"What do you mean, a 50 percent refund?" says the voice on the other end of the line. "Are you serious? When the account has already been suspended? That's not fair!"

Blood rushes to my cheeks. I desperately want my next sentence to calm her down, to sound confident, sympathetic. I want this customer--my customer--to feel assuaged. Satisfied.

But as the little timer on my computer screen ticks into the call's ninth minute, I have other worries: I have to say "please" and "thank you" at least twice. I have to keep my refunds-per-call metric low. I don't realize it at the time, but also I have an audience: The call center's president and CEO, Gabriel Bristol, is secretly monitoring my calls from his office. He, I am learning, is something of an obsessive.

"You say 'um' too much," he cheerfully tells me the next morning, minutes into breakfast. I've joined him, his life partner, and his adopted daughter and son, both 11, at a Las Vegas brunch place a few miles from the Strip. They're all dressed preppily, in woolens and saddle shoes. It's Sunday, family day. But Bristol can't yet put me and my ums behind him.

Never say "um," he tells me. In the customer service jungle, this signals weakness, uncertainty. Instead, I should pause. Speak slowly. Let the caller hang ... on my every word. "It makes you authoritative," he says. Customer service, a business of micro human interactions, is full of these tricks, ways to keep a caller calm--and keep her money--all while making her think it was her idea. Bristol knows this. He's spent 10 years working the phones himself.

I've flown out to his offices to learn about call centers. Bristol, who took over a phone room of about 40 people two years ago, has big plans for his--so far, he's grown the business into a 300-plus-employee company called Intelicare Direct, with locations in San Diego and Las Vegas. Bristol is consumed with thoughts about the industry. He wants to fix it, to make call center jobs--widely regarded as the scutwork of the white-collar world--into valued, rewarding careers. For him, it's deeply personal. Call centers brought him up from nothing. On the telephone, he's something of a virtuoso.

I'll bet you didn't know call centers had virtuosos. Bristol didn't either. At least, not until the day he found out he was one. It was 1989. He was 19, freezing on the streets of Lansing, Michigan, giving blood for money. A runaway. Homeless.

CREDIT: Ye Rin Mok

Bristol grew up in Spring Lake, Michigan, a village of 2,500 people on the shores of Lake Michigan, the fourth in a family of five adopted children. Child services took him away from his birth mother when he was 5. His earliest memory is of waiting for her at the police station as she was being booked on prostitution and heroin charges.

Bristol's adoptive parents, a cement-truck driver and a stay-at-home mom, were devoutly Christian. But Gabriel and his biological half-sister, Joanna Bristol, who was adopted along with him, say the couple used their religious beliefs as a pretense to control and abuse them. "After every meal, we would have to read the Bible," recalls Joanna, "and we'd all have to recite a sentence from the passage from memory. And if you couldn't get it, they would beat you for it. It was so scary." The siblings say they had to ask permission to bathe, to brush their teeth, and even to have a drink of water--or else have their ears pulled or their faces slapped. Gabriel received the worst of it, he says. "I was hit every day," he says. "Every day. Some days, I couldn't go to school because--I didn't get this at the time--my mom knew if I went to school looking like that, she'd get in trouble."

"Gabriel really suffered a lot," says Joanna, "because the dad knew he was feminine, or gay or whatever you call it. He would beat Gabriel constantly. I don't know if it was because he enjoyed seeing Gabriel in pain, or because he was trying to make Gabriel more manly. But it was horrible." (Their father is now deceased. Their mother, who hasn't spoken to Gabriel in 27 years, denies he was ever beaten. "How could you make him more manly by hitting him?" she says. "There was nothing like that. Nobody hit anybody. I don't understand where all this is coming from.")

At school, Gabriel struggled to fit in. He had few friends. "A lot of times he would go outside by himself and role-play, kind of like an escape," says Joanna. "Just making believe, talking to himself in different voices." Puberty isolated Gabriel further, when he realized he was attracted to other boys. He kept those feelings secret, hoping no one would notice.

Still, people knew. "Other kids would come up to me and say, 'Is Gabe a fag?' " recalls Lara Harris David, his high school friend and prom date. "He and I were both rejects. We really bonded over that." For the prom, Harris David and Bristol had fun designing their own outlandish outfits--Bristol's bolero jacket, top hat, and big leather boots got a lot of attention. A popular girl invited them to a bonfire party after the dance. But around the bonfire, as Bristol tried to enjoy himself, it soon became clear he'd been invited as a joke.

