What you can learn from a telemarketer

Jul 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

Author Raymond Carver once wrote, “You never start out life with the intention of becoming bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar.”

He obviously forgot to include, “or a telemarketer.” In media and political circles, telemarketers often serve as a punchline at best and a whipping boy at worst. We all know the caricatures: script-driven robots, swindlers of the elderly, family time annoyances or erudite foreigners with poor English.

Telemarketing is the position you fall into when you run low on options. The public envisions us cramped up in endless rows of cubicles. The collective roar of 100 pitches fills our air like bar smoke. We are viewed as the bottom rung of the white-collar workforce.

We even poke fun at ourselves sometimes. Want to know the biggest expenditure on our health plans? It’s antidepressants. Want to know how we interview job candidates? We take their pulse. People have actually failed the test.

Of course, the clichés mask an emerging reality. Telemarketing — also known as call centers, teleservices, contact solutions, customer service and phone sales — is a high-tech enterprise. Call centers are accumulating more duties within organizations. Like any emerging profession, our skill sets are growing, as are customer expectations.

Today, the call center has become an organization’s true voice. Your agents are the people who interact with your prospects and customers. They are the embodiment of your brand. They are the bridge between image and reality. It takes only one embarrassing interaction to become an Internet sensation and undo years of marketing and brand-building efforts.

While the call center may be taken for granted in some quarters, it is truly the lifeblood of an organization. That’s why the call center is the perfect place to groom future business leaders. Think I’m kidding? Look at the business skills you need to succeed in a call center:

COMMUNICATION: In any role, you have to convey your ideas clearly and succinctly. You must be personable and persuasive. Most important, you need to listen.

In a call center, you interact with a wide range of people in varying contexts. For example, you may be selling to C-level executives one day and handling fallout from a corporate faux pas the next. Either way, you must build trust and rapport with people. You must be empathetic and open. You must probe to understand another point of view. These are soft skills that are not taught in school — and often make the difference between success and failure.

What’s more, the call center exposes you to a variety of industries, solutions and successful practices. It is an excellent place to sharpen your business acumen and institutional knowledge.

RESILIENCE: In any call center, you will be rejected, no matter how good the offer or how strong the pitch. You will always endure those memorable rants — and remain cool and courteous — even when you were not at fault. The mind-numbing repetition can leave you dispirited. The pay barely covers the mortgage.

Despite these challenges, telemarketers are expected to be at their best on every call. The best agents view each call as a new opportunity. They are always challenging themselves to stay fresh and focused. They can shrug off a bad call. They seemingly have an infinite reservoir of friendliness and patience for every customer. In other words, the best agents are gifted actors. They can filter out distractions and consistently deliver a first-rate performance.

PROBLEM SOLVING: The best agents also bring a proactive mindset and can-do attitude. They listen critically, identify key points and emotional undercurrents and offer win-win solutions. They follow up and deliver on their promises. They defuse tensions and build long-term loyalty. Basically, the best agents thrive in adversity. They use it to solidify relationships and differentiate themselves.

ACCOUNTABILITY: Call-center agents are constantly being evaluated. They must master a large body of knowledge, manage complex systems and closely follow directions. They have to learn to accept coaching and criticism. If they don’t perform, they are either reassigned or cut.

How is that different from any other department? The process is accelerated. You can run a report on nearly every variable in a call center. There is no place to hide. The call center has evolved into a profit center. You have to get results — quickly.

PROFESSIONAL GROWTH: Turnover is notoriously high in call centers, sometimes reaching up to 100%. While this is daunting to some, it represents an opportunity to others.

High turnover enables performers to quickly move up into personnel management, training and quality control. In these posts, you can develop critical skills like coaching, motivating, disciplining and evaluating. In other words, you can attain coveted responsibilities and experience in months instead of years.

Want to hone your leadership and people skills? Want to know how your customers really perceive your brand? Spend a few months on a call center floor. That’s where the action really is in your organization.


Jeff Schmitt is a learning solutions specialist for McGraw-Hill Higher Education. He spent 11 years at Advanced Data-Comm (now WS Live).