Genies Are Standing By

By Alyssa Giacobbe | Boston Magazine |

My first job out of college, I worked as the assistant to the editor in chief of a glossy fashion magazine. She was not the Prada-wearing devilish kind: Elaina loved literature and animals. In her soft Scottish lilt she’d politely inquire about my weekend and my family and my roommate—and then send me out in a monsoon for her second grande 2 percent latte of the morning, on the company dime.

Some days, I was happy to drop whatever important work I was doing—I edited the horoscope page, which could be very intense—and fetch my boss her overpriced joe. But often I wondered if that second cup was truly necessary. The first had barely any time to take effect, and besides: I’d heard her brag to the many insomniac women around the office that she never suffered for a good night’s sleep. It was mostly on the bad-weather days, as I trudged my $120,000-college-educated self down the block to Starbucks, my hair a mop and mascara running down my face Betty Suarez–style, that I had to consider the possibility that Elaina sent me on the coffee run simply because she could.

The urge is human: to get other people to do for us what we could just as easily do on our own (or do without). And the harder we work, or the higher we climb, the more special assistance we feel we deserve. Laziness plays into it, as does being legitimately overscheduled. But outsourcing everyday tasks is often much more about entitlement, power, and self-importance than fulfilling an actual need. Our collective willingness to carry massive amounts of debt means that anyone can own the dream car, house, or handbag; the new measure of luxury is how much buck you can pass. I, for example, am too important to clean my own apartment, transcribe my own interviews, or pluck my own eyebrows. Just last month I spent $250 on a self-cleaning litter box system, which is as close as it gets to paying someone else to scoop my cat’s poop.

A decade ago, Boston residents Kathy Sherbrooke and Janet Kraus, Stanford Business School friends looking for a company to launch, asked scores of time-starved executives what they really needed. The answer was a resounding help: a closet organizer, a personal chef, a tailor who makes house calls. The pair raised $26 million—a feat for women entrepreneurs, who in the eyes of mostly male investors could get married and knocked up without warning—and started Circles, a do-it-all concierge service pitched to credit card firms and big employers to provide whatever, whenever, as a perk to customers (in the case of the former) or a benefit to workers (in the case of the latter).

Activated by a quick phone call or e-mail that routes to one of the company’s three call centers in Fort Point Channel, Chelmsford, and Burlington, Ontario, the Circles concierges can, in theory, reserve a table at an overbooked restaurant, track down a rare bottle of wine, charter a yacht out of Budapest, or get Keith Richards to show up at your Fourth of July barbecue. In reality, they’re usually asked to do the sorts of things that most people could very well do themselves, like book a rental car at LAX or schedule the dog at the vet. Client companies pay a fee per user, but individual callers are responsible for any extraneous costs involved in, say, securing Keith Richards, or ordering a pizza. Circles reps will name only four clients—Unilever, AstraZeneca, Baylor Health Care System, and Pepsi—though the company website lists 15, and Sherbrooke lets it slip that "a lot of our customers are credit card companies." Most notable, though Circles won’t officially confirm it, is American Express. While AmEx presents its fabled concierge service as an in-house operation, current and former Circles staffers say it is in fact farmed out to their firm, and accounts for a majority of their business.

Over the past few years Circles has grown steadily, and this year it expects revenues of $76 million, says the company’s chief financial officer, Hugh Merryweather. In October, Sherbrooke and Kraus sold out to French conglomerate Sodexo—its eye toward expanding into lifestyle services—at which time Kraus left to run Spire, an independent social networking site for VIPs, and Sherbrooke took over as Circles’ CEO. Having virtually invented the industry, Circles has thus far faced little competition on a national level, but recently a host of regional services have threatened to horn in on its territory, including Best Upon Request, servicing primarily the Midwest, and Atlanta-based 2 Places at 1 Time, which focuses on the South. Now backed by Sodexo, which generates yearly revenues of $18.8 billion and has plans to grow the company internationally, Circles is poised to become the world leader in the business of wish fulfillment. An office in London will open by the end of the year, and Merryweather hopes the company eventually has outposts in the 80 countries in which Sodexo operates. Today, Chelmsford; tomorrow, Dubai!

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.

And that brings us back to the real appeal of a service like Circles: It’s a source, or an extension, of power—and power is always in fashion, the demand for it uniquely immune to economic downturn. For many, Circles is the "my people" that all of us think we should have, but which only an elite few of us do. "Ultimately," says Josh, "everything we do, they could do themselves. We don’t do anything fancy; we just do it for them."

Not surprisingly, Circles workers can end up feeling like indentured servants, especially when they try to, but just can’t, deliver Tiger Woods for your dad’s birthday golf game. "Clients can be very demanding. They think we can do anything, and that they’ll get things for free, too," says Gwen, a two-year Circles vet (and who also spoke with me on the condition that I change her name). "No" isn’t supposed to be part of the upper-crust vernacular, and so it goes at Circles, though "no" is often unavoidable. That’s when the fangs of self-importance really come out. "The clients think they’re the only client, so they’re always shocked when things are sold out, or booked, or impossible," Gwen adds. "Clients are given these overly high expectations. The company pretty much tells them, ‘You can have anything’—like how you can call in the middle of the night from some random-ass place in Iowa and expect to have food delivered to you—and we’re stuck dealing with the screamers on the other end of the line."

As disgruntled employees tend to do, many Circles staffers have taken to anonymously airing their dirty laundry—and some of their employer’s, too—on the Internet. A comment posted on Productivity 501, a well-trafficked business blog, by someone claiming to work in Circles’ Canadian office reiterates: "What I dislike is how the company hypes everything up so much, to just disappoint. And I have to take the crap for it." For each complaint traced back to a concierge screwup, he goes on to say, that employee sees his or her hard-earned bonus docked $25 (a claim Circles denies). All phone calls are taped "for quality assurance," further tamping the urge to tell annoying callers to go screw their rich selves, should Top Dog not provide adequate incentive.
"All the things that are great about this job are also what make it hard," says Sherbrooke. "You pick up the phone and you never know what a client is going to ask for. So for the right person, it’s really exciting."

And for those call-center workers who aren’t quite cut out for the gig, well, Circles wasn’t founded with them in mind anyway. It’s in the business of self-indulgence; of catering to the whims of the desirous; of agreeing that, yes, you’re important and, no, you shouldn’t have to do that yourself. Circles is in the business of making it happen, and that’s a business without gray areas. You either satisfy the client or you don’t. Most times, the concierges do. In return, clients buy into the illusion that Circles is selling—that it’s a company staffed with language experts and trivia buffs and well-traveled prep schoolers armed with the family Rolodex—when in reality many of its employees are frustrated call-center jockey
s who rarely last long because, at the end of the day, playing fetch isn’t fun. Which, of course, is why people will continue to pay the Circles concierges—to the tune of $76 million—to do just that.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2008/06/genies-are-standing-by/