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The "QUAIL" Effect in Telemarketing: Notes on Emotional Labor
By Mark Sanford, PhD

Telemarketing has become an 80 billion dollar a year industry in the United States and it shows no signs of decline as a major means for securing orders for goods and services.

Telemarketing has become an 80 billion dollar a year industry in the United States and it shows no signs of decline as a major means for securing orders for goods and services. As a generic form of communication, it consists of requests for compliance, to take an action, in particular to 'buy' something, to possesess the right of use and ownership.The request is a ubiquitous kind of message in commercial transactions and in the economic life of society generally. And of course the request is not used just for goods or services, but for: money, entertainment , time, conformity, answers, companionship, submission, help, favors and satisfaction. What I have to report about commercial requests pertain to these other kinds of requests as well, at least with reference to initiation and rejection.

Commercial requests for compliance are conveyed in one or more of four ways: voice to voice, face to face, direct mail or via the mass, radio, or print media. ....and now, of course, the internet.

These avenues are used to convey a desire that the prospect surrender money for benefits such as: reduced costs, increased profit, convenience, security, comfort, speed, utility, prestige.The generic act of requesting gives rise to what have been termed "compliance professionals" raisers, lobbyists, salespeople (especially direct sales) and politicians. These compliance experts are all trying to get people to accept from them something which it is to their advantage they should take.

A request is one of the building blocks of commerce, of communication and of social interaction in general. Marketing is about the production of requests. We, as consumers and citizens in advanced industrial societies, are deluged with requests to do something, mostly to buy something. The U.S. Chamber of commerice has figured we are exposed to 2 thousand commercial advertisements per day during our daily round. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, there were approximately 58 thousand transactions recorded per minute on VISA/MC. That figure alone represents how frequent and wide spread requests for compliance are in our society; and, how often they are acceded to.

All of this production of requests makes us in to 'request recievers', a major role we play in society. One's waking consciousness is vulnerable to commercial interruptions disgused as requests. Or requests disguised as advertisements. In fact they have become a normal part of our environment. One breaks into the consciousness of another with the imposition being warranted by requests. To be 'at home' or 'in the office' is to be subject to these impositions. And, if ones own business depends upon these or similar like intrusions on others, one feels perhaps a special oblgation to 'lend an ear' i.e. to submit to the imposition, to even comply with the request.

The Experience of the Telemarketer

I have spent the past l2 months as a participant observer in a telemarketing operation in the San Francisco Bay Area; I have been working one half time, making around l00 calls a day to business owners, seeking to persuade them of the benefits of pre-papid legal plans....a membership program, payable monthly, that provides access to a variety of discounted legal services, with greatly reduced rates in case of lawsuit. The approach is similar to that of health or dental plans.Essentially the process involves contacting the owner, presenting a brief summary of features and benefits, and if interest is forthcoming, sending written documentation that describes the particulars of the service, background about the company, and pricing information for different plans. This is followed by call back calls to solicit a positive or negative decision. The figures: out of l00 calls, contact will be made with between l5 and 20 decision makers; of these, 4 or 5 will ask for the proposals, and one out of l0 who receive the proposal will buy.

The average turn around between initial contact and eventual sale is three or four weeks. Many are longer. Four or five call backs are normally required to pin done the agreement, though this means many more calls than that since the decision maker is often not available. All this boils down to about l sale per twenty hours of work if one is working alone. Or 2 minutes of jubilation out of 2400 minutes of hard, frustrating emotional labor.

The Adversity of Dialing

I am here to report that the major features of this work is its emotional adversity. It isn't just the rejection and failure, it isn't just the cancellations or the inexplicable lulls when weeks may go by without a sale; and it isn't just the rude treatment by the disgruntled prospect or the overlapps when you call the same number twice or the competition with other agents; and it isn't just the days when no proposals are sent out....all these events that come up during dialing are what together evoke a variety of negative emoions, what I call the 9 forms of adversity in telemarketing:

  • Guilt for not calling enough
  • Disappointment at failed proposals
  • Feelings of inadequacy for not being able to convert more prospects
  • Intimidation or meekness because of fear of giving offense or because of resistance of prospects
  • Embarrassment as when one inadvertently calls the same number twice
  • Chagrin or the deadening of self respect when one finds that service promised is not delivered
  • Futility from a day of dialing without any leads
  • Boredom from the repetitious nature of the work
  • Nervous anticipation while dialing for fear of giving unintended offense by interrupting a prospect...sometimes called 'disruption sensitivity', a fear of intruding, seeming pushy or being 'disruptive', the most common form of call reluctance
  • Fatigue after hours of dialing
  • Powerlessness from having a minimum sense of control over where to find good prospects.