"Throw the faggot in the river!" shouted one boy. Several other kids chimed in, and two boys grabbed Bristol. Before they could finish the job, he struggled free. Traumatized by the episode, Bristol stopped going to school shortly thereafter. Following a particularly bad fight with his parents, he got on a Greyhound bus to the first big city he could think of: Lansing.

For the first time, Bristol was running the show. He'd build call centers the way he thought his people deserved.

Bristol drifted around Lansing for a while, eventually falling in with a group of goth kids who let him crash on their couches. He started dating another guy who'd been kicked out of his parents' house and who worked at a call center. He got Bristol a job there. As it turned out, Bristol was a natural--he had a talent for sensing people's emotions, detecting hints of agitation, saying things that kept them relaxed.

When I ask Bristol where he thinks those talents came from, he points to frightening moments from his childhood. "If you knew that if you raised your voice a tiny little bit, or if you looked at me in a certain way, that I would haul off and smack you?" he says. "You would start to read me, figure out how to keep me in a good place. That's a skill I learned. To give everybody what they need."

Before he knew it, Bristol was collecting one performance bonus after another. It was a strange feeling. After struggling in school, at home, and with friends, he'd found something he was good at. But it was a skill pretty much no one admired.

Bristol worked more call center gigs and pulled together enough money to buy a Greyhound ticket to Los Angeles. He had no place to stay at first, but eventually he was able to rent a studio apartment. He dreamed of doing something else--acting, modeling, working at a clothing boutique--but call centers paid. After a while, he'd gotten enough experience to manage one himself. In 1999, he got a job at MetLife, running a 30-person phone room in a department that sold annuities.

When Bristol arrived, the staff was a mix of slackers and oddballs, the eccentric and the surly. One prospective rep came in for an interview wearing three pairs of sunglasses (head, neck, and face), and when Bristol asked him about it, the guy snapped, "What's your problem?" Another day, a new hire in her 50s interrupted training when she scrunched up her face and groaned. Bristol was confused--until he got hit with the smell. "Don't worry," the woman said. "I'm wearing a diaper."

"You've got these people with a lot of challenges, a lot of baggage," he says. Still, he knew there must be good people there. After all, he'd been one.

Bristol restructured pay, cutting hourly wages and increasing bonuses. He fired diaper lady and people like the glasses guy. Performance improved. In three years, sales increased from $8 million to $22 million. Then Bristol got a call from JCPenney's direct marketing subsidiary, offering to hire him for $90,000 plus bonuses--twice his annual salary. Bristol told his boss he was leaving.

"Hang on," his boss replied. "Let me make a call first." Ninety minutes later, Bristol's boss called back and told him the company would match JCPenney's offer--and give him a $10,000 cash bonus. Bristol was shocked. He'd been working there for three years, and in 90 stupid minutes, they'd doubled his salary. Just like that.

The lesson didn't hit home until later, at a MetLife sales conference in Las Vegas. There, he was invited to attend a company-sponsored dinner at Spago, a four-star restaurant at Caesars Palace casino. Feeling self-conscious about MetLife's generosity and intimidated by the men around him--several of the salesmen wore Rolexes--Bristol ordered the cheapest entrée on the menu.

Employees at Intelicare's San Diego office. They receive hourly bonuses for keeping their refunds per call low.
CREDIT: Ye Rin Mok

But at dinner, the men he thought were so impressive just complained: MetLife didn't give them good enough leads, it had taken too long for them to reach their $200,000 annual salaries, and so on. Bristol was shocked. These guys made twice what he did, and they didn't seem all that smart or hardworking. There was just one stark difference: They were the swaggering sales guys. He was the chump on the phone.

"We're those people you shove in the corner, that you put on a floor nobody goes to, or outsource to some part of the world that nobody ever sees," he says. "We don't know our own power. We don't know how amazing we are."

After MetLife and a couple of other jobs, Bristol finally tried leaving call centers. He yearned for people to see the value of his profession. But he also just wanted some more money and respect. He and his partner at the time had just adopted two small children. He bought and flipped property during the real estate boom, and got a job running HR for a Los Angeles-based startup. But the housing bust quashed those dreams.

In 2012, he replied to a listing for a call center manager job at Instant Checkmate, a background-check website that, for a monthly subscription fee, lets users perform public records searches. The site, created by San Diego entrepreneurs Joey Rocco and Kris Kibak, already had a call center, but "it was poorly managed," says Kibak. "The quality control was not there."

Bristol came into the interview and promised to fix those problems. "He was very much a salesman," says Rocco. "I remember smirking in the interview, like, wow, he's good." They all agreed that he should run the customer service department as a standalone company and bring in his own clients and revenue.

And so, for the first time, Bristol was running the show. He leased new office space in Las Vegas and built another location in San Diego. He'd build call centers the way he thought his people deserved.

