Negative Image Can Be Reversed

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Often when I tell strangers what I do for a living, I am reminded of the phrase that begins testimonials at support group meetings: "My name is Dick, and I am a telemarketer..."

Sometimes I am overcome by the same apprehensiveness I'm sure is felt by those about to make a shocking confession.

Telemarketers, it seems, have replaced defense attorneys as the new pariahs for the nineties. The negative images conjured from mentioning you're in the business of dialing for dollars are often worse than those elicited by the fellow who allows he's a door-to-door salesman, a personal injury lawyer or a street mime.

Surely, no one needs to be called in the middle of the night by a person urging him to "act now and take advantage of a great deal." And the media makes it seem that only telemarketers are taking advantage of you. There oughta be a law!

Actually, there is a law. Many laws, in fact. Legislators who champion anti-telemarketing statutes are going about their business as if rushing to put out a fire. The excuse these lawmakers give for biting the hand that often feeds many of their constituents, is that they're just doing what the people who put them in office want them to do.

We don't need telemarketers, they say, echoing a sentiment they'd have you believe is shared by John Q. Public and all of his neighbors. Telemarketers don't contribute anything. They're annoying. They call all the time, and usually late at night. They won't take no for an answer. There's nothing you can do.

The familiar refrains are echoed by the media. The public's imagination has been stirred by tales of a mythical beast more terrifying than the bogeyman. Beware the telemarketer!

The folklore surrounding telemarketing is replete with tales such as the one about poor Mrs. Smith, who thought she was buying extra TV channels. She didn't realize she was actually purchasing direct service until a "sales representative" showed up the following morning to install a satellite dish on her roof. Mrs. Smith was lucky compared to her friend, Mrs. Jones. She received a call from a telemarketer advertising aluminum siding as "the key to a new home." The next day, a contractor arrived with a job order to install a new roof!

Indeed, the negative stories about telemarketers are expressed so loudly and with such fervor, you might think they were being shouted from Mrs. Jones' rooftop. And you don't need Mrs. Smith's satellite dish to hear the ominous feature stories of network news.

"Telemarketers!" an earnest-sounding anchorman might exclaim, as if the word itself -- like "Terrorists!" or "Roaches!" -- says it all. "Can anything be done about them?"

Perhaps a better question is, "Should anything be done about them?" The answer is a resounding yes and no. Let's look at the common arguments.

We don't need telemarketers!<B> To say that telemarketing should be restricted, or even abolished, because there are bad telemarketers is like saying we should do away with the free press because there are bad publications.

In addition to the tabloids and pornographic magazines a consumer may find at the local newsstand, he's bound to find, say, The New York Times. And if "All the News That's Fit to Print" is what he's in the market for, the Times is indispensable.

Just as there are different kinds of publications, there are different kinds of telemarketers. Some people actually want the goods and services the reputable ones offer. If this wasn't the case, telemarketing wouldn't be the multi-billion dollar industry it is.

Telemarketers don't contribute anything!<B> Telemarketing is responsible for creating new jobs at a staggering rate. It is not unheard of for a telemarketer to employ thousands of people at a single call center. Ask an elected official whether he might be interested in creating a few thousand more jobs. What do you think?

They're annoying! To be sure, there is a minority of disreputable telemarketers out there, and caveat emptor is always good advice. I, too, have been contacted by them, and I agree that a phone call from a stranger who knows who you are, complete with a harangue about the virtues of a product one neither needs nor wants, can be about as welcome as an unexpected visit from one's mother-in-law. It is hardly surprising that those who make a living dialing find themselves held in the same esteem as mothers-in-law.

On the other hand, it's all a matter of perspective. If you need a babysitter, you might think much more of your mother-in-law. If you need what she's offering, she's a bargain. And the same is true of telemarketers.

They call all the time, and usually late at night! If there is someone out there just longing for a seductive voice on the other end of the phone to break the silence of the night hours with a tempting offer of a discounted magazine subscription or dietary supplement, a reputable telemarketer would never know it. As far as the reputable telemarketer is concerned, if it's after 9:00 p.m., dreaming is all consumers are doing. The reputable telemarketer knows two things. Americans don't sleep with their credit cards and checkbooks tucked away in their pajamas. And they go to bed at 9:00 p.m. sharp.

They won't take no for an answer! A popular misconception holds that all telemarketers are out to harass consumers by keeping them on the phone and wearing them down. In fact, good telemarketers are not looking to do any such thing. What they are looking to do, of course, is sell something. Quickly. If a consumer makes it clear that he doesn't want what's being sold, no matter what, the good telemarketer doesn't want to waste any more valuable time, his or the consumer's.

You can't do anything about it! This last complaint causes me great concern. Consumers can do something about being harassed, and they should be encouraged to do so. Reputable telemarketing companies belong to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and/or American Telemarketing Association (ATA). They match the names of persons they intend to call against Do Not Call (DNC) lists. And when consumers ask not to be called again, reputable telemarketing companies are happy to add these individuals to their DNC lists free of charge.

Taken as such, most of the statutory regulations imposed on telemarketing companies seem reasonable enough. It is only because of a few disreputable telemarketers who flout the rules that such prohibitions become overly burdensome to the majority of compliant telemarketing companies looking to compete.

By doing a better job of governing ourselves, and by encouraging consumers to report instances of disreputable and illegal telemarketing practices, our industry can weed out the cheaters and level the playing field for the rest of us.

Acquaint yourselves with the rules and regulations governing telemarketing. Most state laws are reasonable. We should lobby lawmakers to reconsider and change those that are burdensome. We are a powerful industry, but our strength is directly proportional to our unity.

Additionally, we must resolve ourselves to do the best job we can of educating the public about who we are and what we do.

Perhaps, then, one day a person will be able to stand tall and say, in a clear and confident voice...

"My name is Dick, and I am a telemarketer."

Richard E. Penn is the chairman and CEO of Telemarketing Concepts Inc., Yorktown Heights, NY

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