As the title of this post says, Freetel are evil. I’m currently too furious to write a rational and reasonable post about it, without swearing, but I plan to edit this as soon as possible to detail exactly how and why this is the case.
Later: Josh has calmed down, and commences writing a rant about the issue. The long turnaround is because I was out last night/this morning, not because I took that long to calm down. Still annoyed, though…
I read with some amusement, mere minutes after receiving a phone call from Freetel, a post on Slashdot entitled “Spam Over Internet Telephony (SPIT) to Come?”, which points to an article by NewScientist, “Move over spam, make way for “spit””. The scenario detailed in this article is one which I’m yet to experience in that form, as a by-product of my failure to yet adopt VoIP telephony solutions, however this kind of marketing is hardly new.
Do you want to discuss the cost-saving benefits of this over conventional telemarketing schemes? I’m sure that data is far cheaper in this day and age than the ridiculous “circuit-switched” (and you have to wonder how much of it is, anymore) pricing schemes of the telco organisations around the world. Not in dispute. I’m also (fairly) sure that in most of the world, it’s cheaper to have a computer sitting there making phone calls, rather than a person. Additionally, you’re just as likely to hit people sufficiently impulsive and/or stupid enough to buy your product. Don’t believe me? A study released earlier this year revealed that unsolicited bulk email actually WAS effective, simply because the returns only had to be minimal to cover the even more minimal cost. People spam, people do telemarketing — There, case for VoIP marketing.
And what about a combination of the two technologies? We all know frogs go… I mean… we all know that VoIP takeup in this continent at least leaves a fair bit to be desired, so far as extensive telemarketing potential audiences are concerned. And that said, those who have adopted here are most likely those who wouldn’t respond so well to telemarketing anyway — indeed, telemarketing may have been one of the reasons behind their moving away from conventional telephony services, so they can use VoIP gateways to automatically screen callers based on CID information, and other things… I’m not going to go too geeky at this point, but it’s been discussed at length in the past.
So, there’s no market worth touching in VoIP marketing in Australia as yet. That doesn’t mean EvilBusinesses™ can’t capitalise on the cost-cutting benefits of using computers to make phone calls, instead of people. Qovia, an Internet Appliance/VoIP monitoring equipment provider, has developed a system to send out 1,000 calls every five seconds, according to this CNET News article. And they’re the good guys. (So, they’re not selling that tech to anyone… big deal. Think conceptually, that’s far more important.)
There is a perfectly legitimate application of this technology, of course. My local library uses an automated calling system to notify and remind members of overdue books, which is excellent. I’m sure that this could be applied in many other spheres, too — not the least of which is any sizeable consultation business, specifically thinking of those in the medical field. Administration times could be cut, if calls were automatically made to say “Good [time of day], [name]. [Business name] is calling to remind you of your appointment tomorrow, [date], at [time]. If you believe this time is incorrect, contact us on [callback], or press [key number] to speak to an operator.”
That’s a concept, of course, but one which could be very easily and readily implemented (heck, for all I know, it probably has been)… the point stands, there are “good” applications for this technology, which I wouldn’t object to at all. That said, Freetel aren’t applying this in a “good” manner.
I don’t know if they’re using a VoIP/POTS gateway, or what. More to the point, I don’t care. I’m vaguely curious, but only because I have a vague ambition of doing something to break it. Technically, if I were really interested, there are people I can speak to about how this stuff works… besides, Google has most of the answers, anyway.
A company with whom I have had no previous association or foreknowledge of, Freetel, called my landline telephone number (ADSL line) yesterday afternoon. I don’t recall the exact details of the call, so to avoid accusations of libel at a later time, the following version of events is that to the best of my recollection. I say this, because it was impossible for me to record the call in a more definite manner, by means of recording device, or manual transcription, seeing I wasn’t expecting a phone call of this nature. So if you wish to sue, please, make my day. I haven’t got money for lawyers, but meh. Oh, I’m sorry, I published content of a questionable nature on my personal website, visited by close friends and a few others. If it makes you feel any better, I would have probably slandered your company’s good name to them in other personal correspondence by the time you read this message. All good? Excellent. Continuing.
Upon answering the phone, the manner and ambient noise (or lack thereof) distinguished the caller instantly as a recording. So that was stupid. The voice-actor responsible performed poorly, and the post-work on the recording was equally unimpressive; both should be shot. First suspicious element? I think one of the earliest words spoken was “congratulations”. I had, apparently, been selected as one of one-hundred (that number I recall with clarity) lucky people in “my area” (what they define “my area” as remains unclarified… I tend to think “my area” may have been the one-hundred numbers immediately above and below my own, but this is speculation) to receive this amazing offer of FREE phone calls! Wow!
