Unsolicited Calls – The Other Side of the Story

There has been enough ranting on the phenomena of unsolicited calls, I guess nowadays it is mostly a vogue to make fun, curse, and abuse it. And anybody who is anybody can be seen displaying these emotions and bemoaning what a curse this is to way we live our lives. Enough said!! I will try to take this from another angle. But, before I begin, let us do some background study.

What is the economics?
A call center is a physical place where customer and other telephone calls are handled by an organization, usually with some amount of computer automation. Call centers are used by mail-order catalog organizations, telemarketing companies, computer product help desks, and any large organization that uses the telephone to sell or service products and services.

With sweeping economic changes across the country in particular and the world in general, organizations have been devising new methods which can help them increase/maintain their market share. There is a lot of money floating out there and with the ever increasing middle class and earning people, any company worth its salt wants to tap into this market. This brings about new lines of products and services.

Organizations now had the daunting task to educate and inform potential customers about their products and services in a cost effective manner. Direct mail and advertising have been the traditional tools in this approach but can be extremely expensive and not always on target. Telemarketing is a much more economical way to reach customers, educate them on products, and better respond to their feedback. Necessity they say is the mother of invention.

Enough of the macro & micro economics lets head to the next question:

Are we being elitist?
Indians love to have uniformity and order. Contrary to this, the Indian society is always in a state of flux and chaos. Hence we invariable try to create categories and orders within this complete “Brownian Motion”. We do it on psychological as well as societal planes. We are the land of the world infamous caste system, and although those traditional boundaries are now swiftly been broken down we are quickly replacing them with stronger and higher walls based on money and “so called” intellectual superiority (which also includes the job profile of an individual). This makes me think – Are we being elitist? Are we somehow displaying the same emotions that some western people display to people handling calls from third world countries? When we receive unsolicited phone calls, I wonder whether hidden deep below that annoyance and irritation is a sense of superiority. I would be a hypocrite if I denied that I have not seen the face of self conceit lurking somewhere in shadows of my mind. And this makes me ask my next question:

What is the psychological angle to this?
The Indian telemarketing scene and our perception to it are more based on the negative image that it carries and our own subtle sense of being a Boston Brahmin. Not that I am advocating for these calls, they are no doubt annoyances to our work and private life schedules but the way we approach these callers is based on our perception of their business image, their work environment, and to some extent on our own sense of superiority.

Telemarketing in general and call centers in particular have gained the public perception of being centers of scams & con tricks, hedonistic lifestyles, and debauchery. At the same time we continuously hear stories about people being hounded by a telemarketer, or of people being duped into buying something which was not of their expectations and then being dogged to buy more (Suckers List), or of morally wrong lifestyles etc. However, I believe these are more the exceptions rather than the rule. But a negative image is far more difficult to remove and hence these horror stories keep doing the rounds and strangely get more spiced up each time they come back to us. I believe the way we respond to these unsolicited calls is more based on this perception rather than the annoyance/irritation factor.

So, what is the telemarketer’s side of the story?
Far from the general perception, the telemarketer lives an extremely stressful and tense life. With ever increasing sales targets which invariably are linked to the incentives and hence his/her paycheck, the telemarketing centers have earned the industry nickname of the “The Boiler Room”. Telemarketing organizations have also been severely criticized for unethical business practice. There have been reports of telemarketing organizations providing below standard working conditions to its employees and also forcing them to use high pressure sales tactics to achieve targets.

Telemarketing has been seen as the “Sunshine Sector” across the industrial world and particularly in India. The NASSCOM McKinsey report estimated that 30,000 people worked in call centers in 2001 which was three times the figure in 2000. By 2008, this industry is expected to generate a turnover in the region of Rs. 200 billion.

This industry is supposed to be the new haven of educated or semi educated youths, the place where there is big money to make/answer a few(?) phone calls. However, the reality is far more disturbing. Reports after reports have been published about the serious “health and psycho-social disorders” faced by employees of such organizations. Cases have been registered about psychological exploitations, such as (I am quoting here):

The call centre’s revenue model is based on sales performance. And that is why the call centre industry focuses on women – they assume that the male buyer would most probably buy if a female executive sweet-talked him into doing so. It is more difficult for the male psyche to rebuff a nicely cultured female voice at the other end of the line!

Psychologically, it is seen that women have a natural advantage in their ability to deal with customers who are sometimes short-tempered and use abusive language.” – (Does this sound familiar?)

Since all organizations are performance based, the telemarketers also have their metrics. This includes number of calls made, quality of services, dealing with irate customers and most importantly achieving the target before or on the stipulated time. It puts immense pressure on them leading to early burn-outs or stress. Extreme stress (and at times ungodly hours of working) bars them from leading a normal social life. Listening to abusive, irate, and humiliating language in the most part of their work leaves them with deep psychological scars which cannot be treated instantly.

Chetan Bhagat’s “One Night at the Call Center” is one of India’s biggest bestseller. Here he has compared the call center to a sweatshop where the stakes are high and the losses are even higher. The V.V. Giri National Labor Institute Report equated call centers to Roman slave galleys. However even with all these reports, everybody is out there to exploit and make money. Regulations, rules, physical & mental health and stress be damned!!

Curse the sin not the sinner
Coming back to “We, the Indians”, all I can say is that there is a public outcry not only in India but across the world because of the nuisance that is caused by the telemarketing phone calls. Most developed nations are putting in regulations and implementing strong laws to make sure that such nuisances are either stopped or greatly reduced. But at the same time they also have to ensure that the livelihoods of people employed in this industry is not completely finished or damaged beyond repair. But the losses are going to be high and are imminent. It is true that the organizations (of which many are in India) whose entire business model is based on such cold calling techniques will suffer greatly. But these are the organizations that have given telemarketing such a bad name in the first place. Governments invariable work slow and so all we can do is wait patiently for such changes to come in and be assured that they will.

In the meantime, what we can do for a change is to look at the telemarketer through patient eyes. Every Job is a good job, and that is what these telemarketers are doing – their job. They are the same people like us with hopes, aspiration, and dreams of a better life but maybe with far lesser capabilities or resources to achieve them. They do what they are told to do, and mostly their annoying activities are not coming from them personally but are the manifestations of the pressures and environment that they work in. The lure of a better life and quick buck induces these sometimes semi-educated individuals to gravitate to these sweatshops while we the Boston Brahmins gravitate towards bigger and better opportunities. I believe that does not give us the right to make fun or humiliate them.

Indian tradition has always preached the path of compassion, understanding, peaceful co-existence, and dignity of labor. Although these principles are fading in recent times, we can make an effort to follow them. After all that is what our tradition and DNA is all about. So next time when Pooja from XYZ Company calls, we can be firm and say no to her for whatever she is soliciting to us but, we should remember that she is doing her job just like we do ours. So let us try to be polite and keep our karmas clean.

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Prashant

Technologist,by profession. Principled,by nature. Nonconformist,by choice. Thinker,by habit. Corporate Slave,by force. Dreamer,by desire. Seeker,by destiny.