Telemarketer

7 12 2008

Sometimes I wish I recorded my telephone calls. Not to ensure quality, but just so I could listen to them again later. It would help for blogging purposes, too. I’m recalling this one from memory, and in the past few hours, it’s probably grown grander and better than it actually was. But it’s basically accurate, it’s the best I can do, and it’s possibly even entertaining, who knows.

I was a telemarketer once. I had just been laid off. Our son Aidan was born a few months prior, and I couldn’t afford to stay out of work.

My brother was working for a telemarketing company called Xentel. He said he’d get me a job interview, and a few days later, I was an official “professional telephone fundraiser” for Xentel.

Companies like Xentel are the ones who call you on behalf of organizations like the Firefighters Guild or the Fraternal Order of Police. The pitch basically goes like this: “We’ve really appreciated your support in the past, and we’re calling to see if we can count on you again for our annual fund drive. We’ll be sending you the Firefighters decal for your windshield and two tickets to our benefit concert. Our gold contribution level is $50 and the silver level is $35. Which level works best for you this year?”

While working there, I learned the rest of the story of what these “professional fundraising organizations” are all about. Occasionally, I get the opportunity to share that knowledge with some person in a similar situation.

And that leads me to tonight.

Tonight, I got a call from Adam, a friendly sounding young man calling on behalf of the New Mexico State Police Association. It was an interesting call. Adam and I spoke for about fifteen minutes, and I don’t think the call had quite the outcome that Adam was expecting.

He gave me the standard pitch, and it was a very good try. He stumbled over a few words here and there, but on the whole, it was a reasonable success. When he was done, he asked which contribution level I wanted to select.

“Well, let’s talk about that, Adam,” I said. “I’m honestly not sure which is the right level for me. Maybe if we talk each other through this, we can figure it out together.”

There was a brief pause as Adam scanned his computer monitor for the answer that best fit the one I’d given him.

See, here’s how this works: When a fundraising telemarketer like Adam calls your house, he sits in a noisy, cramped room in front of a computer with a telephone headset. The main computer does all the dialing from a master list of phone numbers. The computer calls your house first to see if you’re home. If it sounds like a live person answers instead of an answering machine, the computer hangs up and schedules a callback in about two minutes.

At the callback, as soon as you answer, the computer connects you to the first available telemarketer it can find. There’s about a two second delay while the computer makes the connection, which is why you always say “hello” twice before the panicked telemarketer comes on the line and tries to catch you before you hang up.

The telemarketer’s screen feeds him his script one line at a time, inserting your name where appropriate. When he asks you a question, his computer gives him a list of various possible answers you might give. When you respond, he clicks the answer that best matches your response, and the computer gives him the next line in the script.

Adam decided my answer matched the one about “more information on the contribution levels,” so he started explaining them in further detail. I interrupted. “No, Adam, I understand what the levels are. My questions are more about this whole fundraising campaign. What’s the name of the company you work for?” Without hesitation, Adam answered, “I’m calling on behalf of the New Mexico State Police Association.”

Note the careful wording, as supplied by Adam’s computer. He’s calling “on behalf of” the association. I pointed out that he hadn’t answered my question. “No, I caught the charity. But I know that you aren’t sitting at the State Police Association’s office; you work for a fundraising company. Which company is it?” He gave me the scripted answer. “I’m calling from Civic Development Group, a corporation contracted by the New Mexico State Police Association, located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Now can I put you down for the Gold Level, or shall we just count on you for the Silver this year?”

I was making some progress. CDG is one of the more notorious organizations. A quick Google search brings up their official website, as well as a list of rip-off reports and lawsuits, including a pretty hefty punitive damages suit brought by the Federal Trade Commission. “Okay,” I said. “Now, Adam, if I go with the Gold Level and send you $50, how much of that will actually go to the State Police Association?”

Another pause while Adam likely clicked “More Options” on his monitor and then found the appropriate response. “Civic Development Group is a private company utilized by non-profit organizations to manage their fundraising campaigns. A portion of all proceeds go to the fundraising company to cover costs associated with managing the campaign.”

“Thanks, Adam,” I said. “But what’s the percentage? What percentage goes to the Association and what percentage goes to Civic Development Group?” I could sense a nervous edge as Adam read the next answer. By law, these companies are required to disclose their cut of the proceeds. Some of them, however, flirt dangerously close to the border of illegal activity. They try to get around this requirement by never telling the telemarketers this percentage. Instead, the telemarketer can truthfully give the scripted answer that Adam gave me: “I’m not personally aware of the percentage, but I can connect you with someone who can answer that question. But before I do, can I confirm your contribution so you’ll be sure to get your tickets in time for the benefit concert?”

It was time to make my move. If I played it wrong, Adam would hit F9, my phone would disconnect, and within seconds, Adam would be talking to a new caller.

“Adam,” I said, “Let’s talk for a second. And I mean, let’s really talk. Don’t read your script. Just talk to me like you’d talk if we were friends.” This threw him a little bit. After a short pause, he simply said, “Okay.”

