How did telemarketing get such a bad rap?

I’ve got something to sell, you’ve got money to spend — the movie practically writes itself.  So why don’t more people choose telemarketing as a career?

First of all, I think we need to tackle a big sales myth to answer this question.  And that’s the myth of  “sales people are born, not made”.  I think this is an enormous fallacy.  Any enthusiastic, hard working person can become a salesperson.  Like athletes, some people are born with some raw talent that properly nurtured may yield better than average results, but — also like athletes — big talent with no commitment to improving your skills will get you nowhere. So take an average person who is committed to doing a better-than-average job, consistently, and what will you have?  A sales superstar.  Every skill that a sales dynamo possesses can be taught.

So, if anyone can do it, if they wanted to, that bring us to this question: why do people shrink at the idea of becoming a telemarketer? I talk to fascinating business thought leaders every day.  I learn about their business challenges.  I know who’s moving around, what new products are on the market, and I’ve got a pretty decent Rolodex.  (Oops, I’m dating myself there.) I believe in win-win partnerships, and I don’t believe in the hard sell.  I suppose after ten years as a hired gun I have the luxury of picking my clients, but it didn’t start out that way.

Once upon a time, I was young and tired of working for “the man”.  I was making minimum wage – maybe it was six bucks an hour back then – and when you are young, and not well educated, your career options are pretty limited.  And as a last resort, a rent-paying must-do, I  took an entry level telemarketing  job with Unitel.  Again, I’m dating myself.  I expected to hate it, and planned to just put in a few months while I looked for something else.  And then something magical happened. I sold something.  And I sold a lot of them.  And suddenly telemarketing didn’t have the taboo it had before.  Telemarketing was now a way to earn more money if you worked harder than the guy sitting next to you.  And that was that.  I was hooked.

So fast forward 17 years. I run a team of telemarketers now, but finding them is like panning for gold.  I meet interesting, charming, educated and funny people who are unemployed or underemployed or just plain sick of working 9-5 for a salary that’s not going up by more than a few percent every couple of years.  These people would be brilliant on the phone.  They just can’t see “telemarketing” as a career choice.  The revulsion on their faces when I suggest it tells me everything.   And come on, I’ve come  a long way from business consumer long distance plans – I work with really interesting products and services.

So, throwing money at it works.  This I have proven.  But how do we revolutionize the entire persona of telemarketer?  How do we, as an industry, create a buzz that’s exciting and winsome and alluring?  I work with great callers!  Many of them had experience before they started working with me, and the other ones envied my flexible lifestyle and gave it a shot after heavy encouragement.  How do we take people fresh out of school and convince them that this is a great career choice?

Well first, let’s stop trying to make people work for free.  Commission only is not cool.  Not for someone who has earned their right to a steady paycheque, and not for someone who’s going to need to pay his bills while he learns the trade.  Check out the job boards — everyone seems to think that sales reps are magic and they can just start pulling sales out of the air.   Commission only says this: ” I’m not confident that my solution is good enough and my company is not profitable.  I’m hoping for a magic bullet.”    It’s total garbage.

Next, let’s think about paying people a decent wage.  You want someone to represent your business for ten dollars an hour?  That’s garbage, too.  There is  a business to consumer market out there for ten-dollar-an-hour telemarketers.  It’s a volume, not quality, business.  Think about the last ten telemarketing calls you took, or even just received, at home.  The last ones I received were badly scripted, and I couldn’t understand some of the callers.  I take telemarketing calls, I think it’s good karma, and it’s how I started out.  But in the B2B space you need something better than someone who’s willing to show up on time and go through the script all day.  It’s not a ten dollar an hour job at that point.  The telemarketer may be the first contact someone has with your business, and they should put your very best foot forward.  If the only perception we have of telemarketing is the B2C grind callers, it’s no wonder people turn up their nose at the idea of being associated with that career.  Start offering real wages, and real talent will follow.

And finally, let’s be honest with ourselves.  Telemarketing for eight hours isn’t effective.  You can’t be on top of your game all day every day.  This is a job that requires frequent breaks, mental health days and fun incentives.  Expecting someone to sit at their desk for eight hours straight dialing out is ridiculous.  Pay them for eight.  Expect them to produce for six.  All of a sudden, telemarketing isn’t a grind so much as it is an energizing and interesting day.  These people will drive your revenue – don’t treat them like overhead, treat them like stars.  Find raw talent and nurture it.  Take some risks with newbies.  Give them a reason to want to try it to begin with.  Let’s try to take telemarketing and make it into the job that everyone wants right out of college, not the job that everyone turns to when they can’t find a ‘real job’.  I think it can be done, and I’d love to hear some feedback on how you’re trying to do it!