To Cure Telephobia with International Freelance Work

Curing Telephobia: Part III.

I started this series declaring myself cured of Telephobia because although I still don’t like phone calls very much, I no longer fear or refuse to do them. That’s a declaration of great victory over a terrifying old enemy.

 

Collage of 6 phone and tech-related images

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Through the last year I have worked to improve my phone manners and taken the opportunity to study what others do whenever I could; e.g. eaves dropped on the professional phone calls of my dear husband (with his permission) who runs his consultancy business from home.

I now feel fairly competent when I present myself on the phone. I think I sound normal or even professional, and that I can ‘get the job done’ whether I like it or not. So a phone call is a tool rather than a wall that hovers over my day and over-shadows its opportunities.

That is the victory. It materialised as a fact (or as close as it gets) after I undertook an International tele-freelance job in December:

 
International freelance tele-job

I was contracted to interview executives within a certain industry in my home country about their strategies regarding certain infrastructure and activities*. I was paid per interview and had to arrange the interviews myself, which implied an unpredictable amount of ‘cold calling’ to arrange the surveys – potentially unpaid.

Cold calling was the scary part of job – because of the uncertainty, lack of structure and potentially rude answers when interrupting busy executives to ask for their participation in a market survey.

 
Dealing with crap pay and work conditions

This post is not about the crappy pay, poor terms and careless management that tends to haunt international online freelance work. However, just for the context: here is a brief outline of the conditions:

  • Low pay with no pay for cold calling and other related work
  • Night work
    Target country was on the other side of the planet, so the business hours lay across my night
  • Lack of information
    I was engaged for this project back in October with deadline a few weeks later, but did not get the call list and signed contract by the confirmed start date. The employer then ignored me for several months.

    I thought the project was called off but was suddenly contacted in late December with the signed contract and asked to go ahead urgently with deadline 3 days later. However, I did again not get the call list on the agreed start date – I got it well into the 2nd scheduled workday

  • Unrealistic expectations
    The interview guide was thick and full of detailed questions to respondents’ systems, security and marketing strategies. Common sense should inform any sane researcher that busy executives aren’t willing to

    a) spend more than a minimum of time on participation in a telephone interview for a market survey

    b) reveal any information that can be considered potentially sensitive to a stranger on the phone

  • Poor security
    The contract outlines the terms and conditions, but what if the contract isn’t honoured? With the employer in a faraway country and unknown regulatory environment, enforcement is unrealistic. The employer did paid my invoice for the last project, last winter – but late, and only after I sent several reminders and polite emails

To counter the downsides, I:

  • aired my concern about the long survey and the short time frame to the employer. Based on his indication of essential vs dispensable sections, I revised the interview guide to comprise the essential sections only, which cut each interview down to about 25 minutes.
  • built a disclaimer clause into the contract that stated I could pull out if the required amount of cold calling exceeded x hours.
  • limited my commitment. I went to sleep when I still hadn’t received the call list or any explanation several hours into my scheduled workday. I based my decision to do so on the assumption that timeliness is a function of degree of urgency.

 
Doing the telejob: how to overcome the fear of cold calling

I secretly hoped the employer would NEVER send the call list and I wasn’t really sad to give it up back in November. Anyway, eventually he did send the information, so I had to bite the bullet and get started.

The fear of making sales calls or other approaching phone calls is an extremely common form of social anxiety. Almost any piece of advice on overcoming social anxiety says that the key to overcoming social anxiety is to

a) acknowledge the fear, and

b) confront the feared situations in a step by step manner to desensitise oneself to the triggers and learn to handle the fear

 

[…] we make decisions for our prospects before we’ve even had a chance to speak with them. All of this tends to come to the surface right as we pick up the phone. It’s a horrible feeling. And the key to success is turning it off. To do that you have to acknowledge this feeling for what it is – fear. […] It doesn’t mean that you won’t still feel it – just that you accept it for what it is.

Jeb Blount on Cold Call Reluctance

 

oldstyle telephone handset - frosted artphoto

 
Brittany Woods gives an excellent example of overcoming phone-fear through practice on her blog The Shyness Project. Brittany called professionals and set up informational interviews to learn about careers she was researching – and battle her fear of making phone calls.

I’m glad I’m doing these interviews because they not only help me with my phone phobia, but they also help me learn more about the careers I’m interested in. There are some things you just can’t get from a website or book and hearing personal experiences has been an awesome experience for me.

Brittany Woods on Second Informational InterviewThe Shyness Project

 
My way

What worked for me and enabled me to undertake the telephone job was to:

  1. acknowledge the fear
  2. detach emotionally from the task
  3. have a short, bullet proof script so I knew precisely what to say
  4. manage the technical call quality (hearing) with headset and distraction free surroundings
  5. be well organised to prevent unprofessional mistakes and manage the location illusion

 
1. Acknowledge the fear

To get a grip of my reluctance to call I brainstormed fear-triggering imaginary scenarios and wrote them down to think through them and decide what to do.

