I was away in Perth a few weeks ago due to the sudden and tragic death of a close friend. During those 10 distressing days, I had no less than three unsolicited telemarketing calls from two different companies; on my mobile!

1. Whilst I was in a meeting with a member of the clergy regarding the eulogy, an Australian index trading company rang. This was the same shysters who rang a week earlier and was told firmly that I was not interested and they must remove my number from their list. I was so angry I did not even stop to get their full name and ABN. I think they have a three-letter acronym name starting with “P”…

2. A few days later, I had two consecutive phone calls from an India-based programming outsourcing company. The caller’s accent was so bad I could not get the name of the company despite two phone calls and repeated questioning. They had to be told in very clear terms (twice) that I absolutely do not do business with companies who start off “relationships” via telemarketing.

Given the circumstances, where I simply had to answer all calls, you can imagine how these calls would be extra annoying and distressing. I can only sincerely hope that the executives of these companies get the same treatment one day!

(Now that raises an interesting question – do telemarketers get telemarketed to? Or is there some secret pact that protects the perpetrators? Does anyone know?)

Now that I have got that off my chest, it is time to ask the more constructive questions.

Telemarketing is a tool. Like spam, and letterbox junkmail. Given the nature of phone calls, telemarketing is much more immediate and in-your-face. Whereas spam emails can be easily and deleted without conscious effort, answering and processing a telemarketing call, however brief, still takes up 100% of our attention and interrupts our activities.

I, like many of you, probably tend to associate telemarketing with scams. It has certainly been exploited by many less-than-ethical businesses and individuals. But are there actually positive ways to use telemarketing?

As email and other asynchronous or indirect modes of communications become more and more common, we will increasingly relish the intimacy and immediacy of phone calls. Is there a role for telemarketing in this? Or should “legitimate and respectable” businesses simply avoid telemarketing as they now do spamming?

(Not being a telemarketing expert), I see the key challenges of telemarketing as follows:

Many marketing departments that use telemarketers are not getting is this one critical point: their actions devalue and disrespects customers. It is not possible to build any relationship when you start off by barging uninvited into their life when they are preparing dinner (or a funeral).

Natural follow-up; not first contact. This is using the medium appropriately.

Perhaps telemarketing is utterly unsuitable as the first point of contact? After all, if a stranger rang you out of the blue and wanted to be your friend, how would that make you feel?

Just like I don’t mind talking to people I already know, I don’t mind telemarketing calls from businesses I already have a relationship with. As long as they don’t do it too often and what they have to offer aligns with my needs and lifestyle. Example: every year, I get once phone call from each telco I have business with. They check up on my happiness level, and try and see if they could save me some money by fiddling with my plans and accounts. That’s ok. I don’t have a problem with that.

I will, however, never start a relationship with a new business based on a cold telemarketing call.

Think about how you normally make friends. At what point in the relationship does phone conversations naturally start? Maybe that is when telemarketing is to be used in a business relationship.

Converse with, not talk at. This is part and parcel of respecting people.

I enjoy conversations with my friends. I don’t enjoy one-way monologues, especially ones where I am being told what is good for me and what I have to do.

Telemarketers need to learn real two-way conversation skills. They need to be empowered to listen and genuinely engage with customers. This means the radical redesign of call centres processes – shifting from a time-constrained one-way push of information, to a more leisurely two-way exchange.

Building relationships take time. Measuring the quality of engagement by shortness of time spent and number of calls made is sheer idiocy.

My friend Josephine (not her real name) has a positive telemarketing story.

A few months after her elderly father’s passing from a heart condition, she received a call from The Heart Foundation. Whilst talking to the nice young man on the phone, she suddenly burst into uncontrollable tears. That put an end to the conversation.

To her pleasant surprise, the same young man rang back a week or so later, just to see if she was ok. Now you have to admit that was a wonderful thing to do.

What I wanted to know was: Was that an authorised call? Or was it simply a nice employee doing it out of the kindness of his own humanity?

If it was an authorised call, and this was part of their policy of caring for customers, then I salute the Foundation.

I don’t know if Josephine donated any money to the Foundation or even if that was the purpose of their call. What is important here is that when a telemarketer’s humanity shows thorough, it can work wonders. Josephine felt good from those two phone calls. Now how often can we say that about telemarketing calls?!

Will telemarketers reinvent their game fast enough? Can telemarketing be a real tool for “proper” businesses to use effectively and appropriately in their relationship building exercises?

What do you think? I for one am not holding my breath.

(Now you may well say why I am not on the Do Not Call Register. The fineprint actually says I should only register phone numbers that are “used primarily for private or domestic purposes”; which excludes my mobile phone which is primarily used for business purposes.)