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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Losing friends and alienating people
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online

No one's ever happy to hear from you. You work hard for little glory, and you're reluctant to tell people what you do for a living. You're a cold caller - and it's part of your job to drive people crazy.

Getting cold calls can be a source of delight, at least if you are Tom Mabe. Because when the phone rings, it's an opportunity to torment another caller.

For Mabe, the kind of anti-cold call tactic promoted by comedian Jerry Seinfeld (telling one caller: "I'm sorry, I'm a little tied up now - give me your home number and I'll call you back later") is letting them off easy.

He makes his living by making cold callers uncomfortable.

It all started about 10 years ago when Mabe, of Kentucky, was at home trying to think up catchy jingles for advertisements - his real job - when the phone rang. Incessantly. And each time it screeched, he would rush to the receiver, hoping it was a prospective employer.

Nearly every time, it was a cold call. And after a while, "I just started messing with them," he says.

Who are the Least Wanted in society? In the next few weeks, The Magazine will look at spammers, chuggers and others

That turned into an idea of recording his conversations with the telemarketers, and that turned into a CD, and that first disc - which sold 2,000 copies through word-of-mouth in the first two weeks - turned into a record contract.

"If telemarketers only called people that want to be called, they'd be calling no one," he says. "They use my phone more than I do."

One of his favourite calls involved a local cemetery, offering to pre-arrange his funeral. Mabe took advantage of the situation.

"I said I was contemplating suicide, and looking for a sign," he says. "He tried to talk me down. But then I said, 'Can you help me out?' And he told me about all of their packages. I said, 'Do you have financing?' He said, 'Sir, you just told me you were contemplating suicide'."

It sounds nasty, but Mabe says it's not. "I don't mind you trying to make a living, but when I say I'm not interested, I'm not interested," he says.

At the other end

So what of the people on the other end of the phone who are just trying to make that living?

Take Paul Harris for instance. He's well-spoken and engaging, knowledgeable and amusing. He would be an excellent addition to any dinner party - except he won't tell you about a big part of his life.

Jerry Seinfeld
Give me your home number and I'll call you back later. Oh, you don't like being bothered at home?
Jerry Seinfeld

He's no MI5 operative, he doesn't work for the Inland Revenue, he's just a businessman who happens to be the director of a telemarketing company.

His firm, Converso Contact Centres, is the kind of place where employees are called "associates" and teamwork is a big part of the equation. People matter, he says. Wages are good. Conditions are not Dickensian.

But he tends not to chit-chat about work at parties, preferring just to say he works for a call centre and leave it at that. "I don't say I work for a telemarketing firm, because then they say, 'Oh, you're the people who ring at dinner.'"

Steve, 32, from London, spent a year cold calling for a phone company after he graduated. He says he found talking about his job at parties evoked sympathy.

"The pay wasn't great and the hours were terrible - evenings and Saturdays, when any self-respecting 20something would far rather not be working. And let's face it, it's a job that lots of people have had to do."

Paul Harris says although the job isn't the easiest way to make a living, it wouldn't count as "horrible", despite having made the calls and had people shouting and being rude.

That's just part of the territory, he says, and a good telemarketer has to be able to get over it in a hurry. There's always another call to make.

Opt out

There are ways to stop unsolicited sales pitches. The Telephone Preference Service allows people to register their phone numbers so they will no longer receive the calls.

So far, 4.4 million people have taken advantage of the free service, which was created under UK privacy laws and can cover landlines or mobiles. [See internet links on the right of this page for online registration.]

George Bush on phone
Mr Bush lost patience with cold calls
In the US, about 55 million phone numbers have been registered under that country's Do Not Call legislation, created last year by President Bush, who has called unsolicited sales calls "intrusive, annoying, unwelcome commercial solicitations".

"While many good people work in the telemarketing industry, the public is understandably losing patience with these unwanted phone calls, unwanted intrusions," he said in 2002.

"And given a choice, Americans prefer not to receive random sales pitches at all hours of the day. And the American people should be free to restrict these calls. "

Not interested. No, really

Paul Harris agrees, but points out that Americans receive far more marketing calls than residents of the UK. He says that a middle-class, middle-income home might receive one call every three weeks, while a similar home in the US would get one every three days.

So it's important to tread carefully, he says, working with an awareness of their customers' feelings.

When Converso gets to work, they think before they dial, Mr Harris says. For example, when Arsenal played Chelsea in the Champions' League semi-finals earlier this month, his associates made sure not to call men living in the south of England.

Instead, they focused their efforts on women living in the north.

"We try our hardest not to upset people," Mr Harris says. "You're always going to call someone in the middle of Coronation Street. But we do our best."

Send your views on cold callers. And nominate a job in our hunt for society's Least Wanted.

