Business Articles

A Lesson in Futility

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

The phone calls were not how I wanted to start my week. My company’s sales line was being slammed with phone calls—for another company. What unfolded was a look into what I assumed was a bygone era, revealing that the ugly side of the call center industry is yet to be eradicated.

The phone calls were from irate—and sometimes not too polite individuals—thinking they were calling a fax removal line. It seems that they had received an unwanted fax solicitation from a travel company offering 75% off on Florida and Bahamas cruise vacations. These callers were not impressed. They angrily called the fax removal line listed in the fine print at the bottom of the page to stop the unwelcome fax intrusions. The problem was that, between a too small font and the low reproduction quality of faxes, two 5s in the removal phone number looked like 6s, thereby corresponding to our sales line.

With voicemail now screening the calls to our sales line (even a recording stating that callers had not reached the fax removal line did not deter them from leaving their information—along with a piece of their understandable angst), I turned my attention towards averting a future reoccurrence of this fiasco. The solution seemed straightforward. Simply call the number in the ad, ask for a manager, explain the situation, and request that future faxes present the fax removal number in a larger point size. Boy was I naive.

Gamely, I dialed the number in the ad. The ringing call was abruptly answered by an agent who seemingly cared nothing about professionalism or customer service. There was a cacophony of sound in the background. Incredibly, I had reached a call center boiler room. Once the agent realized I was not interested in hearing her spiel about vacation cruises, she became even less interested in my call. I realized that my explanation was a futile effort, so I asked to speak to a supervisor. I was immediately disconnected.

Irritated, I called again, this time reaching a different agent. “Someone just hung up me,” I said and immediately launched into my story.

My tale was cut short. “I’ll have your fax number removed for our list,” she said with emphatic irritation. I tried anew to explain. She responded with the same words, only louder.

“No, you don’t understand,” I pleaded earnestly.

“Yes, I do understand,” she yelled back.

I must have responded in like manner, demanding to speak with a manager. I was placed on hold for several minutes—and eventually heard dialtone.

By now, I was furious. Thoughts of retaliation and revenge aggressively flashed through my mind. Fortunately, more sane ponderings eventually returned and I sought my friend Google for a different means of contact. A search of their company name revealed but three matches: a forum post complaining about the company, a listing that gave a street address, and a website about fraud and scams, with the contributor mentioning timeshares and “bait and switch.”

The street address gave me two matches in California. Switching to the satellite view showed them both to be residences. That was of little help.

Googling their phone number brought up the prior post and a phone number look-up service. Clearly, these people did not want to be found. Any ethical and honest business would have a website or at least a listed phone number, desiring to make it easy for people to contact them. Conversely, when a sales and marketing outfit operates in the covert darkness of anonymity, it is reasonable to assume that they have something to hide.

I suspected that the fax was sent by a service bureau, because this same scenario had occurred before. However, then the ad was for a different company and they did not use a call center. So I gave up on the deadbeat call center, turning my attention to the fax service bureau that was complicit in the whole mess. I called the real fax removal line. It was fully automated and I found no way to talk to a person or leave a message. (Although hitting zero repeatedly did make it try to remove phone number 000-000-0000. Interestingly, it had already been “removed.”)

Finally, I Googled the fax removal number and got no matches. Apparently, the faxing service company didn’t want to be found either.

Even now, I shake my head with incredulity. These types of unrestrained activities and fly-by-night antics by an unscrupulous few have gotten the call center industry into trouble in the past. This madness must end. At the risk of stating the obvious, permit me to make some recommendations that apply to all businesses:

  • Train staff to be polite and professional. Retrain or terminate those who won’t capitulate.
  • Don’t hang up on callers.
  • Allow calls to be escalated to a supervisor or manager when requested.
  • Have a website and list your phone number; make it easy for people to contact you.
  • Don’t use “bait and switch” tactics.
  • If you don’t police your staff and you compensate them only for closed sales, expect nothing else from them.
  • Don’t force customers to use automated solutions.
  • Provide a way out (press 0 for operator or at least let them leave a message).
  • Offer an alternative means of contact, such as email or even snail mail.
  • Don’t illegally fax ads.
  • If you perform services for other companies, don’t work with unscrupulous clients.

Unfortunately, most people reading this are not the ones who need this advice. But maybe this article will somehow find itself in the hands of a manager or business owner who needs to reform their wayward practices and do right for their customers.