Moods Resulting from Negative Feeling

The effect of these negative feelings is to put one in a very sullen and morose frame of mind. I call it the 'quail effect' can become thoroughly dispirited and lose the will to continue: It is especially noticeable during lulls in discovering leads or making sales. One becomes morose and melancholy. One tends to lose heart, to be filled with doubt that progress can be made in the long run. The adversity of the process puts one in the doldrums, suffusing one with gloomy ill humor. All of these together make up the quail effect.

This sour mood creates a strong wish to flee the activity, to escape having to initiate the contacts which bring about the events that inflict the negative feelings. If one yields to this mood, it impacts one's effectiveness: one's tone of voice loses strength and vitality taking on instead the color of resignation; confidence and enthusiasm is lessened which in turn reduces effectiveness and productivity. This reduction in effectiveness, when added to the other forms of adversity, creates a great resistance to continuing in the face of so much apparent futility. What develops is a wish to defend against the frustration and monotony and the ways in which this is done is what I want to turn to next.

Strategies for Overcoming the Quail Effect

From my experience and from observaton of my co-workers, there are a variety of strategies employed in dealing with the emotional adversity of telemarketing. These techniques are instructive for what they tell us in general about emotional labor, about ways people motivate themselves and control their emotions, by various rationalizations and justifications. The central issue is how does one resolve the question: How can so much frustration be worthwhile in the light of so little reward?

Of course, many cope with adversity and the doleful mood that sometimes follows by quitting. In my group, about 50% quit after 3 months. Others cut back their efforts, not being able to tolerate more than a few hours of calling per week. These are the retirees and students.

For those who stay on, several coping mechanisms seem prominent. The first is to focus on the possibility of great financial return if a commitment to full time capacity is maintained. Judging from the emphasis this factor receives from sales managers, the prevailing theory is that money motivation is the chief incentive system for making the adversity of saleswork worthwhile. And for the top producers in my group, who represent about l0% of our number, and bring in about 80% of the business, financial rewards are considerable: $l500 a week and up, on average, not counting renewal income or bonuses. Thus good money is possible though its hard to say whether those making it do so because of sales skills or because of good character traits, like patience, tenacity, resilience, self discipline and a high tolerance for frustration. For the money motivated, the worthwhileness question is: Is this adversity tolerable given the possible financial payoff? For them, the answer is "yes".

Others, who have others sources of income and can affort part time effort , focus more on matters of philosophical meaningfulness or personal growth. Some use the root metaphors of helping others, innovating new business practices, reducing costs, being pioneers in the delivery of new services to explain why they are willing to do this work. I suspect in this connnection that the higher the psychic cost associated with a work activity, the more likely the root metaphors get called into play to provide fortitude and determination to move forward. This effort to sanctify an otherwise unpleasant task by claiming it serves more elevated or dignified goals suggests that ennobling something is a means of emotional control. We see it at play in missionary work, the careers of do-gooders and ascetical virtuousos. As St. Francis said: "So great is the good I am expecting that every pain is to me joyous." Or Cicero: "All labors that lead to glory and distinction are endurable."

Others appreciate the lack of supervision and freedom to set their own hours of work. They can dress as they like, work out of their own home and take vacations anytime. These are all compensations sufficient for some to warrant putting up with the adversity.

What we see at work here is the attempt to transmute the meaning of the activity, from painfulness to pride, from adversity to progress, from fearfulness to desire. The transmutation makes the experience more endurable, for if it is defined as worthy, it is experienced as tolerable.

