I can almost always pick them out from the normal customers before they ever walk through the door: sales people. (Inject a little venom here.) They almost always come in pairs, dressed in business suits that have seen a little too much wear, carrying fancy, embossed folders of useless information that will likely go in the trash as soon as they leave. If at all possible, I try to disappear before they even know I’m there. If not, I foist them on my poor mother. She handles confrontation and can say “no” while maintaining eye contact much better than I can. I can only function as an extrovert so long before my true introvert self shuts me down.
But I can’t very well disappear when I answer the phone, and there’s a telemarketer on the other end.
Maybe you’re wondering why this is even a problem for me. The truth is that I’m more of a kids-come-with-me mom than a work-at-home mom because my parents and I run our family business (photo finishing, in case you wanted to know). My responsibilities are mostly on the bookkeeping end, but I am in the office often enough to deal with the scary stuff – you know, interacting with perfect strangers. It was this having to talk to people aspect that made me swear I would never work there, but when the whole becoming a bestselling novelist in the solitude of my own home thing didn’t work out as planned, I had to work somewhere. At least I like the other people I work with.
Over time, I’ve built a friendly facade that’s tough to break, but the sales people always manage to crack it. This week, the call came from a very prominent Internet browser listing service. A woman with a very heavy foreign accent told me she just wanted to verify our address. Since some of our customers have complained that our old address is still showing up on Internet searches, I thought it best to update our free listing. I should have just hung up like I usually do because I had to talk to a marketing specialist to complete the change of address. I told Foreign Accent Lady that I would absolutely not spend any money – “marketing specialist” did not sit well with me, and for good reason – but she assured me it would only take two or three seconds of my time, and I would be done.
I don’t even remember if the marketing specialist guy verified the new address, but I do vividly recall the rest of the twenty minutes or so, during which I tried to decline his services as kindly as possible. He started by checking how our website fares in local searches, but after its keyword search performance came up sub-par, he got his first bit of ammunition: we obviously don’t know how to get our website to show up in keyword searches, and he’s the only person who could possibly help get our website to the front page of any search in our area.
I bit my tongue, thinking: why didn’t I write the copy for the website? Much of it is over a decade old or cobbled together because we’re a tiny operation and spread too thin to give it the attention it’s due. Part of me wondered what the guy would say if I explained that I knew how to improve the website, but I was eager to get off the phone and didn’t feel like hearing him insult my skills.
Instead, I tried to explain that we get most of our new business by word-of-mouth and that, despite the apparently dismal results, plenty of people do come to us after finding us online. I told him that we’re a niche market and can’t compete with the places that come up first in searches: Target and Sam’s and Wal-Mart, among others. Our prices are higher, and for a good reason: we provide higher quality work. Well, but if more people in our area saw us pop up on the front page of their Internet searches, the marketing guy reasoned, they would call us, and higher call volume means a higher number of paying customers, right? Theoretically, yes, Mr. Marketing Specialist. Unfortunately, our business does not operate in a theoretical world.
Of course, Mr. Marketing Specialist works for a big company that never struggles to give him a paycheck or keep the lights on. It doesn’t look at the month’s bills, realize there’s not revenue to cover them all, and decide which ones can afford to be late, hoping the phone won’t get cut off in the meantime.
As he was attempting to use his powers of persuasion, telling me that if you’re hungry, you stop at the nearest McDonald’s, not the restaurant two miles down the road, I knew that it was a lost cause. Why was I even trying to make him understand our business? The food industry is doing fine because people need to eat. But people don’t need photo finishing. We’re lucky we’ve hung on since 1981. And thanks to technology and the big box stores, it’s been by the skin of our teeth. People will gladly drive out of their way not to come to us because they don’t understand how we differ from the competition. We’ve had people walk in who need a service that no one but our business can provide, and they still walk right back out because they can’t pay what it costs for us to do the work. C’est la vie.
How do you explain to someone that your business doesn’t conform to the rules? You don’t, and you eventually have to hang up, which I did. Taking after my father as I do, I left the conversation sweaty and shaky. Why? Because, as much as I hate confrontation, I can dress someone down over the phone like I never can face to face. And I’m not proud of the last couple of minutes of that conversation. But to be fair, I did say that I wasn’t going to spend money, and when he decided he didn’t believe me and even brought in my personal life as a last-ditch tactic, I left the conversation.
The people at the electrical company will thank me for paying them instead of him.
The one positive thing that I took away from the conversation is that I can solve our Internet search problem myself. I write good SEO copy for other people, and it’s time I do it for the family business, too. I’ll get more business to our website through old-fashioned hard work and my own prowess, and I’ll do a much better job than someone in California who compares us to McDonald’s.
Despite being the one with the last word, I had a nagging feeling that I’d done something wrong. I love hearing others’ stories of sticking it to the telemarketers – they get what they deserve! But it never feels as exhilarating when I do it myself. Instead, I feel like I’ve let myself down.
There are talented people in sales out there – and I’m actually very good at it when someone comes to me – but the others, the ones like the guy I hung up on, aren’t in their element. I feel for him because he sounded so absolutely desperate to get my business. But maybe the reason he’s doing so poorly is that he lacks the skill that effective marketers need most: that of listening to and understanding the needs of their clients. Maybe I have a little pity for him because I know he’s a normal person with a miserable job – and I would probably sound just as desperate, were I in his position.
Still, if I ever decide that brow-beating someone into using my services is the best way to market my skills, please let me know it’s time to quit. Yes, getting the word out is slow-going when you go the word-of-mouth route, but I think that happy customers speak volumes louder than search engine results that don’t know an editor from a word processor’s spellcheck.
And if you’re the type of person who goes with the first search result by virtue of it being first, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for us to work together, anyway.