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Why sales calls are a dying real estate marketing tool despite smartphone addiction

Ashton Kutcher on his smartphone at a SXSW party. Photo by Steve Hall.

Isn’t phone addiction good for sales calls?

There has been a growing trend over the past several years and while we acknowledge that trends can change, I’d like to share with you several points below that outline the state of phone marketing as we see it based on several studies including our own. Our assertion is that smartphone addiction seems like it would benefit those of the traditional school where sales calls makes big bucks, but in a growing demographic it has the opposite result.

First of all, are smartphones really addictive?

Are smartphones akin gambling? CNN reporter Shelly DuBois said, “researchers are beginning to suspect, the old joke about not being able to put down the phone may not just be funny, but true.” DuBois points out that the psychiatric community does not share a consensus on addictions and notes that just now is compulsive gambling being named a medical, psychiatric condition.

CNN reports, “Smartphones actually could tap into one of the same pathways in the brain that make slot machines so addictive, according to Judson Brewer, the medical director at the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic. One of the reasons gambling is so addictive is that it taps into a powerful associative learning pathway.

Associative learning means that your brain is trained to make you feel either good or bad after a certain event. Winning a jackpot feels great, so gamblers get a very strong hit of good-feeling chemicals when they win, which makes them want to do it again. “That forms an associative memory,” says Brewer. “Wanting is the stickiness that creates the glue between what you just did and that feeling.”

It turns out that reinforcing that reward intermittently creates a more powerful need than offering a reward consistently. If people hit the jackpot every time they pulled a lever, gambling would be boring. But because they don’t know when the reward is going to come, they want it that much more. Smartphones, in a way, also channel intermittent rewards.

Think about getting pinged—alerted to a new message. You’re not sure when it happens, but when it does, it’s usually something interesting, worth a glance or maybe even an immediate response. A text is no monetary reward, but you can still train your brain to expect one—and crave it.”

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Yet it is still not considered a legitimate addiction in the medical community.

A tale of two studies

An Australian study found the rate of individuals that are what could be considered addicted that act irresponsibly with their cell phones (constant texting, checking pings, to a point that it interferes with daily life) is proportional to the rate of people who drive irresponsibly. The study notes that “addiction danger signs included running up huge bills and having irrational reactions to being without a phone if you forgot or lost your mobile,” noting some users had gone so far over in data or text use that their bills were in the $5,000 range.

An award winning study performed by a blind high school student using biometric data showed that teens manifest addictive behavior, thus withrdawal. The budding psychologist said on NPR, “I found addictive tendencies in my subjects. They almost went through withdrawal symptoms. And the way that I like to explain that is that cell phones and other sorts of technology are very inherently stimulating. And so when you take them away, a kid becomes understimulated, and almost doesn’t know how to entertain himself.”

If you have a teen, you know the drill

Although not recognized yet in the psychiatric community as an addiction, anyone (like us) with a teen knows that if you take that magical device away, the world might actually end for your child. Our squirms, acts bored, and seems as if something amazing is waiting for her just in the other room that she can’t get to. This behavior is not unique in our home, all parents know that grounding involves taking the precious cell phone away. And that is when the addiction signs become very real, almost as if literally fiending for a drug, foot tapping and all.

Wouldn’t phone addiction bode well for traditional marketers?

Absolutely not. Millenials do not see the cell phone as a phone, in fact, most rarely talk on the phone- it is a texting and internet device that plays music. Last summer as part of a study on a related topic, we asked our daughter why she doesn’t talk on the phone and she pointed to being used to have several conversations at once, yet holding a low commitment level to whichever one she chooses- it’s perfectly acceptable to go walk the dog mid-text conversation, but you can’t put the phone down to multi-task if you’re talking. It requires too much attention.

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The study I mention was a private study at an Austin high school in which we asked 40 kids age 13-18 about their use and attitudes toward technology and we found that they were not impressed with much of anything and almost scoffed at our (adults’) fascination with the iPhone- they’ve been in existence since they were “little,” so why would they be impressed? Smartphones are part of their DNA. Asking you to be impressed as a child that a phone had a push button dial instead of a spinner would probably cause eye rolls too, no? The youth were not only unimpressed, they didn’t care… until we asked about technologies they hadn’t lived with yet like augmented reality- then they lit up, but 100% of the kids said they couldn’t live without their phones and the majority confirmed that they rarely use the device for phone conversations, with texting being their top use of the cell phone.