The worst case scenario was to get so nervous that my mind went numb and I couldn’t find words. I decided to make a simple script to read up so that even if my mind went blank, words would still be there.

Another scenario was to stutter, fumble, loose overview and do the calls in a panic-driven poor style. Another was to be rudely rejected by busy executives who would treat me as an annoying market research data collector that wasted their time. How many times have I responded that way to market surveyors and sales people? Many**… I hate phone calls and get really annoyed when unnecessary calls are forced upon me. Everybody hate unwanted, unnecessary calls. Cold calls are the parias amongst phone conversations.

A forth problem scenario was mishearing and misunderstanding due to trouble hearing through noise on the line.

So ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ Embarrassment, poor job done, humiliation – uncomfortable feelings, but none of them deadly. I couldn’t even get seriously sacked because it wasn’t really a job, just a hire for one project. All in all: the scenarios didn’t really justify much fear.

 
2. Detach emotions

Feelings tend to act like wild horses, prone to flight and fight reactions, so it is important to detach feelings from action when trying to overcome irrational fears.

I recommend the computer character Gerty from the science fiction movie Moon as an ideal voice-model for professional phone calls in the post Strategies to improve phone manners. That’s due to his perfect intonation and never failing diplomacy. I would like to add now: and because he isn’t human.

Cold calling isn’t really a job for humans. Humans take rejections personal, loose self confidence and develop social phobias when faced with the unnatural task of calling up strangers who (in many cases) don’t want to talk with them.

 

The bad news is this fear of cold calling will never really go away. It will always be uncomfortable picking up the phone and calling people you don’t know. It is just not a natural thing to do. […] But look, if cold calling was easy everyone would be in sales.

Jeb Blount on Cold Call Reluctance

 
Everything about the job was an illusion. I talked in the local language and as if I conducted the survey from a local corporate office. However, I really sat in my small flat in the quiet of the night on the other side of the planet, drinking loads of coffee with two snoring, farting puppies warming my feet under the table.

I decided to see the job as an acting role. I did drama classes many years ago and liked it. Paradoxically I was good at immersing myself in roles despite being a poor liar in real life. I used Gerty as the character model for the role. I tried to think of each call as a sequence of actions with an expected outcome of X leads and X rejections. X was of course unknown, but rejections could be expected to exceed leads. Rejections = dead ends, leads = open paths with a new set of actions and hope of success.

To perceive the task as an acting role helped me to shake off rejections and take my feelings less seriously, so I could overcome psychological barriers and get used to doing the work. I didn’t get to like calling, but was able to make it a professional routine job.

 
3. Script*

Script A – for talking to a relevant person:

Good morning/good day/good afternoon

[pause: allow receiver to reply]

Hello, this is Anita Hansen from Santos Market Research. Vi are undertaking a market survey about your industry’s strategies for [subject]. Would you be able to participate in an interview? It takes about 20 minutes, and all participants get a free copy of the final report.

[if pause:]

It doesn’t need to be right now – we can schedule the interview when it suits you. Later today, or tomorrow, is fine.

 
Script B – for talking to an irrelevant person, e.g. a receptionist:

Good morning/good day/good afternoon

[pause: allow receiver to reply]

This is Anita Hansen from Santos Market Research. Vi are undertaking a market survey about your industry’s strategies for [subject]. We are looking to interview a person in your company who has insight in your strategies for [subject] and who can allocate around 20 minutes for an interview.

Can you please tell me who would be the best person to talk to about it?

[pause: allow receiver to think. If receiver appears reluctant to pass on the call, then add:]

He/she will receive a copy of the finished market rapport which covers the [industry] sector across the entire [region].

 
4. Manage call quality (hearing)

Since it was night and quiet in my end, I had no issues with background noise and distractions. I wore a head set and talked slowly and loud to inspire the receiver to do so too, and it worked. People talked slow and clear and I didn’t have any issues hearing them in my head phones.

However, there were complaints about the call quality in the receiving end and several receivers asked me to ‘use another line’. It was hard to explain why I couldn’t do that. ‘Our company only has this line’, ‘the lines are all the same’… I called via a Skype account.

 
5. Keep work organised

I kept track of the call data by colour coding the call list spreadsheet, number my calls and take notes about each call.

Colour coding example:

‘Called but no answer’ = yellow.
‘Called, rejected’ = Purple.
‘Called, asked me to call later’ = green (plus when).
‘Yes, scheduled for interview’ = red (plus when).
And so on.