“Do you really not know the percentage or are you just not supposed to tell me?” In a much more normal and non-mechanical voice, Adam told me that he honestly didn’t know. “I used to work for a company just like yours,” I said. “They never told us either. I remember how surprised I was when I finally found out. Do you want to know what the percentage is?” Adam hesitated. His instincts, no doubt freshly manufactured by some very high-pressure training from the telemarketing managers, were telling him to hang up and go to the next call. I hoped that a supervisor wasn’t listening in on this call, which they do throughout each shift. If that were the case, they would likely override Adam’s console and disconnect the call for him. Finally, he answered, “Sure.”

“It’s usually between ten and twelve percent,” I said. There was silence on the other end of the line, and for a moment, I thought I’d lost him. “That means for every dollar you collect, a maximum of twelve cents goes to the charity. Do you know where the rest goes? I mean, I know some of it pays for the employees, and for the phone equipment, and for the building you’re sitting in. But the rest of it, which is millions of dollars, do you know where that goes?” More silence. “It goes to the people who own your company, and they get rich from it. They use you, Adam. They use you to con good people into thinking they’re giving money to people who need and deserve it, people like policemen and firefighters, when almost all of that money is really going to make some sleazy, rich guy a little richer.”

I decided to stop at this point to see if Adam was still there. It was silent for a moment more, and then Adam responded, “I really don’t know what to say to that.”

To drive the point home a little further, I added this piece of information. “Here’s something else I found out, Adam. Companies like yours and the one I worked for usually don’t stop at ripping off the donors. They rip off their employees, and by that, I mean they’re ripping you off, too.” Adam sounded slightly concerned at this point, but still a bit cautious. “How’s that?” he asked.

“When I worked for Xentel, collecting for the firefighters and police guilds, we used to earn personal bonuses and team bonuses if we did well in a shift. Does your company do that?” Adam said yes, it did. “Well,” I continued, “I started to notice that those bonuses never seemed to make it into my paycheck. Have you noticed that your checks always seem to be a little smaller than you were expecting them to be? When I asked about it, our manager showed me some clauses in the papers they made me sign when I went to work that said if each campaign didn’t yield a certain average amount of money per call made, any previously promised incentive bonuses didn’t apply. It was basically a way for them to legally promise us money to make us work harder, and then never pay us the money they promised.”

“But that was a different company,” Adam interjected. “You don’t know that every fundraising company is like that.” It was a good point, but he sounded far too hopeful, like if he believed it enough, it could actually be true.

“Adam,” I said, “have you ever Googled your company? I can already tell you what you’ll find. Scam reports. Lawsuits from donors. Lawsuits by former employees. Check it out for yourself, don’t just take my word for it. These companies keep going because they’re making SO much money. They don’t care if they have to pay out a million dollars here or a hundred thousand dollars there. They’re making millions of dollars every month by preying on the generosity of others. And the unions they represent don’t care, because ten percent of ten million dollars is still a million dollars they didn’t have before.

“I know it’s a tough time to find work,” I continued. “I needed the job when I worked for Xentel, and I made decent money doing it. But every week, it got harder to cash my paycheck knowing that every dollar I earned came from a nice, well-meaning peerson who intended for this money to go to a policeman or a firefighter. I earned it by tricking them, and I tricked them because my company told me do it. And I finally had to ask myself if my paycheck was enough to buy my integrity, because that’s what I was giving up to earn that paycheck. So you tell me, Adam. What’s the best contribution level for me? How much money should I give you today?”

It was the critical moment. Was all my ridiculous soapboxing on ethics going to amount to anything, or was Adam going to laugh at my absurd plea to his conscience?

“Nothing,” Adam finally conceded, and the poor guy sounded really defeated. And then he added, “Look, I’m really sorry.”

It was victory, but amidst the victory, there was also the need to interject hope so as to avoid just sending some poor telemarketer off on a depressed drinking binge later that evening. That was not the point at all.

“Hey, don’t be sorry,” I consoled. “We all feel the same way when we find out. Your company makes its money by tricking people, and they tricked you, too. It’s their fault, not yours. And you’ll be the one to decide what’s the right choice now that you know. You probably need the money as much as I did. But you do a great job on the phone, and I know that there are companies out there, legitimate companies that make their money without scamming people, who would really benefit by having you on their team.”

“You’ve given me a lot to think about,” Adam said very quietly.

“All right, well I’ll let you go,” I said. “I don’t want to get you in trouble. But remember, you don’t ever have to make a phony solicitation for Civic ever again. And every day you go back to work there is one more day you have to wait before you find a job where you can feel proud of the work you’re doing.”

He promised to think it over. I wished him well, and then I hung up.

On the one hand, I kind of freak myself out. Sometimes I feel as audacious as Aaron Eckhart’s character in “Thank You for Smoking” when he manages to pit a studio audience against an anti-smoking advocate and in favor of himself, a tobacco lobbyist, while a teenage smoker with lung cancer sits beside him. Was it the information that mattered to Adam, or did I just totally manipulate the conversation?