Calling introverts on the phone

PsychologyToday columnist Sophie Dembling writes about the perils of calling an introvert and describes why introverts hate talking on the phone. Dembling points out four reasons she as an introvert hates talking on the phone:

1. The phone is intrusive. It rings and we are expected to tear our minds away from whatever they were focusing on and refocus on whoever is on the other end of the line and whatever he or she has to say. This makes my brain hurt. My mind doesn’t change direction easily.

2. Most phone calls are chit-chatty rather than deep. And we all agree: introverts don’t like chit-chat. I have one friend who starts every call by asking, “Whatcha you doin’?” I have no idea how to answer, except with “Nuthin’” or “Workin’” or “Cleaning the schumtz out of my computer keyboard.” And I can’t imagine that any of these answers could interest her, so the call immediately feels awkward.

I do have friends with whom phone conversations get deep and I enjoy those, but they require a block of time. When that kind of call ambushes me, it derails my whole day. I try to schedule them–and even so, a certain amount of bullet biting is necessary for me to keep the appointment.

3. Introverts tend to be slow thinkers and responders and long pauses don’t go over well on the phone. If I am on the phone with a talkative person, I struggle to get my say. I end up doing a lot of listening and uh-huhing. After a while, I get bored.

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4. It can be difficult to focus a busy, busy introvert mind on the abstraction that is telephone conversation. Listening to one thing and seeing something else is a lot of sensory input piled on top of everything that’s already going on in our heads. This is exhausting and my mind often drifts back into itself; I have to force it back to the conversation.

Millenials are phone introverts

Based on all of the above, I believe that anyone born after 1982 most likely has introverted tendencies regarding telephone conversation. It is hard to focus, it feels like an intrusion, and honestly, it gets boring quickly, even if it someone we really like or want to talk to- it’s how we millennials have been hard wired. Cell phones are not attached to millenials’ heads like the average 54 year old female Realtor, they’re down by our sides with our fingers flying- the two uses are wildly different.

New York Times columnist Pamela Paul wrote an extensive piece on why the phone is now defunct (as a marketer, I insist you read the entire article right now, lest you misunderstand the state of the world). The article outlines that the world used to be phone-centric and business was done exclusively on the device. Now, phone calls are made when someone doesn’t understand an email and is in a hurry. We have several younger staffers here at AG, all of whom are most reliably communicated with via text (last fall, one staffer and I texted over 400 times in just three months).

Pamela Paul captures the sentiment perfectly:

“NOBODY calls me anymore — and that’s just fine. With the exception of immediate family members, who mostly phone to discuss medical symptoms and arrange child care, and the Roundabout Theater fund-raising team, which takes a diabolical delight in phoning me every few weeks at precisely the moment I am tucking in my children, people just don’t call.

It’s at the point where when the phone does ring — and it’s not my mom, dad, husband or baby sitter — my first thought is: “What’s happened? What’s wrong?” My second thought is: “Isn’t it weird to just call like that? Out of the blue? With no e-mailed warning?’”

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Phone calls constitute emergencies

I too panic when my phone rings. So few people have the number and it usually means someone I love is dead or in the hospital. I text frequently, but use Twitter/Email/Facebook even more frequently. For my birthday last year, Benn got me the HTC Evo because I needed a phone that I could do business on like it was a baby laptop (which is exactly how I use it), not so I could talk on the phone. That’s the last function of a phone nowadays.

Phone calls being ignored started with Caller ID and has devolved into something much more. Benn’s parents’ use of the phone points to another growing trend as their Caller ID pops up on their television screen so they can ignore it without getting up (unless it is us or one of the siblings of course). The commitment level to the phone has changed in all demographics, not just hipster kids.

