Defend Truth


Attention call centres: no means no

Dlamini is a writer, critic, traveller and portrait photographer. He also has a day job, sort of. His portraits of writers have been published in many top literary publications, but he mostly makes his living as Chairman of the Chillibush Group of Companies, which deals in the dark arts of advertising, public relations and event management. In 2007 Dlamini was the recipient of the South African Literary Awards' Literary Journalism prize. He regularly reviews books, especially from Southern Africa, and presents the The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast. Recent columns:

No amount of trying will turn a “no” into a “yes”, not when you’re selling something I don’t want or already have. And buying from you in desperation isn’t a licence to continue stalking me. I’m looking at you, Cell C and Virgin Mobile.

It’s plain abusive behaviour to call the same customer again and again, that’s what it is. I accept that companies should try their luck and sell their products using all the means at their disposal, and mobile phones give them access to a huge market.

But that does not amount to a licence to harass.

E-mail marketing already comes standard with an opt-out button, so why is this opt-out facility not made compulsory for call centres as well? Surely each time they call you, they have to  tick your response against your name. In this way they would know when to give up, before they overstep the bounds of decency and start engaging in what amounts to harassment. Otherwise what use is their database if they can’t even track your interest (or lack of it) in their product?

But no, these mercenary call centre agents strike when you least expect it. They call first thing in the morning and, nowadays, even at night. Once you’ve picked up the call, they won’t let you interrupt till they’ve gone through their well-rehearsed script.

You would imagine that saying yes would buy you some peace, but that just prompts them to call again – with a new offer. A friend of mine once received a barrage of calls from the Cell C call centre sales team. She was phoned on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the same week, at exactly 19h30 each time. Tired and worn out from the relentless sales calls, she eventually crumbled and said yes on Friday. She received her new phone on the Monday. But the very next day  she received a fresh call from the Cell C call centre offering her yet another special. She told the agent that she had just taken out a contract and had only done so in the hope that they would stop harassing her. Without missing a beat, the agent asked her if she would like an upgrade! For some strange reason it seems that call centre agents have been instructed to pester their prospects for as long as they are in possession of a working cellphone number.

Even as I sat down to write this piece about their unacceptable behaviour, my mobile rang and lo and behold, it was the umpteenth call from Virgin Mobile. And once again I had to go through the same ritual of telling the agent that I am not interested in any special offers from Virgin Mobile. I have lost count of the number of times that I have had to tell these agents that I do not need another phone. I mean, it should really be up to me how many mobile phones I have. The fact that Virgin is running a “special” is no reason for them to harass me, again. Especially when a simple flip through their database would tell them that I have already said no thanks on more than 30 occasions.

The cellphone operators and service providers are a big part of the problem, but they aren’t alone. Banks and insurance companies are also major offenders, as are others.

Now it would be understandable if these call centre agents were representing struggling, unknown companies that need to make a quick buck. But these call centre agents represent some of the top companies in the country, many of them with mission and value statements that include stuff like decency, respect and ethical conduct. I think it is time that they bring their outbound call centres in line with the values they espouse so brashly in their marketing. These companies can no longer hide behind the fact that they have outsourced what they euphemistically call “customer relationship marketing”; it is in their names and with their money that these unsavoury sales tactics are used.

The truly tragic thing is that when you do have a real problem and you call the inbound call centre for assistance, the words you’ll hear most often are “no” and “can’t”. They are quick to tell you that you need to send them a signed fax with a copy of your ID before they can help you. Even then you are lucky if they can solve your problem.

In courtship even the most persistent chap knows when his advances have been spurned and he has to give up with a bruised ego. If he ignores the pleas of the woman to be left alone, he risks being labelled a stalker, and a court of law can slap him with a restraint that prohibits him from approaching her. I think it is time South African companies accepted that the call centre agents that act on their behalf cannot go around harassing people who have said no.


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