Philadelphia Metropolis


My Life as a Telemarketer

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Best of VoxPop: the World of Work

 By Joseph L. Covell

It's your average grey January day in your average Philadelphia area neighborhood.  Going about your daily business, you are interrupted by the phone ringing off the hook. Stumbling to answer it, your eye notices the I.D. displaying Philadelphia Direct. There is no holding back the bad feeling as you answer the call, "Hello?"

 "Yes, good evening Mrs. Smith. This is John calling from the Inquirer how are you?" answers the Telemarketer. You shout: "I've told you before, STOP Calling!" And you hang up.

What is this company that seems to call a dozen times a day? It is Philadelphia Direct Call Solutions, a service of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper. The purpose of the call, no matter how they disguise it, is to sell you a subscription to the paper.   

I was employed by Direct Call for three months, so I can personally empathize with the annoyed homeowner. I was usually the person at the other end. My work as a telemarketer was limited to a three-week stint  calling doctors across the country on behalf of pharmaceutical companies and my three-months as a member of Philadelphia Direct.

From firsthand experience, I can tell you that telemarketing is a thankless job.  Like most sales careers, an employee either has the knack for selling or doesn't -- and I lacked the necessary skill set. Perhaps, being a well-spoken Temple University grad and a freelance writer made me over-educated for this type of sale -- as my daily and weekly sales numbers demonstrated. There's money to be made, but for those who aren't seen as fit for the hustle, the money tree is stingy. To be a successful in the business, the best TSR's do not hear the word, "No."

I've heard statements from, "Your job is a dead end -- find another" to obscenities, threats, and even propositions from other telemarketing companies to work for them. By the end of my brief career as a telemarketer, I felt I had heard every excuse, obscenity, and insult in the book.

Many telemarketers out there sell an array of products, but it seems Philadelphia Direct's auto-dialer has your number on constant rotation. With laws pertaining to "Do Not Call lists", why are these businesses still constantly calling?

The reason for continuous calling is your failure to say, very specifically, "Take me off of your call list." TSR's (Telephone Sales Representatives) are taught to only put a number on this list when the customer is either obscene or says specifically, "Take me off your list."  Anything else, they keep you on the list.  Even if they do agree to remove your number, it can take up to 72 hours to process - during which time you may get another call.

Though the work day was only five-hours long, I would find myself mentally drained. Those three months at Philadelphia Direct felt like five years. The higher ups would feed me lines such as, "think positively and you will succeed." I tried my hardest to meet all expectations on the monitoring check sheets, which are based on how well and closely the TSR follows the so-called successful scripts to the target customer. TSR's don't only sell The Inquirer, they are hassled to make sure to offer additional subscriptions to the Daily News and U.S. Today, and to offer products from advertisers, such as carpets, windows, and even wireless internet. 

The Telemarketing/Sales industry is one of few in these tough economic times that is always hiring. The telemarketing sale is tough.  They say only 10 percent of all calls actually stay on the phone.  The other 90 percent hang up.  Often with a bang.

As a TSR, I made claims about delivery improvements to areas that the paper will not deliver to. Selling a customer at one price then increasing to another frustrated subscribers. So how can Philadelphia Direct improve upon procedures?

Better research and better data could solve many of the problems. TSR's for Philadelphia Direct are not able to see how many times a customer has been called and the customer data on the screen is often wrong. New move-in on the lists are often customers who are not move ins; numbers marked as ex-subscribers are often current subscribers, and customers who had requested a week of sample papers often do not receive the samples.

The computer system I used during my short medical telemarketing career, allowed me to see how many times I had called each number. I wasn't calling an account blindly; I had control over who I called. The auto-dialer system Philadelphia Direct uses is a primitive system in this age of technology.

The Inquirer is already considering outsourcing telemarketing from an in-house service to a larger-scale operation. Although I believe that in most cases, these types of services are cheaper in-house, in this case the Inquirer has decisions to ponder.

If the Inquirer truly wants to keep it local, it should consider restructuring its sales force with better databases for call lists, better research of potential customers, better response to customers who wish to have their number removed from a call list, better customer support, better pricing tiers including honoring specials , thoroughly explaining everything to customers, and recruiting and training a better telephone sales force.

We all have a job to do, but is this system of telemarketing really the right tack to take for a company that represents a long-standing Philadelphia tradition, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer? I believe there are many loyal supporters of this paper that the Inquirer is losing because of TSR's constantly bothering people.


Joseph Covell is a freelance writer who lives in Quakertown.



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