories are on Display at the Museum of Man's 'PostSecret'
    Frank Warren collects deep, dark secrets for this community arts project
  3. The Best of North County 2018
    Our annual list of what we’re loving above the 56, from bites and brews to shopping, wellness, and arts and kids’ activities galore
  4. 31 Best Places to Live in San Diego
    Five local homeowners share their advice, tips, and tricks on how they sealed the deal
  5. Has Anything Really Changed Since Ballast Point Sold to Constellation?
    More than two years after the acquisition, misinformation and misunderstanding still abound
  6. Green Rush: Inside San Diego's Emerging Cannabis Industry
    Marijuana's legal. How did it go from evil death drug to medical miracle and billion-dollar industry?
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Promotions

Win Our Instagram Contest And Get Three Months of Free Orangetheory Fitness Classes

All you have to do is post to Instagram telling us why you want it, or enter below!

Puesto's Next Top Taco

Submit your best taco recipe for the chance to win a grand prize
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module
Edit Module

Connect With Us:

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Sponsored

AquaVie: 10 Reasons It’s Downtown’s Best Kept Secret

The best workout and spa getaway around? It’s actually right underneath your nose.

Puesto's Next Top Taco

Submit your best taco recipe for the chance to win a grand prize
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags