She's Got an Answer for Everyone
By Sarah Schaffer
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?
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.