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The Telemarketer Icebreaker
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 11/02/2015

Jail cells In corrections, we often use our assertive persona. It is a way of dealing with constant conflict. And it is something that we do not fully employ on the outside. Of course, inside the walls we need various modes of abrupt blocking of what seem unreasonable requests and manipulation. Inmates use many methods of persuasion to enhance their comfort, to gain advantages, or to actually obtain what they are legitimately entitles to. The successful corrections professional learns to accept that as a vocational truth. We also adapt many different strategies to answer prisoner requests ranging from reasonable to ridiculous.

The telemarketer icebreaker is a good warm-up for any training designed to thwart manipulation. It is an exercise that allows us to discuss how to defuse someone with an interest in persistent influencing. It also permits us to look at how we react to pressure to accept or decline an idea (or product) at work versus how we operate at home.

Such an icebreaker has a broad appeal. Every one of us has had to find strategies in dismissing unwanted telephone solicitors. And it is a natural lead-in to the module that covers coping with difficult people.

The entire group will be broken up into teams of four or five members. The items needed are very basic. Each team will need:
  • two large sheets of paper, or a marker board
  • some markers
The most important element, as always, is a good trainer. First, that person has to present the scenario. Participants are told:

“You are at home enjoying some down time or a good meal. It happens that the answering machine is off. The phone rings and you answer. On the telephone is Chip, a telemarketer from Sellico, Inc. After Chip butchers your last name, he persistently offers you a product that you don't really want. A simple, "No thank you," does not deter our persistent entrepreneur.”

Two questions will be asked from this scenario. It is a two-step process of participation, divided into the ideal and the real. Question one asks for the ideal. Then question two begins the more creative brainstorming as we seek the real.

The first question goes to the groups for them to discuss. How do you disengage the sales pitch of the very eager Chip from Sellico Inc.? But it has to be done in a professional manner. The object is not to hurt the professional feelings of Chip, who after all has to make a living. So, each group has five minutes to come up with one answer to the question: What do you say to a tenacious telemarketer to conclude the conversation in a way that neither party is belittled?

The answer to question one is written on the marker board or on paper. It has to be large enough for all of the participants to see. One person from each group is elected (or appointed) as the spokesperson. The spokesperson presents the professional answer to getting Chip off your phone line. Remember to tell the students that only one answer is needed for this question.

Then the second question goes to the groups for discussion. It is like the first. How do you disengage the sales pitch of the very eager Chip from Sellico Inc.? But this time, any method can be used. Anything goes with this. So, each group has ten minutes to come up with as many answers as they can to the question: How can you end a conversation with the telemarketer? There is no limit to what you can say. The trainer must mention at this point that the answers do not have to be professional. (I am concerned with “the answers do not have to be professional??”) In fact, this is where the ingenuity of participants comes out. Ideas are discussed and written down. Each group spokesperson takes a turn to share the contributions of their group.

The icebreaker could end here or continue in a number of ways:
  • The trainer could have someone tally the most common responses.
  • The instructor could ask for patterns. Are the different tactics compiled easily grouped into broader categories such as rudeness, deflection, or politeness? Do any answers fit into detached professionalism, assertive confrontation, or turning the tables? Are there other categories than those listed? (See figure 1.)
  • Participants can vote on the most effective idea and what they think is the most professional idea.
  • Handouts such as the one below can be distributed. Students can take a test by completing the two right columns. The "is this professional" column addresses the first question that students tackled. The "does this work" column parallels the no-holds-barred method of question two. In instances where "it depends" is selected in either of those columns, this produces fodder for discussion.
  • Each trainer has a choice as to how much disclaiming there will be on using telemarketers as scapegoats. The level of tying this into the module is at the instructor's discretion.
  • Trainers can use a salient point discovered by participants as a segue into the module on dealing with difficult people.
Yes, dealing with difficult people is not pleasant. And, we share a common bond of persistent sales persons. Yet, this icebreaker uses these common and disagreeable experiences to illustrate the many ways we react to persuasion and manipulation both on and off work.

Figure 1 – The Telemarketer Grid
Strategy - this is the broad idea Tactic - specific example of strategy Is this professional? (Circle One) Does this work? (Circle One)
Rudeness "Go jump in the lake!" Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Disengage Hang up phone Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Insert linguistic barrier Talk in a foreign language Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Confuse Talk in gibberish or express yourself in disjointed phrases Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Lie My sister (or dog, or cat, or neighbor) has just gone into labor! I cannot talk now!" Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Postpone Put person on hold Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Confrontation "You called me! You seem to have more interest in this than I do!" Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Insult There are really too many options to list Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Polite, empathetic "I am truly uninterested. However, I imagine that this is not necessarily an easy job. Good luck to you today!" Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
"Turn the tables" "Would you like an interruption in your rest time like this one?" Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Potty humor "I can't talk now. I have to use the bathroom." Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Profanity %*^$*(&)(*$^@!! Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Deflect "I am in the process of getting on the national 'DO NOT CALL' list." Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.
Inquiry "Do you really endorse the product?" Yes. No. It depends. Yes. No. It depends.


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