The grammar of telemarketing

The phone rings. You answer, and there’s a tell-tale pause, a pause in which you can often hear the call-centre buzz on the other end. The pause might be because the telemarketing phone system has auto-dialled you before the employee was ready, or it might be because they’re ringing from another continent, or it might be because they’ve got distracted waiting for you to answer. Whatever the reason, it tells you in a second or two, before anybody speaks, that this is probably a telemarketing call.

Then someone responds to your “Hello?” by asking for you, or someone else, in terms that most humans hardly ever use in everyday life. In my case it’s usually a request to speak to “Miss Griffin” or “Mrs Griffin”. Neither is really correct; I’m married, but I kept my maiden name, so I’m definitely not a Miss but I don’t think I’m a Mrs either. If I have to use a title, I go for Ms because that’s what I see as the default option for women, but everybody except telemarketers tends to just use my first name.

Then you say “Speaking,” or words to that effect, and they begin the spiel. It usually starts with “I’m calling on behalf of...” which means “A company has decided it’s OK to bother you in the middle of EastEnders, but they don’t want to do their own dirty work so they’ve outsourced it to an agency.”

Then they start, very slowly, to come round to the point. They might start by pretending it’s a “customer-service call”, or by asking questions like “Are you happy with your current mobile phone contract?” or even “How are you today?”

In other words (to get to my own slowly-reached point), there is a grammar of telemarketing. There is an instantly recognisable set of behaviours which tells the person who answers exactly what it is. Sometimes you can guess even before you answer, because it’s the landline that’s ringing and the only people who ring your landline are telemarketers and elderly relatives. It’s clear before the first word is spoken and it becomes more clear as time goes on.

Telemarketing calls are nothing like the calls normal people make to ask for things.

Hi, Mum, it’s Kate. Just ringing to ask: can we borrow your sewing machine?

They’re not even like the calls normal people make to ask for things from people they don’t know.

Hello there, my name’s Kate. I’m a local copywriter and I wondered if you need any extra freelance help at the moment...
Hello, it’s Kate from Sustainable Witney. We’re holding an event next weekend and I was wondering if we could use your projector...

Because most telemarketing calls follow exactly the same format, and because that format is so different from the format of other types of call, each moment of the call is clearly signalled as a moment when it’s OK to hang up. Every moment makes it more obvious that this is definitely a telemarketer, someone who does not have any legal or moral claim on your time, someone who it’s OK to ignore.

It’s therefore surprising that telemarketing firms do not try to behave differently, to make their employees sound a little less like telemarketers. But in reality, they work very hard to make their employees sound identical. I’ve done the job myself and I remember my line manager listening in to calls to make sure we were all sticking to the script.

I also know as the impatient recipient of these calls that it’s impossible to make the caller speed up or get to the point before the script tells them to. Saying things like “Please can you just tell me what you want? I’m in a hurry,” or “What’s the point of this call?” won’t get you through the script any faster. The only control you have is to hang up. Which I invariably do.

So why don’t telemarketing firms adopt tactics that would make us all less likely to hang up? I worked out my answer after meeting Professor Ursula Huws, who spoke a few months ago at a publishing summit I helped to organise. One of her many insights about the current labour market is the trend for tacit knowledge to turn into codified knowledge when companies begin outsourcing. In other words, as I put it in an earlier blog post, stops being about on-the-job learning and starts being about a specific checklist of items to be learnt. Evaluating performance also becomes codified, with written standards and goals replacing more nuanced appraisals.

In that context, it makes perfect sense that telemarketing agencies rely heavily on scripts and processes, even out-of-date ones like asking for “Miss Griffin”, rather than investing in the kind of environment that would let workers come up with their own winning turns of phrase.

Maybe an in-house telemarketing team, trained to speak off-script, would make more sales, but it’s a risk. It’s a financial risk because there’s no guarantee that the extra sales, if any, would cover the extra cost, but that’s not all. It’s a risk because it requires a company to behave differently from all its competitors, which means doing the work of figuring out what to do without being able to copy anybody else. If you decide to bring telemarketing in-house, develop an environment where people are trained rather than scripted and move away from the checklist approach, there are too many ways in which you can (and probably will) go wrong.

It’s much easier to do what all your competitors are doing. Pick an agency, probably using cost as the deciding factor, then go through the usual processes. The results might not be brilliant, but the shareholders won’t question your decision. If it goes wrong, blame the agency rather than your overall approach and pick a new one. You drive down costs by being a shopper who can pick and choose, they drive down costs by turning their workers into charmless automatons.

Competition doesn’t lead to innovation if cost is the only factor you’re competing on. That’s why the relatively modern, market-driven business strategy of outsourcing has led to the fossilisation of behaviours. When you answer the phone, the story of that failure is told in the second or two before the caller speaks.