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Shawn Greene

[August 7, 2003]

Some Tough Love For Telemarketers


Many in the telemarketing industry are awfully upset with the national "do not call" law. Millions of jobs will be lost! First amendment rights will be violated! Lions, tigers, bears, o my! Well, now that the law is close to actual implementation, it's time to shake off indignation and take on a new attitude and approach. Step one: Recognize and own the problem.

Let's face it, consumers' ire with telemarketing calls is not a sudden thing. Disgust with cold calls has increased over years and years of time. If we telemarketers had paid attention to prospects -- who have long expressed themselves clearly -- we could have made changes to prevent the "do not call" laws.

It would not have been difficult to figure out exactly what bothers people about cold calls, either. What bugs consumers is the demonstrated lack of respect for their intelligence, personal interests and needs and time. It's callers who say they want to inform, when they really want to sell and get pushy when people say "no"; scripts that make callers sound like drones and callers who go on and on without bothering to find out if prospects have time to talk. That's what drove consumers right over the edge.

Of course, the telemarketers themselves are not to blame. Despite constant complaints for many years, most telemarketing firms continued to teach a pushy, assumptive style and didn't even allow employees to adjust their scripts. In short, the policy was to show prospects how little telemarketers cared about their wants, needs or interests. An unintentional message, perhaps? Ah, but it gets worse.

The telemarketing industry isn't worried because millions of people don't want to talk to us, telemarketers are only worried because now we won't be allowed to talk to millions of people. Peel that thinking back just a teeny bit and we see it means that telemarketers believe (A) people can be manipulated into talking and (B) it's good business practice to do so. That's not only incorrect, it reveals the attitude that created the backlash behind the national "do not call" law.

So there it is: Consumers, pushed for years, finally pushed back. The pushback is completely deserved and justified. Accept that fact, own it, and move on. The telephone will still be the best way to make a personal connection with prospects. That person-to-person element is far more powerful than e-mail, traditional mail or television or radio marketing. However, whether telemarketing remains the most effective marketing tool, even with the national "do not call" law, is up to the telemarketing industry.

Studies show that the products and services offered through telemarketing are very attractive to most prospects. Indeed, prospects say they appreciate the convenience of receiving offers at home, and enjoy talking to some of the telemarketers. It's not even the calls themselves that bother prospects. It's the style of call that is so annoying.

When the national registry first opened, we saw a huge number of consumers signing up. That's an indication of the depth of negative feeling about cold calls -- but it's also a function of press attention. If we continue to use the same style of call, we will probably continue to see a steady flow of consumers adding their numbers to the "do not call" list. If, however, we change the style of call we make, there will be less and less reason for consumers to pull themselves out of reach.

As a whole, the telemarketing industry is a very creative and adaptable bunch of wonderful people. Now is the time to leverage that creativity to change negative perceptions about cold calls. Now is the time to make calls that most people won't mind receiving.

The type of phone call that most prospects prefer is a "consultative" style of call -- the opposite of the assumptive style that gained such disfavor. A consultative format is as follows:

  • Tell people the real reason for your call, right up front.
  • Ask permission to take a bit of their time and only proceed when you get that permission.
  • Seek out a need or interest in what you're selling -- don't use an approach that assumes it.
  • Ask for the business, too, in ways that let consumers choose.
  • Respect a "no."

The above style of call runs quite contrary to the vast majority of calls we currently make. And, as with most new ideas, it's common to have doubts about efficacy. Indeed, as a professional trainer, I've worked with thousands of telemarketers who have a very wide range of experience. No matter how experienced or fearful of telemarketing the class may be, some will express concern with the consultative approach. Concerns center around "letting" people say they don't have the time, or "letting" people decline an offer. In short, the concern is about giving people the chance to say "no."

The fact is, if prospects want to say "no," they will say "no," sooner or later. Telemarketers cannot make prospects do anything! Making calls with this expectation is counter-productive, and has been for quite some time. When faced with telemarketers who don't give them a chance to get a word in edgewise, many prospects resort to rudeness to stop the telemarketer, even simply hanging up the phone. Likewise, an assumptive approach, e.g., "All I need to do to get this new dealy-bob out to you is to confirm your address" -- doesn't produce. Even though many prospects bow to pressure, the rate of cancellation, returns and complaints is also extremely high. The same goes for telemarketing calls that set appointments. When manipulative, assumptive tactics such as those described above are used, many prospects cancel appointments or decline to buy.

The old-style assumptive telemarketing approach produces a lower-quality customer and poorly qualified prospects. In addition, the assumptive approach has repercussions on the telemarketer's side of the coin.

The turnover rate for telemarketers is very high. This is due, in part, to unreasonable expectations for success with an approach so many prospects reject. It's also due to the level of discomfort many telemarketers feel in making the very sort of call they hate to receive at home. Indeed, "call reluctance" is a hot topic for many speakers and trainers.

Making consultative-style telemarketing calls is a far more comfortable fit, for far more people. It's also a more successful style in that prospects are more inclined to talk when they are shown the respect they demand and deserve. When prospects don't feel pushed into a corner, they are far more likely to give telemarketers a chance to make a sale.

Though there is a good business case behind moving away from an assumptive style to a consultative telemarketing style, the most compelling reason to do so has to do with perception. Currently, consumers perceive the majority of telemarketing calls as a huge annoyance. We telemarketers have created that perception -- and we can change it.

If the majority of calls demonstrate respect for each prospect's time, preferences, needs, wants and interests, we will greatly reduce the need for the national "do not call" list. Given a little time, telemarketers will be perceived in more positive ways, and we will once again enjoy -- and deserve -- the power of connecting over the phone.

Shawn Greene, sales performance expert, leads Savage and Greene, a consulting and training company. She is the author of I'd Rather Have a Root Canal Than Do Cold Calling! and often speaks on consultative selling and cold calling. Visit www.savageandgreene.com for information about training services and contact information.

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