Genies Are Standing By

Of course, total world domination hinges on the worker bees who make these wishes come true. These days, Circles employs more than 900 of them. Outside the Boston office, located in a five-story building on the edge of Fort Point Channel, twentysomethings in khakis, cotton skirts, and sensible shoes gather and chat while sucking their cigarettes down to the nubs; a finished butt means it’s time to go back inside and answer phones.

Five floors up, Circles’ flagship looks no more glamorous than the set of The Office. And without Dwight Schrute, it’s not buzzing with any particular energy. It’s just a bunch of indistinguishable cubicles, with one exception: Perched atop the small space occupied by Amanda Everett, a 24-year-old Somerville resident with a degree from Michigan State’s hospitality business program, is a stuffed beagle. This is Top Dog. Each month, Top Dog is presented to the Top Concierge. In Amanda’s case, she assisted an ailing client with directions to a nearby hospital, confirmed that the client’s desired doctor was at the hospital that evening, and remained on the phone with her until she arrived safe and sound. This excellent work landed Amanda a $100 bonus and 30 days with the totem.

Amanda spends her shift answering phones and e-mails in as efficient a manner as she can. There are quotas here, say the employees, and quotas must be met, even if you’ve just spent the bulk of your shift on the phone playing nurse. A busy day can see as many as 5,800 requests come in companywide, which helps explain (though only so much) why employees have to alert the supervisor whenever they leave their desks—up to and including, the concierges say, when they have to use the bathroom.

Amanda works in the Customer and Employee Loyalty wing, where she takes calls from employees in need at client companies (see Unilever et al.). The main difference between here and the AmEx division is the attitude of the callers and the resulting level of concierge disdain. AmEx Concierge is available only to holders of its Platinum and Centurion (i.e., black) cards, the latter of which bears an annual fee of $2,500—on top of the $5,000 it takes to procure one in the first place—whereas employees of Circles’ corporate clients gain access to the service just by going to work. It’s not hard to figure out which group might have loftier expectations. For $7,500, I, for one, might expect my AmEx concierge to solve the oil crisis, or at least call me master; I’m guessing I’d be a bit more come-what-may if I were getting the service for free as part of my job as a Unilever middle manager.

Three of the most popular requests made by AmEx cardholders are for theater tickets, dining reservations, and flowers, though one ex-concierge recalls the lad who required 500 pairs of flexible handcuffs, delivered the next day to a college campus. There are lots of inquiries for driving directions and answers to trivia questions ("nothing anyone with an iPhone can’t do," says
one exasperated concierge). Once callers get in the habit of asking and receiving, the requests escalate. Some can take a few days to fulfill, such as staffing a St. Patrick’s Day party with little people as waiters who would be asked to serve food out of the sombreros atop their heads (true story), or determining how many stairs a traveler to Santorini might expect to encounter during his visit. There are calls with happy endings, like the mom who needed help connecting with her son, who was traveling in Phuket during the 2004 tsunami; others are slightly darker. Josh, who has worked for Circles for more than a year (and whose name I’ve changed), took a call from a guy looking to research a watch for his wife. "But somehow the call devolved, and it turned out he needed six bottles of margarita mix and four bottles of tequila, was so drunk he needed it delivered, and wanted to stay on hold until it all got there," he says. "It was like, Am I enabling?" Josh says some clients phone in three or four times a day, "either manic or in need of someone to talk to." A few have used Circles as their one allotted call from jail.

While some of these requests sound insane, and they are, the most frustrating quirk concierges say they’ve noticed is that people phone in with irksomely menial tasks that aren’t actually saving them any time. "People would call and ask to confirm or cancel doctor’s appointments," says Lindsay (not her real name), who has spent less than a year in Circles’ Fort Point Channel call center. "I mean, in the time it took you to call me, you could’ve just made that call on your own."

Indeed, Circles higher-ups claim their concierges will do just about anything. (Just about: They won’t find you drugs, get you laid, or carry out a hit, though one concierge remembers a caller from Miami who required an armored SUV and bodyguards on short notice. Says the concierge, "One can read what one wants to read into that one.") According to Sherbrooke, Circles concierges "go to the ends of the earth" to give clients what they’re looking for and have a wealth of resources available to help them do so in a speedy manner. But "resources" is a squishy word in Circles-land: When asked, most concierges can’t quite articulate what it means. And that’s because, says Josh, there are no resources. "We have no special access; we have no magic connections. We have Google, a phone, and the Internet. We use Ticketmaster like everyone else. Beyond that, we only have one resource, and not everyone in the company gets to use it—the name ‘American Express,’" he says. "When you begin a call saying you have a black-card member, people’s eyes and ears open." One might assume the muscle behind the invitation-only Centurion card is Circles, when in fact it’s the other way around. "Black card" says "important person," which is presumably why anyone bothers with it when there are plenty of credit cards you can get for free. And since "important people" are more inclined to throw down $800 for a bottle of wine, service industry folks are usually more inclined to help them. But even for black-card holders, there are limits to the pull Circles can muster. Meaning that if OpenTable can’t seat you at B & G at 7 this evening, it’s unlikely Circles can, either.

Circles employees who service AmEx customers have both Circles and American Express e-mail addresses, and therefore a lot of callers assume they’re talking to a seasoned, in-the-know American Express helper savant. "I’ll get a guy who’ll call me up and ask my opinion of the single most important place to eat while he’s in Dubai," says one concierge. "And I’ll have to pretend like I’ve actually left the United States." This illustrates what many say is the most critical skill they’ve learned at Circles: the art of dissembling, all the while sitting on the other end of the line wearing a Beck concert tee, maybe picking their nose, and doing a lightning-fast Google search for "hot Dubai restaurant." Indeed, a pal whose company forks out the $450 annual fee for her Platinum card tells me she loooves AmEx Concierge—especially that one knowledgeable fellow who came through for her during a business trip to Germany. I’ve no doubt this friend of mine truly needed that case of Heineken and accompanying chocolate-covered strawberries ("I think it was 2 a.m., too," she says with some glee), but I wonder if she would have had more or less fun placing the call had she known it was likely being fielded by a Web-surfing kid in an unmarked cube in Boston.