The Changing Role of the Telephone – Now A Huge Impediment to Business Productivity

Is telemarketing a dying strategy? For this business owner, the telephone represents the biggest distraction of my workday, rattling my nerves with its startling clamor, bringing my productivity to a screeching halt, and breaking my train of thought sometimes never to be recovered after its insolent intrusion into my silent workplace.

When the “do not call” lists were first established, I eagerly signed up. There is nothing more annoying than receiving a sales pitch by phone as we sit down to eat dinner, especially an uninvited one! Of course, since I also run a business, I still receive my share of telemarketing interruptions since the “do not call” registry is only for personal use. Still, there are plenty of loopholes which make some telemarketing calls legitimate regardless of whether your personal phone number is on the registry, or not.

According to the FCC, these types of calls are still allowed:

• Calls from any organization with which you have a pre-established business relationship.

• Calls from anyone who has been given prior written permission.

• Calls which are not commercial.

• Calls on behalf of tax-exempt non-profit organizations.

While I am a bit more forgiving about such interruptions to my business since I sometimes need to make phone calls myself, with each passing day, month and year, I find myself less motivated to pick up the phone for fear of inadvertently annoying someone in the process. And when I do make the call, my first statement is: “I’m sorry to bother you. Am I interrupting anything?” Luckily, with the lone exception of one person I do business with presently, everyone I deal with is reachable by email.

Email has changed the world, at least my world, and it surpasses the telephone in a very important way. It provides written documentation of what is being communicated, a legal basis for review, should any questions arise in the future about what was said.

Recently, I was scolded by a client with whom I have since severed ties, because she accused me of shirking my duties by refusing to “take notes” while she delivered complicated and contradictory work instructions by phone. I had suggested that she please email me those specifics, citing the benefits I mentioned above. Claiming that writing is not her strong suit, (nor is any kind of communication, I might add), she resented my reminder that we may need a legal document with which to clarify our plan, email being the ideal solution. The reason I decided to terminate our working relationship after only a year’s time was based on her penchant for claiming I did not do as she had asked and therefore she did not owe me any fees for work done. Yet, having stood my ground and convinced her to email me, her convoluted instructions distributed over a series of obtuse, unrelated, undefined messages were enough to stymie even the most lucid among us. I had really tried to work with her but in the end I simply had to give up. She was impossible.

I say this with more than 35 years of experience behind me and hundreds of satisfied clients who praise me, some of whom I still work with after all this time - and, all of whom pay me without question.

Given that a phone conversation is easy to misinterpret and details easy to forget without something written to which to refer, especially after the passage of time, there is something else which has transpired which has basically changed the way phones are used in today’s world.

I saw this coming years ago, back when I was young, naive and inexperienced in sales of any kind. Prior to the popularity of the Internet and email, I was responsible for ad sales in an expensive military yearbook called The West Point Howitzer. The ideal advertising candidate was one of the American national defense companies which usually was represented by a large advertising agency. My job was to find the proper contacts within the company, within the agency, or both. With little to go on other than my own personal intuition that a particular company might want to reach tomorrow’s military leaders from West Point, I found myself conversing regularly with switchboard operators who would put me through to someone’s voice mail. My days were consumed with delivering creative messages, sometimes rambling on for several minutes, only to be met with complete failure to elicit any kind of response. I used to call it “getting lost in phone limbo.” The phone became the ultimate instrument of evasion: Just leave a message and don’t hold your breath. In the few instances when some kind soul would actually call me back, it was to tell me that I was calling the wrong person and it was not their job!

Lately, however, there has also been a shift in culture, largely because of text messaging and social networking. It is the rare individual who prefers direct contact nowadays. Those who cling brazenly and stubbornly to traditional use of the phone call are possibly guilty of only seeking personal entertainment, at the expense of everyone else’s convenience. According to a March 18, 2011 New York Times article by Pamela Paul which appeared in the Sunday Styles section, Nielsen Media reports that, “even on cellphones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.” Quoting this article further, one professional quipped, “I remember when I was growing up, the rule was, ‘Don’t call anyone after 10 p.m.’ Now the rule is, ‘Don’t call anyone. Ever.’ “

I thought I was the only one shunning use of the telephone: ironic for someone who runs a marketing business and doesn’t even own a cellphone! Yet, it is hard to believe use of the phone is on the wane as I overhear people obnoxiously conversing while driving, shopping, dining or waiting in line oblivious to or in spite of anyone within earshot.

I get three kinds of telemarketing calls to which I am now the master of evasion: Requests to purchase a product or service for my own business or for any one of my clients’ businesses; Requests to donate; Requests to participate in a survey. Some of these calls are made by live people. But, lately, more and more of these calls are automated. I couldn’t be more pleased about this. No longer must I draw from my reserves of pat statements which stop the caller dead in his tracks, unable to proceed through the roadblock I have presented. The automated calls need no business decorum, proper etiquette or courteous protocol whatsoever. The only action required is to hang up. End of interruption.

In those cases when there is an actual person on the other end, frequently from some Asian or other remote location, I utilize the following reply: “I’m sorry. What is your deadline? Are you able to fax or email me a written request so that I may present it at our meeting for all to review?” For Survey Requests: “I’m sorry. I don’t have time to participate at this time. Can you try me at another time, please?”

Although they say they will, none ever bothers to call me back. Mission accomplished.

In all the years I have been orchestrating marketing strategies, telemarketing has not been one I have recommended. But I do see its role, or the role of making a phone call, in certain situations which include asking permission to send an email; asking for or verifying contact information; asking for remittance of a late payment; and, verifying receipt of emailed or mailed material. If deadlines are involved, sometimes there is no other choice but to call someone to learn of their timely decision, with all calls prefaced by the appropriate apologies.

Other than that, for this marketer, telemarketing only serves to disrupt my concentration, demanding that I stop what I am doing to put an end to its rude auditory interference. From that perspective, I am hardly in a cooperative frame of mind to listen patiently to its message, consider its value and conclude a transaction. Compared to the convenience of email, where I can choose when I want to take the time to review its contents, the days of telemarketing (and possibly direct mail, the postal service, printed yellow pages and printed business stationery, among others), in my opinion, may be numbered.