At a call center in Andover, Kansas, just outside Wichita, the day's top telemarketer earns the title of Queen (or less often, King) for the Day. The royal rep wins a crown of gold cardboard and red velvety cloth, and a throne — a black, high-backed executive-style chair. "It's real comfy," attests honey-voiced Angela Nelson. Thanks to her 86 renewals of Retail Traffic Magazine the day before, she's CCI Telemarketing's reigning monarch.
After many, many calls from telemarketers over the years, I'm actually calling them. The National Do Not Call Registry, which takes effect October 1, represents an unprecedented outcry against telemarketing, and I want to know what it feels like to be demonized on a regular basis. "Sometimes you want to yell back, but you can't," says Nelson, 30, a soon-to-be-single mother of three who started her job in March. "So we vent with each other."
Monica Harp, another CCI rep, is 22 and engaged, with a 5-year-old daughter and a second baby on the way. She needs the job (CCI pays up to around $9 an hour), and says that she loves meeting people over the phone (as many as 70 an hour). But she understands the contempt for telemarketers. The long-distance company where she used to work wouldn't let her end a call with fewer than five rejections. At home, Harp gets calls, too. "If I'm not interested, I tell them, 'I know you're just doing your job, but don't call again,' " she says.
Such is the sorry state of the industry: Even telemarketers hang up on telemarketers.
U.S. telemarketers place 70 million calls a day, according to the Direct Marketing Association. That's like calling a quarter of all Americans. No wonder folks entered more than 30 million phone numbers into the registry in the first five weeks that they could. "This is as massive a signal as consumers could send to the marketplace," says Clarke Caywood, associate professor of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University.
At issue is something greater than uninvited callers pitching car insurance or, ahem, magazines (yes, Fast Company uses telemarketers). This is just the latest evidence of our increasing resistance to marketing. Witness the cult following for TiVo, which miraculously offers TV without ads, or the furor on the Web over pop-up ads and spam. By some estimates, the average American is bombarded with a few thousand marketing messages a day. "Maybe overmarketing is our genetic flaw," suggests Caywood.
But the solution isn't just about marketing less. It's about marketing smarter. Rather than badgering customers into a quick transaction, companies should be thinking long term. Over time, they'd get to know what customers truly need as well as when and how they want information. "It's time to get back to understanding your customers," says Bill Blundon, chief marketing officer of Extraprise, a consulting firm in Boston. "When I get a call from American Express, I always listen to what they have to say. I have a 23-year relationship with them."
Consumers want to call the shots — or at least exert more control over their dialogue with marketers. "I predict there will be some mechanism by which consumers are able to list the acceptable modes of communication and the time of day when it's okay for certain companies to contact them," says Keith Dawson, editorial director of Call Center Magazine. "Maybe consumers will have incentives to allow marketing to happen to them, some sort of discount."
It's too early to say if the registry will be a defining moment or a missed opportunity. But one thing's for sure: The phone's gonna keep ringing. The Do Not Call Act of 2003 exempts charities, companies that consumers have done business with in the past 18 months, pollsters, and politicians. Yes, the same politicians who passed the law will no doubt be calling as soon as next year's election heats up.
I don't know. Once you've talked with a telemarketer or two, and learned their last names and the fact that they're single mothers without college degrees, you can't help but worry that maybe the Direct Marketing Association is right. It estimates that 25% to 50% of the 4 million American jobs in outbound telemarketing are at risk because of the new law.
And then, just as you're feeling a wisp of empathy, the phone rings. Mine did just a few paragraphs ago: "Hi, this is Samantha with Vacation Advantages. . . ."
And I remember exactly why I signed up for the do-not-call list back in July. Exactly.
Sidebar: This Is His Calling
Tom Mabe no longer considers telemarketing calls a waste of time. They're grist for his comedy. Since Mabe, a jingle writer and music composer in Louisville, Kentucky, started recording actual calls on a $37 answering machine, he has signed a record deal and sold more than 150,000 CD copies. For his latest — aptly titled, A Wake-Up Call for Telemarketers — Mabe attended a convention of telemarketers and dialed attendees in their hotel rooms. Here is an excerpt.
"Hi, this is Tom Mabe calling from IG&A long-distance services. How you doing this evening, sir?"
"Sir, do you ever find yourself awake at night worrying about your long-distance phone bill?"
"Dude, it's after three o'clock in the morning."
"Sir, I'm sorry, I would never call you this late. We must be in a different time zone. It's only, like, 2:15 here. Let me make it up to you. What if I told you I could save you up to $5 a year on your phone bill?"
Even with the Do Not Call Registry, Mabe doesn't fear running out of material. Not with reverse telemarketing on the rise. "That's where you call customer support to complain that you can't send email," he explains. "And though the guy can't help you, he makes a pitch: 'As an AOL member, you're eligible for Sprint long distance.' What's next? You call 911 during a break-in and the dispatcher says, 'I'd like to tell you about an ADT alarm system'?"
A version of this article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.