Working in the Phonathon office of a university is a carefully designed job, full of clever euphemisms, softened language, and sly tactics. In fact, at my college it has been gracefully dubbed The Link, a name that says nothing about the function of the department.
The Link baits potential student employees by offering the highest wages of any on-campus job, perhaps rightfully so compared to the amount of work one would do sitting at the check-out desk of the library.
The job also attracts students involved with varsity athletics, mainly because calling takes place consistently during dinner time, from 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., which avoids conflicts with practice. Athletes tend to make some of the best callers. It could be their self-confidence, but, in actuality, I believe it’s their competitive nature.
The work environment at The Link is cutthroat, designed to spur contention between co-workers. Each shift offers an “incentive,” awarded to the caller who meets the night’s goal—usually five dollars for the highest success ratio. In a way, calling almost becomes a game.
The incentive is a trick designed to keep those fingers dialing as quickly as possible. Like many aspects of sales, calling is more luck than it is skill. If someone is planning on giving to the university, they’ll donate regardless of how cute you are on the phone. Nobody’s surprised why you’re calling, and they’ve already made up their minds before they get the sales pitch.
What really separates good callers from bad callers is their ability to convince alumni that donations are mutually beneficial. Persuade them that donating is philanthropic and that they also stand to gain from doing so.
I’ll admit that it’s a tough job. Callers are tasked with selling an idea, not a product.
At The Link, callers are given a list called ‘The Seven Reasons.’ Basically, it’s a series of positive qualities about the university that will be maintained or enhanced if an alumni contributes to the Annual Fund. The one I always used emphasized the value of the diploma.
“Our strength is your strength. Every time you put this university on your resume, you’re counting on our reputation to get you the job.”
Photocopies of The Seven Reasons are handed out during orientation, tacked to the inside of every calling station, and taped to the walls in poster form. They serve as your conversational arsenal, sidearms to shoot down any objection.
“When anyone says no, just use The Seven Reasons. Then make two more asks. You should always make a total of three asks.”
There are also a few other important nuances of the job. Always push for credit cards because it ensures the annual fund receives the money (otherwise, the return rate is roughly 80%). Try breaking payments into installments to soften the amount. Ask for double their last donation. Set a participatory minimum of $35.
But above all, always make three asks.
I worked at The Link for three semesters. After a while, conversations with alumni run together. I’ve heard a few interesting stories here and there—one guy who worked on the set of Arrested Development, another lady who was knighted for her work refurbishing used medical equipment and sending it to poor African nations—but for the most part, everyone seems to say the same things. How is school? How’s the weather? Is my old dormitory still there? I guess this is partially my fault, since I tend to go through the same dialogue. School is great. The weather is kind of rainy. Your dorm isn’t there anymore, but have you seen our new science center? Once I got $5,000 on a single call and I don’t even remember if the donor was a man or a woman.
One conversation stays with me though.
Late in the year, when we’ve run out of people to call, cards start getting recycled through. We basically call alumni until they pick up and tell us that they’re not interested in giving. (So if you’re ignoring the call of your Alma matter, just answer it and politely decline; you’ll be saving effort on both ends). On these slow days, we tend to reach only answering machines. I keep myself from going insane by trying to write down the name of every U.S. state on a Post-It note; at one point, I could even do capitals.
So when a young woman from Los Angeles actually answered the phone, I was caught off guard. I joked that we had a hard time reaching her.
“Ah well, I just had brain surgery.”
I figured she was joking and launched into the typical three-part conversation.
“Hi, my name is Kevin, and I’m calling from The Link. How are you this evening?”
2. Update information
“Are you still receiving our alumni magazine? Let me double-check your address with our records to make sure you are.”
3. Rapport building
“When’s the last time you’ve been to campus? Have you seen our new science center?”
4. Ask for donation
“While we’re on the subject of the science center, it’s actually part of the reason I’m calling…”
After I asked for a hundred dollars, she laughed, “No.”
I threw two of the Seven Reasons at her.
She said, “I can’t because, like I told you, I just had brain surgery. I’m seriously broke.”
Calls are supposed to take, at most, fifteen minutes. I spent the next hour on the phone with her.
She explained that after finishing her undergraduate studies, she moved down to southern California to work in a lab at UCLA. She hoped that it would better her chances when she applied to graduate school there. One day, out of the blue, she had an epileptic seizure. In her entire life, she had never once had a seizure, nor did anyone in her family have a history of it.
Luckily, the same UCLA lab was developing modern techniques to combat epilepsy. The treatment was experimental, but since she was already working there, they enrolled her in the trials.
The procedure took six months of testing, with various surgeries and physical therapy. After it was all over, though, she stopped having seizures for good.
“The operation was a complete success. The doctors called me a poster child for epilepsy surgery,” she laughed. “The downside is that I’ve been out of work for the past six months. I’m finally going back to work next Monday.”
I told her that it was an amazing story, and she thanked me for listening. After that, in a moment that would define me as a great caller for The Link, I made a third ask.
She let out a long sigh, politely declined again, and promised me she would check out the new science center soon.
My boss was patting me on the shoulder. “Being a good caller isn’t about getting the pledge but making the three asks.”
I felt rotten. Did I want to win the incentive that badly? On the girl’s card, I put “brain surgery” as the decline comment. I won’t be returning to this job. Perhaps I lack the competitive nature of a good athlete.
So in a couple years, I’ll receive my first phone call from The Link. I bet I’ll find it amusing; maybe I’ll joke around with the caller and give him or her a hard time. In predictable fashion, I’ll probably pledge at least the participatory $35. It might be annoying to get those phone calls, but I guarantee you it’s a whole lot harder when you’re the one asking for money.
Surprisingly, it’s not calling the rude people that makes The Link a difficult environment. It’s all the nice folks.