I know they have a place in the business world, but I still hate telemarketers. OK, I don't necessarily hate the actual people who choose to do that for a living, but I do hate talking to them. So much so that when I heard they were making a "do not call" registry I signed up on the first day. Oddly enough, however, that doesn't seem to stop the occasional telemarketer from interrupting dinner. Although my wife and I aren't dumb enough to answer any calls from 1-888-wherever, those street-smarts don't exactly apply to our younger kids, who all love to answer the phone and bring it to Mommy or Daddy with the nice man on the line who "wants to talk to an adult."

Typically, I would just hang up the phone. After all, I'm just a number this guy's machine dialed and ported through to his headset. He's probably been hung up on a hundred times today anyway so whats one more, right? (And no, I don't really care if that makes me a bad person.) Except this time my six-year old is standing right in front of me and I don't want to seem rude. So I answer, "hello, this is Scott."

Invariably, when I do get stuck on these calls the person on the other end has been trained fairly well, at least as far as telemarketers are concerned. They always talk to me in this fake-familiar, cheery voice, like we'd just had a beer together the evening before and never quite finished our discussion on the preeminence of the SEC in college football. "How are YOU, Scott?" the guy asks.

Being the polite guy that I am (in front of my six-year old), I'll typically respond with a monotone, "Fine, and you?" Except I always punch myself in the gut after the "and you," because I've been so conditioned by society to reciprocate that ridiculous question that I say it without even thinking. Do I REALLY want to know how the schmuck interrupting my dinner is doing? And yet, I asked.

His syrupy response manages to be both uber-friendly and disingenuous at the same time. "I'm doing GREAT, thank you SO MUCH for asking!" I've given him a ray of hope, haven't I? Stupid me. Stupid, stupid me. I can't hang up now. I've already gotten into a conversation about how we both are and now I have to listen to at least thirty seconds of his spiel. I cover the receiver and ask my still-standing-there daughter if she has a doll to dress or something. Time to scoot along - Daddy might have to get mean and she wouldn't want to see that.

Somewhere along the line, telemarketers and other people who sell things have latched onto the notion that they have to build a relationship with the person they are selling to. Problem is, as the "fight or flight" feeling that works its way through my body during such an encounter and just wants to get away as quickly as possible even if it means being uncharacteristically rude can attest, this person hasn't earned the right to be familiar with me.

Consider another sales encounter I had a few years ago while I was managing our Bristol branch. Knowing me well, our receptionist typically knew how to keep solicitors far, far away from me, both in person and when they called. The role of gatekeeper was a prime function of her job, and she did it well. (Maybe it sounds rude, but haven't we already established that about me?)

Anyway, so one day I find myself in the lobby talking to one of our employees when two clean-cut guys in ties and briefcases walk in the door. They were either salesmen or Mormons (because they DEFINITELY weren't applicants), and my money was on the former. Spidey senses tingling, I finish my conversation and start to head to the back. The receptionist was already speaking to them and maybe they wouldn't realize that I was the droid they were looking for. Just as I was reaching for the door the receptionist turns to me, smiles sheepishly and says, "Scott, would you like to talk to these two gentlemen from XYZ Phone Company?"

I wasn't mad at her. It was an awkward situation and she did the best she could. I turned around like a thief caught red-handed, fake-smiled and said, "Sure, what can I do for you fellas?" I was ready to be annoyed. I was ready to be off-put by their super-friendliness, by their meaningless small-talk meant to endear me to them (because wow, we all have SO much in common, like liking good weather and UT football - it's east Tennessee, EVERYONE likes UT football). I was ready to tell them that I didn't have time to talk but if they wanted to leave a brochure I would consider it (for a second, before I tossed it in the trash).

Thing is, they didn't start with small talk. They started with this, "Scott, what if we told you we could provide you with more features and better service than what you have today and STILL cut your phone bill in half?"

In a split second, my carefully prepared defenses disappeared. My fight or flight turned into intrigue. Oddly enough, I suddenly wanted to hear what they had to say. I looked at them and said two words.

"I'm listening."

We've been doing business with XYZ Phone Company for about six years now. Those guys and I eventually talked a little football and a few other things too along the way, but by then they had earned the right to become familiar with me.

In the staffing world, of course, those of us who sell our service often find ourselves in the lobbies of potential customers, wanting oh so much to be liked. But being liked can't be forced, can it? We've first got to add value, solve a problem, meet a need. Then, and only then, after we've earned a degree of respect, can we get on to the business of forging lasting relationships with our clients that will stand the test of time.  

The lesson here for staffing salespeople, at least at the beginning stages of working with a prospect, is to cut the small talk and get down to business!