The final point: cold calling is dead

Although cold calling or even warm calling is alive and well in other demographics, if you call a millenial who doesn’t recognize your number, there is almost no chance it will be answered. And then, when a message is left, it will be deleted and not returned because millenials don’t talk on the phone. If you leave a website or email address, your chances increase, but not much because you’ve violated the cultural norms of the person you’re calling- they don’t want to be sold to, they barely want to talk to their mom on the phone.

For those arguing that social networking is bunk, the jig is up- smartphones have replaced phones and the next generation of buyers will not take your cold calls. During a recent conversation with several friends my age, I asked how they would respond to a sales call and universally, there was disgust, one girl even cussing about a simple message left on her cell phone from her Realtor that she had already hired, “haven’t you heard of text or email?” she asked.

This is the state of affairs with millenials and even many GenXers, and they can be ignored or complied with, one of which will cause your business to decline over time. Not all people in all age groups fit into any given category, but research supports the general trend toward smartphone addiction choking off sales phone calls. Sales calls now have their best chance of survival in the form of a Facebook ping or tweet during a time of low commitment and passively remaining top of mind is one of the best ways to replace the cold calling of the past.

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Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

35 Comments

35 Comments

  1. Jonathan Benya

    March 28, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Darn it, guys! Quit writing articles I agree with so much, it’s interfering with my workload today! In all seriousness, this is a point I’ve been trying to make for years, and I think it dovetails nicely with the recent conversation about Mike Ferry Vs. modern marketing. Introverts don’t want to talk on the phone, but they do want to buy houses!

  2. Fred Romano

    March 28, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Great post Lani, most of our clients list with us without ever speaking on the phone first. And all of our customer support is completed online through forms on our website. It’s also interesting that most buyers leads are through websites that generate emails, so it’s rare when we get live callers.

    Technology is there for those that want to use it! We love it 🙂

  3. Art Vuilleumier via Facebook

    March 28, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Hahahahaha … have we all forgotten to be social.We all know that there are generational differences, but isn’t putting all M’s and X’s into this box showing just a bit of arrogance? There are still plenty of both generations (and other generations) that still and will use voice communication! And before you put down Mike Ferry … his methodologies still work!

    • Benn Rosales

      March 28, 2011 at 4:50 pm

      If you’d left this message for us via voicemail it would still be sitting there unheard. Yes, phones still work, but trends are trends. Empirical evidence isn’t enough? That’s cool, Mikey needs a new pair of shoes.

      It’s pretty obvious you young puppers still don’t read before you start typing or opening your mouth.

  4. Art Vuilleumier via Facebook

    March 28, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Hahahahaha … have we all forgotten to be social.We all know that there are generational differences, but isn’t putting all M’s and X’s into this box showing just a bit of arrogance? There are still plenty of both generations (and other generations) that still and will use voice communication! And before you put down Mike Ferry … his methodologies still work!

  5. BawldGuy

    March 28, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    At 59 I accept what you’re saying as gospel. Yet go to any office housing 50 or more full time agents, and the top 10, generally speaking, will all be OldSchool prospectors. How long must we wait for the NewSchool to ‘show us how it’s done’? 🙂

    Seriously, roughly 15% of my clients are 35/under. In the last few months two have been mid-20s. I’ve never, not once detected any arrogance when it comes to communication mode. Sometimes it’s email, but much of the time it’s phone conversation. Funny how it works when phone calls equal better results. I find Millenials are very kind, considerate folks. They adjust to what works, in context. I’ve had to do the same. Yet still, much of my client communication remains good old fashioned phone conversations.

    • Lani Rosales

      March 28, 2011 at 6:10 pm

      Jeff, you’re right, the fat lady hasn’t sung yet as many demographics still rely heavily on the phone but in ten years, that will not likely be the case.

      We spent time studying a group of high school students and have studied young professionals an a contracted study. The results were (as I mentioned) not surprising- they don’t use the phone as a phone. You’re right, many will adjust if they are working with someone like you who functions best on the phone, but in coming years, this will not likely be the case.

      I recall the vehement reaction my young professional friend had this month on this very topic and without being prompted, she talked about the nerve of her annoying Realtor calling her phone instead of emailing, and this wasn’t a sales call, it was a hired agent. The wave is coming, I feel it.

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