One Word After Another With James A. Autry

Who’s On the Phone?

They’ve taken all the fun out of receiving a sales call. Not only that, but they’ve taken the challenge out of it.

When we used to get a sales call, there was always a real person calling. Now there is a voice activated by a computer. With the person, you got the feeling that the salesperson really had something to say and wanted you to listen and respond. The computer voice doesn’t give a damn one way or another because it never listens to you.

With the person, there was the opportunity for a little harmless fun; the computer is not interested in fun.

Let me give you an example. Several years ago, a famous dance studio, assuming that everyone would like to learn to be a good dancer, would phone with the offer of free introductory dance lessons. The challenge with these calls was in devising how to say “not interested” in a way that got the message across while giving the salesperson a good excuse with the boss for not making the sale.

There were several possibilities, including “I teach dancing. Are you hiring?” Or I might try responding with my high school French, always met by the typical American response to someone speaking a foreign language: They talked louder, thinking, I guess, that if you speak loudly enough you’ll be understood. My favorite, though, was “Dancing is against my religion.” All those responses stopped the pitch and let the salesperson off the hook with the boss.

These days, though, the calls are from irritating, disembodied electronic voices that sound like zombies or from enthusiastic happy-sounding young women named Cindy or Sandy or Becky. Occasionally, the voice is someone named Jeff and he says he’s been trying to reach me. Unfortunately for Jeff, I hang up before he goes any further so he’ll just have to keep on trying, not that Jeff cares because Jeff is operated by computer.

What makes the calls so irritating—other than their frequency—is that the callers have gotten so clever that they route their calls from local area codes and neighboring cities. This almost requires that I at least answer the phone.

As a businessperson, I keep wondering if these things work. Who makes a purchase decision based on one of these pitches? And, key question, do those businesses realize how irritating these calls are?

I keep hoping that, at some point, a real live salesperson calls so I can say that the product—whatever it is—is against my religion.

Of course, it would be just my luck to be called by a Bible salesman.

Mississippi native James A. Autry ( of Des Moines is a well-known author, poet, musician and business consultant who has written 14 books on such topics as gratitude, servant leadership and his Southern boyhood. He also published the novel “The Cold Warrior: When Flying Was Dangerous and Sex Was Safe.”

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