To help manage the time zone illusion I hung tables on the wall which showed the 2 time zones side-by-side, hour-for-hour. I ticked off each hour as it passed. That way I could look at the wall and instantly know ‘it is 12 pm, and he is probably in his lunch break now’. It also served as a count-down to when I could go to sleep. I was very tired.

 
Outcome

Most of the respondents said they were very busy and that it wasn’t a good week to call them. Many asked me to ‘call next week’ or after Christmas. Some said yes to the interview; if it could just be another week. Unfortunately my flexibility was very limited with the deadline less than 3 days ahead.

Some let me down: they accepted to schedule an interview at a specific time, which on my side was e.g. 4 am in the morning. So I drank more coffee and kept awake… but when I called they had gone home. *Bastards.*

The interviews I did undertake went well, and I think they were even fun & cosy for both them and me. However, the few ‘fishes in the net’ did by no means pay for the long exhausting nights I spent cold calling prospects, the jet lag during the days, and even all the coffee I drank…

In fact I am not even sure the company will pay my invoice. So far they haven’t (it is overdue), and I haven’t heard anything. They might think that they don’t need to pay because of the low number of surveys done, or because I downsized my interview guide to essential sections only (after approval from the employer), or because I eventually used my ‘disclaimer clause’ to discontinue my commitment, having wasted heaps of time and effort on *unpaid* cold calling for several days. Maybe the project has fallen apart due to rushed and mismanaged data collection, and they’ve decided that they won’t pay their contractors because they won’t get paid themselves. My guess is as good as anyone’s.

In any case, I won’t regret doing the job because it was a waste of work hours and made no sense financially. Instead, I will celebrate it for what it is, too: my victory over Telephobia.

 
*Details, names and phrases completely altered to ensure anonymity and protection of information
**I am more considerate now, having tried being on the other end of the annoying calls

 
Images based on Morguefile photos

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9 thoughts on “To Cure Telephobia with International Freelance Work

  1. brittany220

    Excellent post Mados! I love how detailed and thorough you are with your advice and insights on how to deal with telephobia! Cold calls must have been really hard, I don’t even like getting calls from strangers especially telemarketers so I can’t imagine being the one that has to make those calls.

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    1. Mados

      Thank you Brittany!

      Yes cold calling sucks – both to receive them and to make them. Although calling about a market survey is not as bad as making sales calls (tried that briefly many years ago – horrible job).

      I think your idea is great – informational interviews. That’s what I would recommend to most people. In my case a very structured approach works best because it isn’t just about overcoming shyness; I don’t like when strangers talk excessively to me on the phone no matter how well it works out, so I want the conversations to be short and predictable.

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  2. Clarence

    Just read all three parts. This is a brilliant topic and an insightful read.

    I won’t say I have telephobia but when it comes to people I don’t know well, I try to avoid phone calls too and prefer face-to-face (presence of visual cues, body language and facial expressions help a lot) or written interaction (being able to think about what to write is always a plus). I also don’t like receiving cold calls, after my experience with rude telemarketers, so the idea of doing to others what I don’t want done to me makes me cringe.

    On the other hand, phone calls have become a necessity. It’s also more convenient than emails, as it helps avoid that torturous ‘waiting time’ for replies.

    I’m glad you’ve overcome your phobia but I still hope you get paid for the time you’ve worked for.

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    1. Mados

      Thank you for your insightful and well written comment.

      Your reasons for not preferring phone contact with strangers sound reasonable and normal.

      Writing these posts gave some good insights. – I’ve have learned that some reluctance towards phone conversations is very commonplace, and quite like you describe it above.

      Maybe that is why SMS technology has great success despite initially looking like a pointless waste of time (‘why spend time spelling words when it is much faster to just call?’ Anno mid 90s😉

      It is fascinating to learn how people interact with this ‘universal’ everyday communication tool that everybody *have* to use, all the behavioural dilemmas and reluctancies around phone use… Although the phone is a mature invention, it seem there is still room for product innovation, still a need for better adaptation of the technology to human needs and behaviour.

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    2. Mados

      No, they didn’t pay. Thank you for reminding me, I will send them a new reminder. Last time they paid after at least 3 reminders… more than 3 weeks after the due date.

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  3. Mados

    Update: My invoice is now well over a month overdue and I have sent multiple reminders.

    A search shows that several contractor have not been paid for research/phone surveys they did for this company in November and December 2011. Some contractors are really pissed off and one wants to report them to various authorities and take group action against them, so that might come up (and I’ll of course support that!).

    I can’t reveal their name, but I’ll release a few details and warn against working for them:

    It is a research company based in India and the US with research activities operated from India. They have worked with big clients like IBM but there are many complaints about them by virtual freelance contractors who have not been paid for their work so I don’t understand why any reputable company would want to work with them – for ethical reasons and for quality control reasons.

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