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Telemarketing Burnout Control

Call Centres and Telemarketing

There was a time in American life when the idea of "burnout" did not exist. People had greater or lesser cycles of productivity in their careers. These were not well defined or well explained, and usually sufferers of what we now call burnout could work their own ways out of their lows. Or if pressures forced them off the deep end-defined as a nervous breakdown-they became involved in whatever medical treatment was available.

Today in a society that's more sophisticated sociologically and psychologically, the word "burnout" is in constant use, and the condition is recognised as a threat to productivity in a broad range of careers and endeavours.

No commercial activity is more prone to burnout than telephone selling. Cases are running exceedingly high in this field in the 1980s. It is rare for a person who earns his living from 100% telephone commissioned sales to escape burnout if he lasts in the profession for five years.

What is Burnout?
Burnout is a form of reactive depression. What makes it different from other forms of depression is that it is brought about mostly by working conditions. Typically burnout occurs among telemarketing personnel when there's too much pressure on the job and too little goal achievement. It is deeper than frustration, and it frequently leads to desperation and self-blame. If the problem is widespread, burnout leads to significant loss of productivity, sales and profits for the telemarketing operation as a whole.

If anything good can be said about burnout, it's that the condition is relatively uncomplicated whenever it is the sole cause of depression. In that case it is temporary it is treatable within a department or within the company where it occurs; it seldom requires high-priced professional intervention, and it is preventable.

Burnout prevention is a bi-level function. It rests with phoners and managers. This article will concentrate on what managers' can do to deal with the problem.

Preventative Measures
There's a whole menu of things a company can do to prevent burnout before it starts. Here are some controllable factors.

  1. Hire your telephone people intelligently. Don't look for radio announcer voices that can read a script. Test candidates for total communications capabilities. How do they express themselves? What kind of sales letter can they write? Do they have any public relations or journalism background?

  2. Plan presentations that involve marketing functions as well as sales functions. Let your phone staff know that both functions are equally important and that "NO" is not a dirty word.

  3. Don't be afraid to build your phone staff to account executive status. Involve your people in conferences in which they contribute to the basic presentation. If these meetings include scripting, make sure that the application of the script to phone work isn't so tight that it constricts talent. Given real flexibility (within accuracy and policy limitations) to decide how they make telephone sales, no two salesmen would sound the same; yet a dozen in a group, each working in his own way, could break all kinds of records with a strong product or service.

  4. Keep them comfortable in their phone spaces, and keep them separate. Clustering phones in a telemarketing operation may seem economical, but it's not worthwhile to have phoners virtually sitting in each others' laps.

  5. Don't set impossible goals in a Rumplestiltskin desire to turn "straw into gold." That may work in fairy tales, but it doesn't work in phone rooms.

    NO COMMERCIAL ACTIVITY IS MORE PRONE TO BURNOUT THAN TELEPHONE SELLING

  6. Train your phone people to be professional in discussions with one another about their own achievements or problems. Phone reps have a tendency to talk about their triumphs or their failures almost on a case-by-case and certainly on a day-by-day basis. The proximity of many people facing the same marketing and selling problems encourages this. Unfortunately, since someone is always having a bad day, burnout is endemic. When several members of the phone crew have it at the same time, it can become epidemic, seriously reducing sales levels. And the entire operation can lose productivity for a day, a week or forever.

  7. Let your phone personnel take breaks as needed, and encourage them to take extra breaks as long as they don't abuse the privilege. Let them know that there are no "good conduct points" for omitting breaks or for holding them to one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

  8. Make sure that the method of compensation has built-in incentives for productivity, but that special incentives for not
    burning out and for service longevity are also included.

  9. Always keep open communications with every member of your phone staff so that they can discuss problems they're having in their sales work without prejudice. Be sure that supervisors recognise the importance of this policy and that they maintain it.

    IF YOU MUST ANTICIPATE A HIGH RATE OF BURNOUT, PLAN GOOD FIRST AID MEASURES

  10. If by the nature of your market, your product or your technology, you have to anticipate a high rate of burnout, plan good first aid measures. Set up a special recreation room as a "burnout hospital." This space need not be elaborate or expensive. It might contain food vending machines, books and magazines, games and puzzles-items that will allow the employee to relax and get over his discomfort. After discussion with a supervisor, the burnout victim should be able to use the room for as long as he feels he needs it before returning to the phone.

  11. If your company is having a serious burnout problem, or requires a training program for any reason, hire a professional consultant to help you. His fee will be well repaid in the productivity of your phone reps.

  12. Make sure that the sending of letters and sales literature is included in the telemarketer's function, and allow the staff to use their own vocabulary and phrasing to personalise form letters. (If you have chosen staff wisely, they will be able to communicate in writing, as well as on the phone.) This further involvement in customer relations will provide a greater sense of satisfaction and achievement for the phoner.

  13. Make sure that your product or service matches the promises given in the phone presentations.

  14. Don't have your sales people use programs that you haven't tested yourself. Managers who start with a concept of "acceptable" marketing/sales ratios-for example, that one in five calls should produce a sale-need to test this goal against reality. Record all statistics, then refine the program so that it does not demand the impossible of the people who are doing your dialling.
Entrepreneurial Burnout
Burnout does not confine itself entirely to telecommunications departments in big companies. There's a growing army of independent telephone sales representatives who may face burnout at some time in their careers. While an entrepreneur may be less vulnerable than his counterparts in bigger companies, he faces some special problems. Generally he is working alone, has nobody to tell his troubles to and must rely on his own methods to control burnout.

Here are some things he can do.
  1. He should make sure that he has a comfortable office and that he's not trying to work out of the bedroom or at the kitchen table.

  2. He should be doubly careful about all of his records, and should have proof of his calls.

  3. He should maintain a work discipline and normal business hours, but should know and meet his capacity. He should not attempt to exceed his work norms over protracted periods, but should not be afraid to do so occasionally. He should also take advantage of his flexibility to call hard-to-reach customers in other than the usual 8- to-5 timeframe.

  4. He should have a strong sense of ownership, which should motivate him and help prevent burnout.

  5. He should choose clients with whom he feels both professional and personal rapport. They should agree on "how to get the job done," to avoid potential conflicts that hamper productivity and increase stress.

  6. Although he can and should set his own pace, he must base Ms activities on the needs and goals of the sales program.

  7. He should consider "the half-baked vacation that pays for itself' one of his prime incentives for being a good independent telephone salesman. A half-baked vacation
    is one in which he takes phone work with him to a vacation spot and spends half days on the telephone and half days in whatever Ms special sun is-golf, tennis, sleeping under a palm tree, museum browsing. You name it.
Rewards of Burnout Prevention
An effective company anti-burnout program requires sympathy and understanding on the part of management. For the telemarketing entrepreneur, burnout prevention requires self-discipline combined with a healthy regard for his own physical and psychic well-being.

When a normally effective phone rep goes back to the dial with minimum time lost from productive selling, whoever helped in his recovery has understood burnout and how to prevent it from dissipating human resources. The result will be a more effective and profitable telemarketing operation


Walter M. Woolfson is managing partner of Walter M. Woolfson Co. (Denver, CO), consultants in telephone and direct mail ('telemail') marketing.

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