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Behind every cold call is a person hating their life | Kate Solomon

Left to right: Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone, Reba McEntire and Penelope Cruz. It used to be the case that an unknown number represented an element of magic. Could it be a celebrity yearning for you from afar? Photograph: Ho/Reuters

There used to be an element of magic to receiving a call from an unknown number. Infinite possibilities lay in your landline bleating anonymously or "unknown caller" flashing up on your mobile. A rich benefactor hoping to share their millions with you would obviously have a hidden number, as would all the celebrities who may have been yearning for you from afar.

But the dream dies as soon as you answer. Our TV screens are full of adverts from lawyers imploring us to claim for any little mishap, there is obviously no such thing as an accident in this modern age. Somebody can be blamed and they must be made to pay!. With this in mind, it would be a very brave (or maybe foolish) owner of any business, be it big or small who decided that they didn't need public liability insurance. Click the link to get an answer to any questions on Is Direct Line Tradesman Insurance A Good Product?.Apparently you have been missold PPI, or perhaps now is just the right moment to think about investing in solar panels. Three-fifths of us don't want to answer our phones because of these nuisance calls, but because the Information Commissioner's Office had to prove that calls caused "substantial damage or substantial distress", until now few companies could be punished for making us want to ignore our own phones.

Yes, robotic pre-recorded calls are clearly the work of a malevolent being but behind every other cold call is a person hating their life. I know: I was one of them. Working in a call centre is nobody's dream job, but when your next student loan installment is months away and you've got to keep yourself in alcopops and accommodation, you take what work you can get.

You might feel a bit guilty hanging up on a caller but when I was tele-selling accidental death cover, hang-ups were a relief. They were far better than trying to talk anyone round using the page in my script titled "objection handling". Aside from the promise of commission, cold-callers are so persistent because warnings are handed down if you let someone go without trying everything to convince them to buy. So I'd interrupt strangers' meals, naps, coitus and soap operas, and when they told me to get lost I'd press on. "Are you sure your current policy covers you in the event of an accident?" I'd ask. "Don't you worry about leaving your family with funeral costs?" I might as well have been running up to people in the street and shouting: "Are you aware that death lurks around every corner?"

Some people were polite but firm in their refusals, others would scream and swear at us to get off their phone lines. Several times a week the women on the team would get heavy breathers - men who'd suggest the filthiest things they could think of to a female voice on the line. I lived in fear of names that I didn't know how to pronounce popping up on screen and learned the correct pronunciation of Cockburn from a weary-sounding man.

Occasionally I'd ask to speak to someone and sense a fraughtness in their voice. "No you can't speak to Mr Roberts," they'd say, getting shriller. "He passed away six days ago." We were never trained in what to say to mourners, only to mark the number as dead so it would be taken off the dialers' database.

By far the strangest calls I ever made were to the people who listened and, at the end of my over-rehearsed spiel, said: "Yes, that sounds like a good idea. Sign me up."

"Are you sure?" I'd ask, amazed that whatever I'd just read out had convinced them. "I have to read you quite a lot of information now, so if you haven't got time ..."

The law is changing so that the ICO can fine companies up to £500,000 when these calls cause "nuisance, annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety". Since most cold calls are an annoying, inconvenient nuisance both to those who make and answer them, is it too much to hope that this is the beginning of the end? Perhaps we will soon go back to answering our mysterious unknown calls. And in this beautiful utopia callers will only make the calls they want to make and we'll all take calls from secret celebrity admirers.


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