/ Ken Storie: Consumer Issues
The Right to Privacy
My mailbox bears a small
sign indicating, politely I hope, that I do not want to receive
unsolicited advertising material - junk mail. And for the most part,
the sign works. Now I wish I had the equivalent of a “No Flyers Please”
warning for my telephone.
For while the junk mail
merely wastes trees and increases my trips to the recycling depot, the
telemarketer’s calls are a much more insidious invasion of my privacy.
I’m sure it didn’t take
long after the first “Watson, are you there “ exchange for someone to
grasp the significance of the telephone as a tool for business. Given
that, it is almost surprising that it took nearly a century for
telemarketing to really take off. I’d like to think that it was some
old-fashioned sense of decency that delayed this incredible misuse of
telemarketing because it works. It works, quite simply, because it
preys on people who have difficulty saying “no”. To be sure, there are
some people who must appreciate the efficiency of being informed of the
latest deals via the phone. Perhaps they feel that having people call
them at home with offers of, insurance plans, better phone rates, or
packaged frozen meat, saves them time, saves them the need to make
shopping decisions on their own. Perhaps, but I don’t personally know
any of these people.
I do know people who are
swayed by a pleasant voice, who are lonely and eager to talk to
someone, who are perhaps a bit naive and trusting. Nice people.
And it’s not just about
sales. Unfortunately even reputable charity organizations nations are
employing call centres to solicit donations. This is wrong on two
levels. One is that it takes unfair advantage of many people who also
fall prey to the sales pitches, and also that it is misleading to the
donor who may not understand that a cut goes to the private corporation
doing the calling.
We all know such people,
and we know that they are often preyed upon by con men.
But it’s even worse when they are preyed upon legally, by
“reputable” firms, who, in the name of commerce, sell them things that
they simply don’t need, or even want.
I have no pity for, and
no concern for, the average competent person who walks into a retail
business and makes a totally unnecessary and unwise purchase. We all do
it - we have a right to waste our money as we see fit.
And those nice people I spoke of earlier are equally
subject to the allure of an attractive store display or a sale flyer
proclaiming “40% Off”. Even the
disadvantaged have a right to make economic mistakes.
The difference between
the retail hard sell and the direct marketing hard sell is that in
retail the purchase is an active one while in direct marketing it is
passive. The direct marketer preys on the passive, the insecure, the
shy, the trusting, the eager-to-please. Not that that accounts for all
of the sales. No, the deal may be a good one, the salesman at my door
might just have the exact thing I happen to need, and at the right
price! Could happen! Direct sales could be
a good thing if behind ever door was a customer as astute, as glib, as
well trained and secure as the salesperson.
This has always been the
case, but fortunately direct marketing, in the door-to- door sense is a
lot of work. And although a sucker may be born every minute, he’s not
always at home when you visit. And when you do find him at home he
might not have enough cash on hand to be of any real value. But add
some modern technology into the mix and the possibilities increase.
What if instead of making calls door-to-door you reached the customer
through his television set? It works pretty well, and we’ve all heard
horror stories of people sending all their spare cash of to some
televangelist, or being addicted to a “Home Shopping Channel”. But even television has its limitations. The recipient still has to take the action of
turning on his T.V. and selecting the proper channel. (With cable one
seems to have a one-in-five chance of randomly selecting a “Paid
Commercial Broadcast.”). You just can’t reach every mark.
What if you could just
call the person in his home and offer the pitch? The success rate would
be lower than making door-to-door calls, but the sale pitch would be
easier to make, salespeople would be easier to train. So, when long
distance rates came down, modern call centres became feasible. They can
live with a low success rate, they can generate enough success through
volume. And they can do it without having to face rejection
To me these calls are
merely annoying, and I answer them all with my own script. I say,
“Please tell your superiors that I will never do business with a
company that calls me at home.” But not
everyone can do that. Some people are just
too damn nice, but there are also people with disadvantages, people
with handicaps, people who lack self-confidence. And for us to pretend
that even ostensibly reputable companies and oprganizations are not
regularly taking advantage of such people is just short of criminal.
What Can Be Done?
To expect our
governments to act is optimistic to say the least, given that local
governments often offer tax breaks to entice attract call centers. But
we might be able to convince some levels of government to help
discourage unwanted calls in the same way we discourage junk mail. Many
jurisdictions have established “Unsolicited Commercial Call Registries
- lists of phone numbers or names that don’t want junk calls. This
should be revised by switching to a Do call” registry as opposed to s
“Do Not Call” list and expanded to include charitable and political
Many reputable companies will comply, but stiff penalties will have to be provided for those who cheat. Our other option is direct action as consumers. We should, first of all, never respond to unsolicited commercial calls, and beyond that we should stop doing business with companies that use the method. To make this really effective we should communicate that to the companies perhaps with the help of a form letter.