Confessions of a Telemarketer

Ever wondered, as dinner after dinner gets interrupted by telemarketing calls, what you'd find on the other end of the phone? Wonder no more. Here is a peek into the telemarketing industry. It comes from a friend of mine, Liz Morley, who happens to be a terrific writer, but in this economy has had to take some... well, surprising jobs.

Here are her words:

Having been out of work for 15 months now, I have survived as a telemarketer for eight months, and no relief is in sight. I swear this is the only work left in this town.

The day usually starts with "musical chairs," since there is no assigned seating. Everybody knows they have to come in early if they want to find a particular chair that is comfortable to them. We include retirees, people on disability, and ladies who are in their third trimester, so a comfortable chair is pretty important. We are packed tight as eggs. We hear everyone around us. (We also smell everyone around us.)

We are in the Eastern Standard Time zone, and logically we should proceed westward as the day goes on. But we don't. The computer leapfrogs at random, back and forth, Hawaii to Vermont to Alabama. It's what the client wants. One day we called Democrats in the morning, and in the afternoon we called Republicans. People think I'm a member of the party for whom I am calling. One lady wanted me to deliver a message to Big W. himself. No problem, we're having lunch together in the Rose Garden next Tuesday.

The supervisor announced one day that we would be calling Pennsylvania. I asked straight-faced if we would be calling the Amish. She replied that we probably would.

Answering machine messages should have their own audio exhibit in some museum of American folk art. Sometimes there is loud music in the background, dogs barking, kids babbling, or just a lot of wind and static. Sometimes the message is so long, slow and plodding that you wish you could hit fast-forward. Sometimes the proud parents have Junior babble the message out in baby talk. If the family is musically gifted, they might sing the message out in four-part harmony. There are all kinds of cute, funny and even risqué messages, obviously by people who don't expect to get job offers or calls from creditors.

Management has reprimanded us about "ad libbing." Clients come up with scripts that are sometimes confusing and sometimes negative. The copy reads like a high school composition. We are being monitored by supervisors with headphones, by telephones, by tape recorders and sometimes by people who are planted in the client's list, posing as contacts. So we have to say exactly what it says on the script. I have had to re-examine my professionalism. There is a gap between what I believe I should say, in order to be nice and please others, and what is actually going to get me sales and help me keep this assignment. Occasionally I reach these big-headed, patronizing sales professionals who start coaching me about what I should really say if I want to get them to cooperate. Everybody's a critic. They aren't signing my paycheck. I'd like to see how long they'd survive in my cubicle.

The good and the bad
I have never had any training or experience in sales before this, and I was always afraid of having to sell or deal with customers. I would recommend telemarketing to any young person who wants to gain some sales experience. The fact that a computer is dialing the numbers, you don't know when a call is going to be answered, you don't even hear the first few seconds of response (which is why people get annoyed when they say "Joe Smith, here!" and we say, "Hello, Joe Smith, please!"), and you have to instantly pronounce the four-syllable first name and five-syllable last name on the screen, really forces you to hone your response time.

I'd also recommend it for non-assertive types who want to develop some confidence and learn some business skills. The training helps me to understand how to get results from people. I am learning to separate my own naive notions about business from the realities of the professional world. I have learned that the client is always right. If the script they hand us reads like something a geek would say in a biker bar just before he got his teeth knocked down his throat, it's still the result of extensive marketing research, and it's what we are paid to say.

This past week I reached a woman who wanted me to take her number off the list, take her number off all the lists, and to take her off some kind of email list as well! Would that I could! Some people think I am pulling their number out of a phone book and dialing it myself! Most people you talk to are clueless about your job, and some think you have far more knowledge and power than you do. They get angry when they realize you are not a genie who can grant wishes. So I am learning how to deal with angry and even abusive people, at least on the phone. People don't realize that I'm not an expert on the entire telemarketing industry and don't have any control over the clients for whom I'm calling.

To those of you wondering why I don't plan to make a career out of telemarketing, it just pays the bills until the economy picks up here. The telemarketing bit has really gone sour. They want us to work nights and weekends. The day work has been dwindling, and if we want to put our hours in and get paid, we don't have much say in it. The calls range from political surveys to non-profit fundraisers to campaigning for Skeeter Doofus for Sheriff of Bucktooth County. In the political and campaign call screens, we don't see names/addresses, but it sounds as if we are reaching people at home. Yes, the clients in their infinite wisdom want us to bother people right after work, on Saturdays and Sundays, during dinner, during TV shows, and after some of them have gone to bed, and a few of them have had a visit with Jack Daniels. I wish I had a dollar for every contact who preached to me the evils of working on Sunday. I wish I could preach to them the evils of not making a mortgage payment. I wish that I could have been face to face with that lady who slammed down the phone the other day after screaming "Get a real job!"

Tips to ease the pain
For those of you who are as sick of telemarketing as I am, I don't have many answers. I do have my suspicions as to how numbers get on a list. Tell your family to be very careful about giving out telephone numbers. I suspect those little entry forms you see for sweepstakes drawings are a good source of names and numbers. I fear that any purchase, subscription, payment, or business transaction that involves submitting your telephone number is going to get you on a calling list.

Please remember that the computer usually doesn't connect us until after you have said "Hello!" or "John Smith here!," or after your answering machine has kicked in. It would help if you would start and end your answering machine message with a brief request to be taken off any solicitor's calling list.

It's also my guess that responding to a telephone solicitation is going to mark you as a live number. Just say, "Thanks, but we don't respond to telephone solicitations" or "Please, take us off your calling list." This is more effective than saying, "We're not interested!" If you are not interested in that particular call, it won't necessarily be taken to mean you don't want any more calls, ever.

Just hanging up on a call is not going to accomplish much. Making loud or annoying noises, or playing with the keypad, won't do anything either. You'll get called back until we get a live voice. I didn't write the rules, I just follow them.

If I am calling you with a political survey and I come up with a question you don't want to answer, just say so. I will mark it as "refused." Please don't preach to me the evils of asking people personal questions. It's just my job.

Finally, telemarketing thrives because it works. If everyone stopped responding to telephone solicitations, the industry would collapse. (Ironically, publications that run articles about dealing with "those pesky telemarketers" often sell subscriptions by telephone.)

I still enjoy talking to people all over the country, most of whom are nice. Some are old and bereaved and infirm, and incredibly lonely. If I had the call center to myself, just for one day, I would call people all over the country and tell them to call each other and just talk.

Take action
Since Liz and I first discussed her telemarketing experiences, there has been a big new development -- a national do-not-call list is being compiled, with roughly 30 million people having signed up in just the first month. Learn more about it and its limitations.

Share your thoughts on telemarketers on our discussion boards -- or just read what others are saying. We offer a painless free trial.

If you wish telemarketers would only call you to give you well-researched promising stock ideas, you're probably out of luck. But you might want to look into our suite of Fool investment newsletters, which will quietly and politely arrive in your mailbox each month.

Selena Maranjian has never been a cashier, but she was a switchboard operator for a summer. Liz Morley welcomes responses to her thoughts. For more about Selena, viewher bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written:The Motley Fool Money GuideandThe Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.

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Selena Maranjian

Selena Maranjian has been writing for the Fool since 1996 and covers basic investing and personal finance topics. She also prepares the Fool's syndicated newspaper column and has written or co-written a number of Fool books. For more financial and non-financial fare (as well as silly things), follow her on Twitter...

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