Let's Show Telemarketing's Good Side

No one can dispute that telemarketing and teleservices need an image makeover. Telemarketers regularly rank last in polls concerning business ethics. Millions of Americans rushed to join the national no-call registry.

But we all know the no-call list has been less than effective. Exclusions to the program are not well understood. Companies use pre-established relationship and partner programs, surveys and political and charity exceptions to get around the legislation. Consumers still get calls they don’t want, only now they think we’re breaking the law when we call. Our industry had poor credibility to begin with, thanks to the business practices of some unethical folks in the 1990s. We’ve suffered even more damage to our reputation from the very legislation created to govern and police the industry’s ethics and practices.

Yet legislative activity aimed at telemarketing has dipped recently. Not because of a shift toward less-prohibitive laws for the industry; stricter rules for call center owners are right around the bend. Legislators finally are understanding the positive role our industry has on the economy and on employment in particular. Stronger awareness of these points, via smarter and more aggressive lobbying, is educating lawmakers.

Lobbyist efforts and efforts by trade organizations such as the American Teleservices Association (www.ataconnect.org) are working to reverse the anti-telemarketing sentiment in Congress. Now it’s time to disseminate that information to the public. Telemarketing is a valid, productive industry.

Americans really do buy over the telephone. A 2003 survey by the Direct Marketing Association shows that telemarketers mostly do a good job. It’s a popular way for consumers to learn about and buy products and services. From May 2002 to May 2003, one-third of adult Americans (66 million) bought products or services by phone as a result of an outbound telemarketing campaign. These folks, equally men and women, spent $9 billion on products averaging about $135 per unit. Nearly 60 percent said their purchase specifically suited their needs. Nearly 40 percent felt the savings and trial offers they received over the phone were a strong reason they made the purchase.

Most of us in the industry have done well in targeting customers, contacting them with the appropriate frequency and offering special prices to drive sales. These numbers reflect that.

We’re doing our job. And it’s creating an extraordinary number of jobs for segments of the population that need the most help economically. Census information in 2001 showed that nearly 70 percent of telemarketing representatives were non-white women. African-American women made up half the total number of employees. Working mothers were more than 60 percent, and more than one-quarter were single working mothers. Only 5 percent had a college degree. And nearly one-third reported being “recently” on public assistance or welfare.

The ATA estimates that 6 million people work in telemarketing. Our industry provides a much-needed first step to employment for many people who otherwise might be on some kind of assistance. The public should know this. They should understand that not only do they support the industry by using it so heavily to find the products they want, the telemarketing industry provides jobs for people who might struggle otherwise.

Not only that, teleservices firms provide work in economically depressed areas. More than 60 percent of call centers are in rural areas. My company operates a center in northern Minnesota. Though we only recently relocated to International Falls, on the Canadian border, we are already the area’s second-largest employer.

Our industry needs to start an aggressive public relations campaign to show the benefits of call centers and telemarketing. Let’s start with employment. How would consumers feel about those calls if they knew the person on the other end was most likely a single mom, working to make it on her own? Or a farmer or other resident of a rural area who has been unemployed for years until the call center set up shop? Educating the public on how call centers increase employment, tax revenue and productivity in economically depressed areas would do much to turn the tide.

The industry needs to help consumers understand how much they use teleservices. Most people don’t know that every time they order by phone from a catalog, they’re using telemarketing. Most charities use telemarketing to drive revenue for causes such as breast cancer or public radio. And telemarketing drives for political efforts helped get more voters to the polls in recent elections than had been seen in many years.

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