Telephone sales has an image problem. There are few people who haven't experienced an annoying "cold call" from someone flogging kitchen cabinets or broadband deals. But telesales is as much about customer service and dealing with inbound calls, as it is an ideal stepping-stone into the world of sales.
Some are attracted to telesales because they want a job they can fit around other demands - whether caring for children or attending lectures on a university course. "Many people go into telesales and stay there because it suits them well," says Carol Pillinger, director of education at the Institute of Sales and Marketing. You can earn a good salary, she says, and can choose hours that fit your lifestyle. There is even the possibility of doing the job from home, although you'd need some sophisticated equipment. Today more companies are realising that having a telesales agent who can simply read the required script is not enough. Instead they want people who can ask customers questions and play a more consultative role.
Telesales could mean working within a particular company - for example a bank or retail group - or for one of the UK's thousands of call centres. The call and contact centre industry is expected to employ one million people within the next two years, according to the Call Centre Association, and tens of thousands of agent positions are added each year. The financial services sector accounts for a large percentage of employees and most telesales staff work as inbound agents (receiving calls) rather than outbound (making the calls).
The job varies depending on employer. You might be dealing with straightforward requests - like a customer who wants an account statement - or helping someone solve a complex software problem.
Today there are various call centre qualifications on offer, including NVQs in Call Handling Operations. There are also Diplomas in Call Centre Management (see the Call Centre Association www.cca.org.uk and the Call Centre Management Association www.ccma.org.uk). And the pay is not as poor as you might expect. A call centre agent can get a basic salary of around £13,000, a call centre trainer around £25,000 and those in management could be looking at £40,000 or more.
But while the job may be flexible, it's also tough. "Telesales is the hardest job in sales," says Peter Rose, the head of telesales training at DHL. This is partly because it demands high productivity. A daily target could mean having to make 25 calls, whereas in field sales you're more likely to have a target of five or six face-to-face meetings.
Rose's background was in field sales but in 2002, after 19 years at DHL, he was facing redundancy. "I was middle aged, registered blind, and the open market wasn't looking that attractive," he says. Then he was invited to join a project in DHL's direct sales and has never looked back. Today he works alongside telesales managers, coaching the managers to coach the sales people. He is also involved in training those who work in customer services.
The average age of telesales people at DHL is mid-twenties (although some are in their late fifties and have come out of semi retirement). The basic salary is around £15,000 but monthly bonuses based on meeting targets could add 20 per cent to this.
Rose says a career in telesales is a good stepping-stone and can lead to promotion into field sales and then into key accountancy roles. The post even attracts graduates who have been to university, got their degree, and are now deciding what to do with it. Because DHL is business to business, there is no cold calling, but telesales staff still need to be resilient.
In general telesales staff need to have good IT skills, be patient and, as a company representative, know what they're talking about. You also need to be able to deal with stress and ideally have confidence and a sense of humour. Many job adverts call for those who are "bubbly, bright and enthusiastic", while others are a little more direct. "We are looking for individuals that are not afraid to pick up the phone and speak to our clients," reads an advert for one telesales post in Sussex.
This is Rose's advice for those just starting, or thinking of starting out on a career in telesales: "If you get your spurs in this," she says, "then it will stand you in good stead for anything you do in later life in business."