To get a sense of Bristol's dream, I start my corporate training in the company's low-slung San Diego office, bright and early on a Thursday morning. As I walk past the reception desk, I hear the low din of phone conversations filtering up from row after row of the sleek, minimal desks. The voice nearest me is explaining to someone that, yes, she did agree to the terms, and asking that she not be so hard on him. I pass by lounge spaces, where employees gather for informal meetings, and a "fun room," where people can kick back and play video games, watch TV, or mess around on iPads. On the floor near one rep's feet, a big yellow Labrador retriever lolls, watching passersby. (Employees are allowed to bring their children and their dogs to work.)

I find a place in the conference room next to four new recruits. Up front, Jasmine Cook, a primly coiffed HR woman, reviews the basics for us: All employees work 40 hours a week for health benefits and a base rate of about $11 an hour, plus hourly bonuses between $1 and $1.75 for keeping refunds per call below $8, handling enough calls, and meeting quality standards. Each shift includes a paid "wellness" walk. A personal trainer leads fitness classes twice a week.

Throughout the day, different managers come in to speak to us, and since each one asks us about ourselves, I hear the other trainees' short bios again and again: The baby-faced guy with the bouffant hair is Javier Marquez, 21. He has recently moved from Arizona and wants to be a dermatologist. The guy in the suit is Chris Podaca, 26. He has worked as a busboy and dreams of going to nursing school.

The managers smile encouragingly. It seems assumed that nobody actually wants to work at a call center.

A few days later, I shadow a rep named Ava Albanese. We sit elbow-to-elbow in her cubicle, as I watch her work. You wouldn't know by talking to her that she's one of the top reps at Intelicare: She's 21 years old, shy and sweet, with braces, chunky plastic glasses, and a high, almost squeaky, voice. She hands me a headset. Soon enough, her computer demands our attention with an alert window and a loud ring. She clicks Accept and answers with the scripted greeting.

"Thank you for calling Instant Checkmate Member Services. This is Ava. How may I provide you with excellent customer care today?"

The caller had gotten the five-day trial, and he wants to cancel. Most callers, it turns out, want to cancel. Instant Checkmate tantalizes Web surfers with the prospect of uncovering dark secrets about their neighbors and loved ones. ("Warning! This background report may be graphic!" reads one pop-up window. "We have millions of records that could expose your subject for who they really are!" reads another.) In reality, the site performs basic public records and social media searches. The service then automatically bills customers' credit cards close to $30 a month. Perversely, that makes for good business at Intelicare: As many as 7,000 people call every day about Instant Checkmate. (Intelicare also has two other clients.) In a typical shift, Albanese handles about 40 calls.

The challenge of her work is maintaining a smooth perkiness during this daily parade of vexed souls--all while clicking boxes and typing notes. She's like an assembly-line worker who processes human irritation into docile acceptance. Albanese doesn't have an opinion about the Instant Checkmate service itself. She just likes keeping folks happy and her refunds-per-call rate low. (Refund negotiations follow a script too: First, reps offer a simple cancellation with no money back. Then, a 50 percent "courtesy" refund. And finally--and only if the customer is boiling over with rage--or mentions the attorney general or the Better Business Bureau--a full refund. Between each step, reps put the caller on hold to "speak to a supervisor." But we actually speak to Albanese's supervisor only once, between calls, about the best place to get tacos nearby.)

As many as 7,000 people call every day about Bristol's client Instant Checkmate.

After a while, Albanese lets me take over. It's a lot harder than it looks, all that simultaneous clicking and typing and happy talking. And it becomes near impossible when I have customers who are truly pissed. The harder I try to sound calm and soothing, the more my voice quavers. And though my responses get more polished after a few calls (someday, I might even stop saying "um"), I can't stop feeling their anger. I know it's illogical to feel bothered by these random voices in this tinny headset. But I can't help it.

Later, I'm sitting in on a senior staff meeting when a manager announces the top reps of the month. Bristol asks someone to fetch the winner so they can congratulate her.

In walks Aleksandra Micaiah, a 26-year-old with--at the time--bright pink hair. Jolinda Fields, the San Diego manager, tells Micaiah she has won. The room applauds.

"Really?" Micaiah asks. She looks around, smiling, and then starts to cry. "I'm so honored," she says, "because, I'm not even from here."

Micaiah moved to the U.S. from Poland four years ago, and she still has an accent. That makes her easy bait on the phone. She explains she never thought she'd be any good; customers had always ripped into her for being foreign. Bristol embraces her. So do the others. As if on cue, a friendly bulldog trots in from the main room and jumps up onto the group hug.