You have no idea how stoked I am at this point. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited by a telemarketer. Now, maybe I’m just lucky, but I don’t think I’ve ever been hit with a telemarketing call which sounded this genuinely dodgy. For example, I’ve never been offered a free set of steak-knives, or anything else for that matter, whilst on the phone. Possibly something extra for no additional cost, but certainly not just outright “free”. So that was stupid. The copy for this recording was poorly prepared, and the copy writer responsible should be shot.
I’m holding the phone, still, although shaking somewhat. I’ve realised, this is the first electronic phone-spam I’ve ever received — far from being a historic moment, I’m furious. This is not an experience I’d like to become commonplace, as I hold the telephony medium in some esteem for its’ direct, peer-to-peer nature, in which instant feedback is possible. I’m reading a book at the minute, entitled “Alphabet to Email”, by Naomi S. Baron, a Professor of Linguistics at American University. In it, she has a chapter entitled “Why the Jury’s Still Out on Email”, which begins with two quotations, reading
It might help to consider the [email] message as a written verbal communication rather than real writing.1
[Computer conferencing is like] writing letters which are mailed over the telephone.2
1. Shapiro and Anderson 1985:21
2. Jim Girard, quoted in Spitzer 1986:19
I’d disagree. I think that approaching an electronic medium such as email in that manner restricts it, and isn’t true to the significant differences the medium holds to others — telephony being the pertinent example here. The inside-cover recto page of this book contains an expanded blurb. Get this:
Many children who seldom spoke to their parents at home now communicate with them through email.
Bang? At any rate, there are significant differences between the two mediums, and, as far as I’m concerned, neither of them encroaches on the space of the other. Telephony provides potential for immediate feedback (at least, in the conventional approach taken to it), whilst email permits time for greater consideration and response. The likening of email to “written verbal communication” is the result of narrow-minded people who have adapted to, rather than grown with, technology, failing to view it as being directly analogous with another medium, and thus drawing loose similarities in bold lines, to make themselves more comforable with a “different” media form. No, I haven’t got a degree in this stuff. Yes, I want one. In this instance, however, I like to think that I’m right, and they’re confused. This isn’t Wagner’s mixed-up world of magnificently combined multimedia — I’m sorry. Mediums are separate, and that’s how they’ll remain in some instances. They don’t have to be “the same” as what came before, not even similar. Think outside the square.
Yes, outside the square. That’s what these computer-powered telemarketers seem to be doing — applying a medium proven effective by mass application, rather than relative effectiveness, and (theoretically) benefiting from it.
Well, I’m sorry. That doesn’t appeal to me. You know what? If your product will filter out voice-spam calls, then I’m happy. I’ll buy it… if it displays value for money compared to what I’ve got already. Oh, yeah, and if your initial contact isn’t so dodgy that I wouldn’t consider following it up to purchase. And if you think you do anti-evil-call filtering, then wake up — you’re not Qovia (who, incidentally, have already filed for patent on this one), so get over yourselves. Meanwhile, I’ll just sit here, white-faced and shaking, every time I receive a phone call from a computer. But, you know what makes all of this worse? The system behind it was evidently poorly developed, even from a user perspective. A few kilometers up this rather lengthy blog post, I discussed the potential of this technology for appointment reminders, using customisable elements as part of a voice-call macro.
Ideally, Freetel would have utilised a similar method, such that when the phone number was skimmed from a database (presumably from White Pages/Telstra/Sensis’ directory on CD, or similar), the name was also recorded. Hence, it would be possible to initiate the call with “Good [time of day], [gender title] [last name]. I am calling from a telemarketing sc… erm… Freetel” — note that not even a time-greeting was included.
The reason I’m commenting on this at all is not simply because I believe it’d make the system more personable, but because they’ve failed so miserably at making any attempt to do so. Example? Okay. The first stage of the recording concludes, and the user is given a single prompt. Yes, that’s right. It’s perfectly linear — there is no alternative, but to hang up; something that people may do at any time of their own volition even without prompting — and yet the user is still presented with a “choice”. The prompt goes something like “Press 1 to find out how to take advantage of this amazing offer.”, and then a recording gives a message. From a usability point, this is stupid. This has been discussed (on Web Standards Group, amongst other places) more than a few times with people who deal with human/machine interaction systems, and the conclusion we always seem to wind up at is that programmers don’t give users enough credit, in most instances. This doesn’t mean don’t code systems without usability in mind, but it does mean you needn’t put in extra pointless steps to “explain” things to users. So, the human interaction specialists should be shot.
After this message, the user is told to leave their name and phone number after the tone. In hindsight, I wish I’d left a longer message — I said something along the lines of “Hi, I’m the person you just called. Go jump.” Now, regardless as to the call cost, I was tying up a POTS line somewhere… that’s one less other call they could be making at that time. I was sufficiently abusive, I think, but in retrospect I’m wishing I had left my name and website address… as it stands, I’m going to have to now chase them up, find contact numbers, and then point them in the direction of this post. If you’re reading this, hi guys… you should be shot.