Your views so far:

Being registered with the TPS doesn't stop the calls getting through, although it has cut down the number of them. Now when I get a call, I ask to speak to their supervisor, so that I can express my displeasure at being called - 9 times out of 10, they hang up.
Gareth Sefton, UK

The best trick is to say "oh, I'll be back in a sec, I've left the milk boiling." then place the receiver on the side and come back half an hour later. They might still be there!
Ben, UK

As soon as I moved house, I registered with the Mail Preference Service, the Telephone Preference Service, the Fax Preference Service and the Email Preference Service. All I need now is the Pizza Flyer Preference Service.
Jeremy B, UK

I can't stand cold callers. In fact when the phone rings we just leave the answering machine to reply, and only pick up if someone we know starts speaking. Cold callers aren't in the habit of leaving messages... so case solved.
Julian Greene, UK

I get most irritated by the so called "courtesy calls" from banks that I already do business with. They call you in the middle of dinner, ask you a series of personal questions to prove you are who they know you are, then try and sell you a loan. It feels like they are taking advantage as there seems to be nothing I can do to stop these calls because I am an existing customer.
Ellen, UK

I work for an internet based financial services company and part of my job is cold calling the public. The abuse you get is immense but I would deal with 100 rude people just to get the buzz of that one sale. It's a great job and I love it although the people we call have to realise that we are only doing our job and being rude to us isn't going to make us get off the phone quicker, it will just make us more determined to sell to the next person we contact.
Katy Peverill, England

On Good Friday, I received a "cold call" from a company. My daughter had answered the phone in the first instance and as she hadn't asked who was calling, but just handed the phone to me, stating it was for me, I assumed it might have been from somebody I knew. This was obviously not the case and when I said I wasn't interested, I was verbally abused. Whilst I know that these people do have a job to do (I work in a call centre myself, although not cold-calling), verbal abuse is not part of the criteria. If I spoke to a customer in such a manner, I would no long have a job. Suffice it to say, I have written a letter of complaint to the company and await their written apology.
Chris Hodges, UK

It's a difficult trade but someone has to do it and I commend them. If people receiving them took two minutes notice, who is to say that it is not offering them something they can utilise? "Not interested" has just lost them a saving of 10 a month on their phone bill. Narrow Minded. I call people day in and day out and my objective is not "who can I bother" but how can I make this person take a step back, listen for 30 seconds and then tell me that it's of no use. well done callers!
Simon, UK

Cold callers are often professionals looking for a stop- gap, or parents looking for extra money with flexible times to work around commitments. No one enters a telesales role as a career move, it is merely a stepping stone. Having done the job myself I can assure everyone that it is the most demoralising line of work to be in. Working in a stressful environment with strict targets, calling people who don't want to talk to you and working with managers who started where you are and are on a power trip. It is a nightmare. Next time you have a cold caller, have a bit of a chat with them. Tell them you are NOT interested in the product, but perhaps ask how their day has been, or whereabouts in the country they are. When I sat back after a call and thought "what a nice man/ lady", it kept me going for the rest of the day. And to those of you are in this sort of role- Do not be consumed by it- there are other options- keep them open.
Mary, Newcastle

Cold calling....hmmm, i own a Telemarketing Company...As far as training goes i dont let my staff make cold calls. Instead i get them making warm calls, being nice to people and spreading positive vibes accross the UK, every 20 or so calls we get through to someone nice and get a sale and its worth it for everyone, my advice to people who receive cold calls, we're all equal be nice to your cold caller - opt out and minimise the incoming calls if they get you so down, but if one stray call comes through, what harm is it in being nice, what comes around goes around and one day soon you are going to want to sell someone something.
Richard, UK

An energy company called me offering me a cheaper gas supply. Unfortunately it was during extra time of the Rugby World Cup Final. When I pointed out what was happening at the time and asked if they were having a laugh, the telemarketer had the decency to apologise. I "politely" told them not to phone me again.
Steve, London

Several people have commented "someone has to do it". What utter nonsense. This is not dentistry or streetcleaning. Those are essential jobs, but there are many other ways for companies to sell their goods rather than cold calling.
John, England

Once every 3 weeks?!?! In a normal week we recieve around 3-5 calls!
Laura, UK

I used to work in a call centre and it was a lot harder than I could have imagined. It's not fun spending eight hours a day having rude and angry people blame you for a number of problems that they're experiencing as a result of "customer services" which have nothing to do with either youself or the company that you work for. It doesn't really take much time or effort to politely decline rather than being offensive, aggressive, or by using tricks to wind the caller up and make his/her job harder, because the chances are the caller isn't enjoying the experience any more than the one who has been called. So next time you complain about being called think of the people who are having the same conversations for 40 hours a week!
Alice, UK

I used to be very polite to cold callers, but over a period of time I noticed they were coming increasingly rude. Many of them would hang up on me if I didn't give them my personal details or would adopt an abrupt tone when I probed their questions. Nowadays, as soon as I know it's a telesales call I just say, 'not intersted' and hang up!
Leon Reilly, London, England

I run my own business, and have to make cold calls to companies in order to get appointments. If I just sat and waited for people to call me I'd be bankrupt in a month. To all of these people who hate cold callers so much, think about the company you work for, how do they get new business? Half of you would all be out of a job if it wasn't for your own organisations using cold calling techniques.
Jonathan , UK

On top of the normal cold calling I now even get a recorded cold call!
Phil, UK

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