It’s a Cold Call World

TelephoneOne of the most irritating aspects of my job is that I receive many speculative sales calls. I’m more unfortunate than most in this regard: a director who has since left the company gave away my name and direct phone number, and this information has been seized upon by unscrupulous firms like a school of piranha devouring a cow.

I recently received one of the most ridiculous ones yet: yesterday, I was offered e-marketing services from someone who claimed to know my predecessor.

“I’m just phoning him to give him an update as to my whereabouts…we were going to do some work together,” he said.

“I’m afraid he’s been gone a while,” I replied.

“Oh? I was sure I spoke to him 4 months ago.”

“He’s been gone since October.”

After this rather unpromising start, he barrelled forth into a long spiel about how his e-marketing services could help me. The stench of bovine excrement wafted from his pitch; I could visualise the individual at the other end of the phone, seeing him as rather young, perhaps a recent graduate in Media Studies (translation: “unskilled”). It was likely he was under the whip hand of some supervisor who was demanding he make sales. I know the type; I have had bosses that were so desperate to make sales or improve margins, that they were willing to engage in outright trickery: in a former place of employment, I was instructed to tack on a £15 fee for plane tickets, which would not become evident until the end of the online booking process. The idea was that this “fee for processing” would enhance the margins. I said no. This same boss also wanted to have the default option for car rental checked to “Yes” in the same process; again, I said no, and found evidence which had indicated his previous attempt at this same deception had led to actual losses. This boss spent much of his life demanding sales, saying “sales” over and over, as if driving his people into the ground was going to make these revenues magically appear.

As much as I could sympathise with the salesman, I really didn’t need his services, nor did I think his company should be encouraged in following their present approach. I politely turned him down; he demanded to know where my predecessor was, and why my phone hadn’t had its answering machine message changed to indicate that he had left.

“I haven’t bothered to change it, because I get deluged by calls like this. Bye.”

I hung up.

Such calls represent an increasing portion of my working life; I get between 20 and 30 of them per week. I often am in the middle of a thought when they occur, and they tend to derail my work. In my experience, recruitment firms are particularly bad: one gets the impression that they’re all operating out of garden sheds and tack on “Professional” or “International” onto their names in order to make it seem like they’re in Canary Wharf rather than sitting amidst bags of compost in Slough. Furthermore, virtually all the calls are the same: the salesperson tries to indicate that I somehow know them, and that their firm is as established as Plymouth Rock…or at least the Blarney Stone.

Sometimes I test whether or not the salespeople the human: my methodology is simple, I merely inform them of how many calls I receive and guage their reaction. The human beings are apologetic and break into nervous laughter; “how am I doing?” one of them asked, and started chuckling. Another young lady similarly threw away her script and expressed her sympathy.

More often than not, however, they steamroll on; I have no vacancies available, I state this up front. However this makes no difference: they continue to try and shake me, as if my business necessities can be directed by the needs of the garden shed crew rather than what we require. A recruiter I spoke to yesterday turned desperate and frightened: he was begging with me, pleading with me that he was somehow different. Ironically, by acting this way, he only managed to sound the same as the rest. In his favour, at least he didn’t outright lie: a firm I never heard of rang not too long after, saying that I told them to speak to me at around this time. I did nothing of the kind.

For me, this is the clearest demonstration yet that the British economy is in dire trouble. I’m not talking about the present credit crunch and stagflation, though the news from the Bank of England yesterday was not encouraging. Rather, this is indicative that the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy has been abortive; while those with actual skills are doing all right, those who didn’t have an interest in technology or science are being left behind, and are now fighting over scraps in sectors that have low costs of penetration. As the young lady candidly informed me, all you need to start a recruitment firm is a telephone and a computer.

This indicates difficulties in other ways; there are very few recruitment companies which show any differentiation whatsoever. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of one. This speaks of a lack of strategic vision: the emphasis is on pounding sales out of the ground and squeezing the blood from every stone, rather than rethinking the entire approach.

Not only is this failing to generate sufficient activity to grant these firms anything other than a mayfly existence, it isn’t serving the needs of skilled personnel. Six months ago, I did have three vacancies to fill; however, the candidates thrown my way by recruitment firms were by and large unsuitable. In fact, it was clear that my brief had almost been totally ignored. In the end, only one of the three vacancies was filled by using a standard recruitment firm; to make matters worse, I’ve since been informed that this recruitment firm has approached my new employee after he passed his trial period to see if he was still happy.

My experience as a candidate was also an unhappy one. I used a recruitment firm in obtaining my present role, but the gentleman I dealt with was, to put it plainly, a psychopath. When I turned down the initial offer as being too low, he phoned my office, going through the switchboard, rather than calling my mobile; had my boss at the time intercepted it, it could have spelled real trouble. Second, he then proceeded to scream and berate me for not accepting the offer. In the end, I had to directly negotiate with my present employer.

No entrepreneur is exploiting this wretched state of affairs. If capitalism is so dynamic and so capable of change, then why has something as dreadful as this not been altered? In fact, why is it getting worse? The truth be told, the emphasis on quarterly results, getting the money no matter what, even if it means cheating and lying, leads to a situation where imagination is viewed as a luxury, and strategy is measured in minutes, not years. Some countries’ business cultures, such those in Japan and the Netherlands, do take a longer term view, however one hopes they aren’t squeezed out by the “animal spirits” that seem to drive behaviour here in Britain and the United States. After all, we are crashing into the buffers because of it: the economy is not generating the right sort of value, it’s not producing the right sort of jobs, it is skewed towards speculation in all endeavours, which leads to short term booms, and as we’re experiencing now, very painful slowdowns. It also means that the environment is completely ignored in the pursuit of profit, which has a cost that can’t be measured in mere pounds and pence.

I am skeptical that policy makers are thinking about the practical, day to day issues of the economy in this manner; they’re too busy tinkering with interest rates and pushing up pass rates on A-level exams. I suspect that for the moment, the dreary cold call world will continue. My response will be to continue to hang up.

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