A phone pitch, then a counter-punch

Like most people, I hate getting calls from phone solicitors. Raised in the tradition of Midwestern small-town politeness, it always has been a little hard for me to quickly get rid of a caller trying to sell me something, even when it was aluminum siding for my home when I lived in an apartment building. Charitable organizations, such as the local police and firefighters associations, were the hardest to deal with - that guilt factor, you know.

So when the do-not-call registry was unveiled a few months ago, I promptly signed up. Finally, something is being done about this national pet peeve - or so it seems for the moment. The on-again, off-again registry is now on again, at least until November 10, when a federal appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments on the constitutionality of it. A final resolution may not come for some time. Let's hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

I'm already prepared for the worst. For one thing, years of phone solicitors' relentless pounding, combined with city life, has prompted me to shed some of my small-town politeness when dealing with them. Secondly, I've learned to fight back with high-tech weaponry.

My weapon of choice is a little gadget called "Easy Hang Up," which you attach to your phone. When a solicitor calls, you simply push the button. I call it the reject button. A professional-sounding male voice comes on, civil but with a touch of impatience, saying, "I'm sorry but this number does not accept this type of call. Please regard this message as your notification to remove this number from your list. Thank you." And then it disconnects.

One of my greatest moments of personal triumph came a few weeks after I ordered the little device. I got a call from Damark International, the catalogue company from whom I bought my cool new gadget. The caller said he wanted to thank me for my recent order, and to show their appreciation they would give me a special offer on a Damark membership. I politely told him no thanks. But he was persistent. Refusing to take no for an answer, he began spouting off all of the great benefits that comes with membership, until I finally cut in: "Do you happen to know what it was that I ordered from Damark?" He said he did not. I said, "I hate to do this to you, but you'll soon find out." And I pressed the reject button.

With my new toy, I didn't even mind getting solicitors' calls. I let them say their spiel for a while and then presto, I'd press the button.

True, there is some good that comes out of phone solicitation, such as supplying people with goods and services that they otherwise would not know about. But I believe those positives are outweighed by the negatives. I'll bet that over a lifetime, the time we spend responding to phone solicitors adds up to weeks or more - subtracting from more productive endeavors or from our leisure time.

In fact, from an economic viewpoint, an educated guess would tell me that phone solicitation reduces GDP rather than adds to it - due to the unnecessary demands on people's valuable time.

Another negative consequence is that it prompts people to de-list themselves from the phone book (in the hope of not being called again), frustrating efforts of friends and associates wanting to get in touch with them.

The use of "predictive dialers" - computer programs that call multiple numbers at once - ought to be banned. They allow the solicitor to connect with whoever answers first, and the computer hangs up on the hapless souls who answer their phones after that. That apparently explains the calls we get with no one on the other line. Talk about audacity!

We at least should be spared from these empty calls. Nationally, that adds up to millions (if not billions) of annoying interruptions per year, and millions of empty minutes, all for naught.

In the meantime, if the telemarketing companies eventually prevail in their battle against the do-not-call registry, I'll be ready for them, armed with my reject button.

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