At first glance, there appears to be a limitless number of factors that go into creating and running a top-notch phonathon. Just take a look at the number of different topics that I blog about as evidence of how complex I consider a good-running phonathon to be. If phonathon were simple and easy to run, there wouldn’t be any reason for me to continue writing this blog. The fact is that most phonathon programs operate in a basic fashion that allows them to get most of the lowest-hanging fruit. They produce results that are in line with the most basic of expectations, and anything else they are able to achieve is considered icing on the cake. But the best programs in the industry always seem to have something extra in their performance, as indicated in their ability to consistently surpass their previous year’s numbers and set new records. Make no mistake; their success is not an accident. It’s the result of the ability to teach what I consider to be The Art of Persuasion to their callers.
One of the most common mistakes that I see in phonathon is that managers are not picky enough when it comes to hiring their callers. Not every applicant that walks through the door has the skills to be hired, and not every student hired will end up being a superior caller. It takes a combination of keen identification of skill sets and talent by the hiring manager, an outstanding training program, great coaching, and timely motivation by management to get the most out of your staff. These management processes should be put into place to enhance and teach what I consider to be the common thread in all great student-fundraising presentations, and that is persuasion.
I have a simple definition of phonathon persuasion that I use in all my materials and presentations:
The caller must have the ability to convince the prospect to give something when they otherwise wouldn’t be compelled to do it on their own.
In any normal solicitation calendar that the Director puts together, there are ample opportunities for giving through direct mail pieces, e-solicitations, driving them to the website, newsletters and other announcements, and more. But if these methods were always successful, we wouldn’t need to hire callers and run a phonathon! Simply put, the advantage any phonathon program has over more impersonal options like those mentioned is the power of the student caller to persuade the prospect. It’s much more difficult for the prospect to tell a live voice “no” , especially when it’s a student, than it is to ignore a direct mail piece or delete an e-mail. Using the power of personalization, the caller should be able to make the case for giving much better than any written materials could do.
There are three things every caller must have to be great at persuading prospects to give:
Knowledge of the Campaign
This is the part of persuasion that can be most easily taught. Callers need facts that can help them sell the reasons to give. Without a strong grasp of the details of the campaign, callers are left without the tools they need to convince somebody to come aboard- often for the first time. Prospects must understand the needs of the institution and the reasons they should make this a priority amongst their list of charitable contributions. Callers that can drive home these points stand a much better chance of being told yes. Arm them with the weapons they need to do battle.
No Fear of Asking
Timid callers do not make good fundraisers. They simply cannot effectively sell the needs and reasons to give because they are afraid of rejection. We know that not every prospect will tell them yes, yet the caller should approach every call with the idea that they can make a difference and convince the person to give. Even if they hear what they consider to be a valid reason not to give, they must put aside their personal feelings, overcome the objection, and continue with strong negotiation. Having a fear of being told no will lead directly to hesitation, fewer asks for money, and a less than positive approach to the next call.
Enthusiasm and Sincerity
It goes without saying that enthusiastic callers are much more successful in phonathon programs. But sincerity is often underrated, and I believe it’s crucial to whether or not the callers can persuade the prospect to give. My definition of sincerity is that the callers truly mean what they say, that they believe in what they are raising money for and want the program to succeed at all costs. They are personally driven because they are passionate about the institution and the cause. Sincerity comes across in the caller’s voice, which makes it much more difficult for a prospect to tell a caller no when they hear how much they care. While this is a hard quality to teach, I believe it can be instilled and injected into the program by a manager who feels that same passion. A good leader sets an example of enthusiasm and sincerity for the students to follow.
When I’m running a phonathon, I gear my training and coaching sessions around teaching the art of persuasion. The true power of any solicitation will always be driven by the argument presented- and in higher education fundraising, the best advocates are always the students. So it makes sense to teach our callers how to use their position to influence patterns of giving with alumni, parents, and friends. I don’t believe for a second that persuasion cannot be taught. Yes, some students may be better at it than others when they arrive at your phonathon for training. But everybody can learn how to make a better case for giving and present it in a way that maximizes their chances for a successful outcome. It’s up to management to teach them.
My advice to phonathon managers is always simple. Pick the best students you can to be your phonathon callers and then make them better through a thoughtful training course designed to bring out the qualities of negotiation, donor education, and persuasion. Before a prospect refuses to give, callers need to make them think twice with a powerful argument to get involved. This is the quality that binds those programs that always seem to be at the top of their game.
As always, your comments are welcome.