We all laughed at Jerry Seinfeld’s famous rejoinders to telemarketers. The briefest was, (telemarketer) “Would you be interested in a subscription to the New York Times?” to which Jerry replies, “Yes!” and slams down the phone. Seinfeld’s best food for thought was (after answering a telemarketer's call), “I'm sorry, I'm a little tied up now. Give me your home number and I’ll call you back later. Oh! You don’t like being called at home? Well, now you know how I feel.”
The laughter has subsided. Now we just want the calls to stop.
Telemarketers provide a valuable service, but they’re going about their business the wrong way. The government should play the smallest possible role in personal and business activities, but the government’s hand has been forced by the arrogance and blindness of the outbound telemarketing industry. The result is the Federal Trade Commission’s controversial national do-not-call registry (www.donotcall.gov).
It’s important to note the difference between outbound (they call us to sell something) and inbound (we call them to buy something) telemarketing. Each involves a room full of salespeople on telephones, yet the average consumer sees the former as an unwanted intrusion into their homes, and the latter as a valuable service that helps them easily purchase goods and services by phone. References to “telemarketing” in this commentary refer only to the outbound variety.
Telemarketing took over where door-to-door selling left off over thirty years ago. For moving goods and services to millions of people, staffing a room full of tele-sales callers sure beats staffing a nation full of Willy Lomans. One telephoning salesperson can close as many deals in one hour as one traveling salesperson could close in a week. Unfortunately, telemarketers have also become as aggravating as they are efficient.
Arthur Miller’s allegorical use of the name Loman (low man) in his seminal play Death of a Salesman underscores how the selling profession was — and is still — perceived. Most people mistrust salespeople. Willy Loman’s insecurity and self-delusion are mirrored in today’s “modern” tele-sales industry. They fear losing business if their ability to trumpet their message to everyone is taken away. They don’t — or won’t — grasp the fact that everyone doesn’t want to hear about everything that happens to be for sale. Some people just want to be left alone. Repeatedly prodding a sleeping tiger with a stick has predictable consequences.
The business-to-consumer (B2C) selling community could pick up some beneficial pointers from business-to-business (B2B) sellers. The B2B folks have heeded the growing body of evidence that proves the most effective sales approaches involve careful customer-targeting and credibility-building through education — all done in a low-pressure manner. The telemarketing segment of B2C sellers has largely ignored this value-add approach.
The majority of people respond to a telemarketer’s verbal spam with, “No thanks,” and maybe, “Please place me on your do-not-call list.” The federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991 requires telemarketers to remove your name from their list when you say so. But the calls often continue. Few people know about “the old telemarketing law,” and its punishments for offenders were weak anyway, just $500 per offense. By comparison, the FTC’s new national do-not-call registry has some serious teeth, with fines up to $11,000.
Telephone solicitors value their own privacy, but not the consumer’s. They employ guerilla-like hit, run and hide tactics. You may pay the phone company for an unlisted number, but try *69ing a telemarketing call. “Sorry,” the voice of AT&T says, “that number is private.” Gee, I thought mine was too.
Is the telemarketing industry aware of their rude reputation? Of course. But like a habitual tailgater who shrugs and says to the officer writing the ticket, “Hey, that’s just the way I drive,” telemarketers are unapologetic for the public’s ire. Their argument is that sometimes people buy, and that makes it all worthwhile. But to reach that rare individual who says, “Okay, sign me up,” dinnertime is interrupted and important phone calls are call-waited for two dozen others. (The telemarketing industry average is 24 rejections for each acceptance.)
The individuals making the phone calls to our homes are not the ones to blame. These are regular Joes, paying their bills by working at a stressful job that doesn’t pay all that much, barely $10 an hour. They sit in miniature cubicles in four-hour shifts, wearing headsets and staring at a computer screen powered by a predictive dialer that begins dialing a new number even before disconnecting from the current call. They read from scripts that guide them based on your yes/no/maybe responses to their offers. Maybes are the worst, by the way. They’d rather have you hang-up on them than waste their time with non-buying chit chat.
Rather than the individuals, it’s the companies that hire and train them that must be held responsible for their actions. Laudably, the DMA (Direct Marketing Association) has done the right thing by urging its members to honor the national registry, despite legal challenges from the ATA (American Teleservices Association). There are plenty of valuable, reputable telemarketing firms. They obey the law, they police themselves well and they respect the consumer.
The problem lies mainly with telemarketers that won’t self-regulate, preferring instead to find ways to subvert the law. A recent Dateline NBC segment with a hidden camera captured a telemarketing floor boss bragging that the new law will have no effect on their business. Like a schoolyard scuffle during recess, a few bad apples can spoil the fun for the whole group.
So now Uncle Sam must step in with a big paddle to spank the entire industry, including the good guys. As expected there are loopholes in the FTC’s do-not-call law: surveys, charitable causes, politicians and calls to businesses are unaffected. As with any law, the loopholes will be exploited.
When will marketers realize that there are better ways to reach receptive audiences? The current shotgun approach is outdated and ineffective. B2B marketers know that calling a prospect with a lame, random sales pitch is a recipe for disaster. Instead they educate via seminars and technical articles, via word-of-mouth buzz, and via pinpoint ads in the specific media the prospect frequents. Yes, targeted marketing is more expensive, but the payback is higher, and the aftertaste is not so bitter.
ATA chairperson Lisa DeFalco cites industry effectiveness and massive job loss as arguments against the do-not-call registry. DeFalco points to high sales revenue from telemarketing. But sales figures for outbound (the bad kind) and inbound (the good kind) telemarketing have been slyly blended together, making the outbound folks look like they’re selling more than they really are.
DeFalco says almost a third of the 6.5 million telemarketing jobs will be lost. That’s a questionable figure, considering that most people signing up for the national registry were already listed on statewide and individual telemarketer do-not-call lists. The ATA’s true concern about the new law may be that — considering the substantial violator penalties — the industry will have to actually obey it.
The best point against the do-not-call registry, highlighted by the ATA and the DMA, is that a massive national database of names and phone numbers is ripe for exploitation and misuse. That’s a very real risk, but it’s also the lesser evil.
There will be some telemarketer job loss due to the national registry. The hardest hit will be the disabled and the part-time working moms. But most displaced telemarketers shouldn’t be out of work for long. These are some of the most unflappable salespeople on the planet. Opportunities for excellent customer service reps and technical support reps abound. Former telemarketers willing and able to take their skills face to face with the customer can earn a nice living in retail or corporate sales. A quick mindset adjustment is all it’ll take: it’s not a quantity game, it’s a quality game; do your homework on the customer and your industry; listen, relate, then educate.
Like the sad Willy Loman, the telemarketing industry’s dreams outweigh their abilities. There are more effective means of educating the masses about products and services. Want to sell me something? Then target your marketing on the TV stations I watch, the magazines and newspapers I read, and websites I visit. Unfortunately, until marketers realize that low-pressure, high-value selling is the best way to move their wares, we’ll have to rely on the parental hand of government to keep our dinnertimes a family affair.
Lee Godden is the author of the book ZenWise Selling. Lee, a longtime Zen practitioner, was a sales executive with Compaq and other companies for twenty years. He is now a keynote speaker and corporate trainer. For more information visit www.zenwise.com.
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