On the other hand, everything I told him was true, and I really meant what I said. My brother quit working for Xentel not long after I did, and we’re both now working in jobs where we can hold our heads high. If Adam quits working for Civic, some other broke, desperate, unsuspecting person will take his place. But maybe things will be better for Adam this time next year. Or maybe he’ll decide the money is worth it, and maybe he’ll call me again someday if the computer connects my phone and his terminal again. Who knows.

But I do feel passionately about what I told him. The more that time goes on, the more I get angered by the exploitation of human charity for selfish, unethical gain. It’s really difficult, because I’ve been a party to this myself in the past in various ways. Maybe the reason I didn’t just hang up on Adam is because I’m trying to right some of those past wrongs somehow.

And by no means would I begrudge support for police and firefighters. For the record, the New Mexico State Police Association is a labor union that cops can voluntarily join. Its primary purpose is to lobby against the State Police Board for higher salaries. It’s not a bad organization, per se, but I think it could use better financial judgment than to give away 90% of its contributions to a sleazy telemarketing outfit. If you really want to do something nice for a police officer, try anonymously paying his or her tab next time you see one at a restaurant. Invite a firefighter you know, along with his or her spouse, to your home for dinner. Send some holiday goodies to the School Resource Officer at your child’s school.

But if you give it to the person on the phone, at least you know what happens to that money now.

Adam certainly does.

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11 responses

7 12 2008
Jenn

Dude, this was awesome. I wish I’d gotten this phonecall 15 days into working for Echostar, an equally slimy company who only refunds money to its canceling customers if they realize or know ahead of time that they have a credit, and ask for it. If not? They pocket the money. GAH!

I’m so glad to be self employed.

7 12 2008
Janna

Awesome. Truly awesome.

7 12 2008
Cilla

Thanks, Rob! Most of the information you related I ‘knew’ but not in enough detail (such as exact percentages) to have presented it to anyone calling me. I knew the organizations received less than half, but had no idea it was as low as 10-12%. Thank you.

8 12 2008
julia

it could use better financial judgment than to give away 90% of its contributions to a sleazy telemarketing outfit.

I feel the same way. I think the government should put a cap on the profit margin for these businesses. We see too many complaints from ‘victims’ of these fund raising campaigns at 800notes.com

8 12 2008
Edie C.

Great info, Rob. I never knew any of that.

8 12 2008
Edie C.

Oh! Many years ago, my sister and I went to a Lee Greenwood (God Bless the USA) concert with tickets that we got from this type of fundraising. Tell us a bit about the concert. How does that work into it?

8 12 2008
Rob in Gallup

Yes, the concert really does happen. Usually they feature relatively unknown bands, and attendance is usually pretty unimpressive. I would have gone to see Lee Greenwood if I had a ticket, though.

Here’s the thing. Technically, these companies are legitimate fundraising organizations. They get routinely sued and fined, but there has to be some degree of legality in order for them to continue to exist. So they choose their wording very carefully, and some of the aspects (like the concert) really do check out. By that, I mean they really do have a concert and they really do send out tickets for it, along with the window decals. And it’s true, the fundraising company does pay the costs associated with booking the concert.

But here’s how that breaks down:

Let’s say you’re Civic Development Group. You collect a little over $1 million per week in donations (that’s their actual figure). Each campaign is going to last for about two weeks, so you’re expecting a gross revenue of $2 million per campaign. Out of that campaign, 10% (or $200,000) comes off the top to go to the charity you’re representing. You’ve got $1.8 million left. You have a lot of employees, so about half a million is going to be paid out in salaries. You’re down to $1.3 million. You book a band for $20,000, rent an event hall for $50,000. Figure in an extra $100,000 for your building rent, phone equipment, office supplies and various other expenses. All said and done, for every $2 million campaign you run, you’re still going to retain over $1 million of it as a net profit.

Some of the money does go toward its intended purpose, so I guess one could argue that it’s not entirely bad. It’s just that the vast majority of the money collected goes toward overhead and profit for a private company, which in my opinion detracts from legitimate organizations that really do depend on charitable contributions to succeed.

It’s technically legal, but it’s pretty shady at best.

21 12 2008
dziewczyna

Thanks Rob. I really appreciate how thoroughly you check things out.

29 12 2008
John P Schaffer

Well said!!! If you want to know more about Civic Development Group, check out http://www.civicdevelopment.net.

7 02 2009
Johnathan

Another perspective:

A private company is putting on a concert (or circus, or hockey game), and is selling the tickets over the phone, and donating 10% of the profits to a charity.

7 02 2009
Johnathan

I feel I should elaborate,

Perhaps it is a little different in Canada, but Xentel’s Canadian events are excellent. They have high attendance, and are always very entertaining. A high percentage of those who buy tickets, make a repeat purchase in future years.

The company is putting on an entertainment event, and giving 10% of all ticket sales to a charity.

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