Monday, December 11, 2006

The Push and Pull of Telemarketing

Whenever my mobile phone rings and flashes a number (as opposed to a name), I am fairly certain (about 0.8 probability) that it's an outbound sales call from a direct sales agency, typically plugging a financial services or telecom product. This is telephone spam, which has yet to be legally regulated or in any other manner controlled, in this part of the world. I guess we have bigger problems as a nation (such as someone's paintings or writings or movies or other creative expression offending someone else), so this one is something we'll have to live with for several years to come. Evidently, the number of people affected by telephone spam is not large enough to be called anything - not even a 'minority community'.

There are several levels of irritation such calls cause me and it is a constantly evolving thrust-and-parry battle of wits between the caller and me. My initial tactic was to stop them in their tracks with "Is this a sales call?" which worked most of the times in the early days. Thanks to other victims like me, the intruding sales force slowly started developing counter tactics. The dumber (and/or less sophisticated) ones ignored my question and bashed on with their script, while the smarter ones would skirt around it and say: no sir, its not a sales call; we'd like to educate you about our product. Yeah right! Tell me about it, buddy. I have a meeting going on but never mind the banal distractions that might draw my attention away from your call - I am here to make your work easier, and you are here to improve the quality of my life by educating me about your product, at a time that suits you. And so my counter to this counter gradually evolved to a few choice epithets and a rude disconnection of the call.

About a year ago, I was carpet-bombed with cold calls from several direct sales agents, all representing a certain large multinational bank. Apparently they were running an aggressive campaign to recruit new customers. There were times when I got about 3 or 4 calls a day. It got to a point when I used to hang up the moment I heard the bank's name. Finally, I lost my patience. I started calling the bank's head office - I wanted to get to the head honchos in consumer banking and give them a small piece of my broad mind, including lessons in brand management, CRM and basic telesales etiquette. Reaching the head of retail was an ordeal: everybody at HQ was trained to keep callers at bay (they'd ask who you are and what you want and then won't even give you the time of the day) so that their top brass could drool uninterruptedly at the next sports car they'd buy after this telesales campaign closed. Even getting his name seemed to be a bigger challenge than most other things I faced at work those days (finally found it on the web-site). I must have spent over 6 hours straight before I got his direct number, and it turned out he was on vacation (surprise surprise). Not to be discouraged, I waited till he returned another couple of weeks later, to speak to him. And that conversation is another story, which I shall keep for another blog post.

Things get a little tricky if you already happen to be a customer. You suspect they're calling about something concerning your existing account. And if you're like me, you'd suspect the worst. For example - we haven't received your payment for the last bill and your subscription will be disconnected, or - your balance has dropped below minimum and your cheque has bounced. Before you conclude that I'm either generously disorganised or parsimoniously tardy, let me tell you that I'm usually prompt with my financial commitments and in general a good customer. However, there could be errors and omissions along the way ... cheques mailed may not get delivered in time or may get stolen (next scam?) and payments effected through "e-channels" may get debited twice and take your closing balance below sea level (this has happened to me, and the bank made no attempt to provide any relief of any sort and took 2 months to rectify it without bothering to apologise, much less pay me the interest for those 2 months). Since I am acutely aware of the fragile and fragmented nature of 'best practice' business processes prevalent in the back-offices of most of my 'best-in-class' service providers, callers representing such organisations end up getting my attention right away. So my next question to them is "Is this about any of my existing accounts with you?" the answer to which (assuming it's a sales call and not routine operations) should be: no, sir, it isn't; we thank you for being our customer, but we'd like to offer you more products that could fulfill your other needs. Right? Wrong! I just get more of the scripted yadda yadda yadda. "Excuse me ... " you go again. This cycle is repeated 4 times on average (yes, I have statistics on this) before you get some traction. Switching to a local language helps - it may get the average down to 3 iterations. If the caller is from a 124 area code, an assertive "oi jee ... hallloh ... galle sunoh" is likely to get immediate attention.

Life is strange and its many twists and turns could spin this whole game around ... to your disadvantage, all over again. If due to some quirk of fate you happened to actually need one of these wretched products one day ... well, guess who has the last laugh. Last week, I spent several hours per day for a good 2 or 3 days, trying to get hold of someone who would sell me a new mobile connection (the same was being shoved down my throat several times in the last 6 months and I vehemently pushed back each time), with certain special services thrown in (there's a reason I'm vague about this - if I get more specific, the company's name will be known, and I don't want to to indulge in malicious blogging against a specific organisation). Each name and number I was given led to another name and number. Most of the contact information at the website didn't work. It took Paul Simon four days to hitch-hike from Saginaw, and me as long to get my connection, and a whole lot of negotiation over the documentation needed and who needs to go where to do what, so as to complete all formalities. At the time of writing this post, I am waiting for the connection to be activated, after which the special services will be activated. Hopefully by the end of this week, unless they're waiting for Christmas (next year's - this one is round the corner).

And now I'm thinking that maybe it is more prudent to let them badger you after all. Perhaps push works better than pull at times.