Micaiah thanks them and leaves. Afterward, the managers commiserate. Nearly all of them have worked the phones--Bristol staffs his management team with former entry-level reps. ("See those two empty rows of desks?" a team leader had said during training. "There will be new teams there. They'll need team leaders. They could be you.") And all have had calls that still haunt them. Bristol recalls a guy from years ago who'd hurled homophobic slurs and threats, getting more and more vicious and explicit until Bristol couldn't take it anymore.

"Finally, I just said, 'You're not even going to buy me a drink first?' "

They all laugh. They seem unified by their shared hurt. Like Bristol, many of his staffers were in tough spots when they found call center work--manager Kevin Simpson had lost his construction job and been sleeping on a friend's porch when Bristol hired him. These are the people Bristol wants. Smart people who just need a shot, but don't know they deserve one. And, besides, it's not like the people with the flashy résumés come looking for work here.

That afternoon, Bristol and I are driving back from lunch when I ask him whether, if economics allowed, he'd hire every person in trouble and pay all his reps six-figure salaries. He says no. "The work doesn't merit that," says Bristol. Plus, many of the employees he has hired "weren't capable" or "weren't ready" for the job. In his view, there are diamonds in the rough, but there's also a lot of rough. To chisel it all away, he uses some blunt tools. The attendance policy is strict: Employees are fired for being tardy or absent five times in a 90-day period. There's also the set of quality assurance requirements, the mandatory "pleases" and "thank yous" and so forth. Mistakes lead to written warnings, and eventually termination. As a result, Intelicare fires a lot of people. Bristol concedes that's probably led to the departures of some good people along with the bad. (Since my visit, Marquez, Podaca, and a few others have left the company.) For better or worse, all that churn helps Bristol find gems that others have overlooked.

That includes people like Joie Andre, a 38-year-old in the San Diego office. Before Intelicare, she worked at a call center that sent workers home when business was slow--she was lucky to get more than 10 hours a week. "I made more money on unemployment," she tells me. When, after a year at her old job, she asked for a $1 raise to her $8 hourly wage--and whether she could apply for a supervisor job--the HR person turned her down flat.

But Andre is a natural manager, someone who loves figuring out ways to mentor and motivate people. Less than two months into working at Intelicare, a supervisor noticed that Andre had a knack for teaching her co-workers, and promoted her to team leader.

At one point, I watch Andre coach a young rep named Angelina Olson through a sticky negotiation. (An irate customer had been charged $59 for a six-month membership, but he believed he'd signed up for only a couple of days.) Andre shows Olson how to reframe the conversation by giving the caller a 50 percent refund but also leaving the account open for the remainder of the six months. ("That equals out to just $4.90 a month!") It works. Afterward, Olson beams at Andre. "I love you," she says. Andre laughs and smiles back. "I love you, too."

At that moment, Andre's 8-year-old son, Michael, runs over from the fun room. San Diego schools are on spring break this week and some kids have been watching the movie Frozen.

"Michael, tell this man what Mom does for a living," she says.

The fidgety little boy looks at his mom, then at me. "She supervises and helps others," he says. Andre swells with pride. She's never before had a job she felt proud of, she tells me.

In the months since I visited, Intelicare has promoted Andre again, to assistant manager of the Las Vegas call center. With the money from her raise, she rented a three-bedroom house with a yard and a garage--the first time Michael has ever had his own bedroom, she says.

Meanwhile, Intelicare continues to grow. Sales are on track to exceed $11 million in 2014, a 120 percent increase from last year. And Bristol is planning to open a new location, in San Jose, California. He has ambitious plans. He wants to build a call center without cubicles--replacing them with mobile tablets and wireless headsets and comfy chairs. He imagines that someday his reps will provide his clients with strategic advice, insights they'd glean from their daily calls. It's unclear what he'll achieve--he may never build a cubicle-free call center. But what he has done is given his employees some hope. That they are valuable. That they are respected. That they, like him, can achieve something.

In our time together, I notice that Bristol has a strange habit. He likes to call his own customer service line--sometimes twice, three times a day, or more--to be the customer. I see him do it a few times, almost as if he were on a script. He'll call, and the rep will reply with the verbatim opener. He'll pipe up:

"Hi, this is Gabriel. How are you?"

An uncomfortable pause. "Good, how are you?"

"Do you know who I am?"

Another pause, and maybe a nervous laugh. "Yes."

"OK, I wanted to tell you your introduction sounds very good. Thank you." Having checked on them, Bristol will hang up. He knows everything's all right at the call center. They know what's possible on the other end of the line.