Take my example. I developed a belief that the way to be most satisfied with an activity is to be involved in it as maximally as possible. And that the way to increase involvement is to make the activity more challenging by having it meet one's own personal standards of performance. Something can be made more challenging by always seeking to make incremental improvements. Hence in dialing, I built up my capacity by setting a goal of five more dials daily; by doing this, I discovered that each episode of frustration was experienced less painfully and more as a positive step towards a personally significant goal. (Incidentally, after a year's time, for those of us who stuck with it, he various frustrations become less painful as one becomes accustomed to them. Psychologists speak about progressive desensitization in helping people overcome addictions or social phobias and it is certainly true that after thousands of rejections in dialing, the failure of the next call seems hardly worth worrying about. One becomes conditioned to adversity; cold calling brings one to a condition of indifference to rejection and other discouraging events. Each new catastrophe sets a new bench mark against which subsequent lesser calamities are compared and thereby made more endurable.)

Finally, protection against the emasculating effects of dialing is sought by focusing on the opportunities for personal growth and development that this activity offers: especially the development of greater assertiveness.This issue of assertiveness is of special interest. In dialing for the legal service, I began to understand that an OBJECTIVE way to reduce the frustration of this work, and the monetary costs of telephone bills and postage, was to move the prospect to a positive or negative decision more quickly. For the problem is that one rather large category of prospects (30-40%) have difficulty making a decision and don't like to say 'no' too bluntly out of a concern for the feelings of the salesperson. And conversely, some of my peers, myself included, found it hard to ask searching questions, to ask for the order soon enough out of an unwillingness to appear too forward or pushy. In a word, we found ourselves resistant to appearing presumptuous, impudent or arrogant as we imagined we mightin the eyes of the prospect. But the economic and psychic costs of dealing with procrastinators forced us to reconsider this posture .Of course it is hard to know where the truth lies in this matter since there are no objective standards. What is daring to one person may only seem comfortably pragmatic to another. But as one goes along, as I have done, sending out proposals and making endless call backs to prospects who ultimately did not buy, one begins to look for methods of early detection., for ways of uncovering the true prospects from those who are simply to shy and /or polite to say no. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that in telemarketing some prospect resistance is based on fear of being cheated or distrust that the services promised will in fact be provided. But these fears are rarely voiced explicitly; to do so would convey that the salesperson was not trustworthy, an indictment that some prospects feel could possibly be unfair and so they hide out by endless procrastination disguised as friendliness which in fact, one discovers too late, is only a mask for disinterest.Hence there is this rather elaborate dance in which both parties to the transaction try to conceal from the other their own private fantasies and concerns. They don't want to say no and we don't want to ask. However, the longer this goes on the more costly it becomes to the salesperson. Faced with a prospect who doesn't have the courage to say no, but only maybe, it behooves the salesperson to find out if the prospect is a qualified buyer or not. To do this requires a certain degree of asking questions to find background factors conducive to a sale, in determining level of interest, in getting the prospect to face their own situation with reference to legal needs and in uncovering whether there is enough money in the budget to handle th charge. It takes confronting the prospect to get him to face his true situation in order to get him to move quickly from contact to decision.

I am convinced that the aggressiveness and pushyness that we as consumers sometimes associate with salespeople is born of the frustrating and costly conditions of the labor and not the personality make up of the agent. Telemarketing, in short, penalizes passivity which is seemingly an appealing way of coping with the frustration of the work. By focusing only on those who have a high need, or show immediate strong interest on the first call, the time wasters and procrastinators are ignored. But there are buyers in this group too and to ignore them is to risk being forced out of business by insufficient income.

Summing up, I think it is safe to say that the most effective way of dealing with the psychic costs of telemarketing....the "quail effect" is to develop meaning systems that focus on personal goals, to redefine the experience in ways that allow the integration of meaning and motive into the action so that the negative emotions are made endurable. C. Wright Mills argued in White Collar that when we 'sell our personality' in the course of selling goods and services we become estranged from our feelings. I would argue that we become not so much estranged from them but that during selling we learn to control them to serve our needs for meaningfulness; and that the effect of emotional labor is not, as Hochschild argues in the Managed Heart that people become estranged from the management of their emotions, but that instead people learn to develop assertiveness and to be indifferent to rejection.....attributes both functional to their development and to the the commercial operations of a capitalist society.

(c) 1999 Sanford Associates

Mark Sanford, of Sanford Associates, is a business development coach and trainer with 30+ years of business experience. More free articles and training materials on cold calling. Mark can be reached at 925.253.0646.

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