Over the past few years I have seen many trends develop in phonathon. Most revolve around the increasingly difficult task of actually getting the prospect on the phone. Contact rates have continued to creep downward as programs search for answers in overcoming caller ID, cell phones, do not call lists, telemarketing regulations, and the general awareness of our telephone outreach programs. This has cost some programs, both manual and automated, a great deal of money.
One of the most common mistakes I see in the industry today is the concept of attempt limits. These artificial barriers may prevent some of the more egregious problems we face in phonathon, but they essentially tie the hands of management so tight that we miss opportunities to fully exploit the productivity potential of our databases. During my many consultations on campuses all over the world, I’m fairly straight-forward in my advice to stop using them. While the idea of attempt limits makes some sense on an abstract level, the reality is that they limit the amount of money a phonathon can raise.
As I see it, there are two common reasons why managers and directors believe attempt limits should be used.
Alumni Relations- Many VP’s in development are afraid of their telephone outreach programs. They consider phonathons a “necessary evil”…not the positive outreach tool that, when used properly, can both raise significant amounts of money and promote the mission of the institution. Many executive fundraisers look down upon phonathon and consider it telemarketing. Therefore, they naturally believe that after 10 or 15 attempts into a household, the phonathon should give up on contacting the alum, parent, or friend for fear of upsetting them.
I understand the concept and logic behind this thought, but believe it’s a flawed argument if the manager is doing their job properly. Sure, if you call a household eleven nights in a row at the same time each evening, you run the risk of upsetting the prospect. Heck, even I might get a little peeved about that. But if you space those 11 attempts out over 5 or 6 weeks instead, you greatly reduce the chances that the alum will be upset…call the development office to refuse giving …and subsequently be taken off the list. Actually, this strategy may help increase contacts because many prospects that travel are gone for longer periods of time. By spreading calling out, you stand a much better chance of eventually contacting them.
One of the biggest mistakes in phonathon happens when managers and directors try to shove a large amount of calling into a small window of time. The better answer is to meticulously plan your phonathon so that you have multiple segments open at any given time…thereby spreading each segment out longer and only attempting a given record one or two times in a week (preferably at varying times throughout the shift…not the same time of night). Granted, towards the end of a calling program in the spring months you will likely need to call the records more frequently because your database will be further complete- especially donors. That’s completely understandable and normal. You just don’t want to face this issue in October when nostalgia on campus is running strong and the phonathon is in high gear.
Increasing Contacts- There is a big myth out there that after a certain number of attempts, people stop answering their phone. In the minds of many managers and supervisors, that number has dropped considerably over the past several years. There is little doubt that it is harder to reach people today than it was just five years ago, for reasons that I mentioned in the beginning of this article. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Some managers stop calling after just 7 or 8 attempts…thinking that if they don’t answer by then that they likely never will. Wrong. Here are a couple of statistical facts I gathered when conducting research a year ago:
63% of the productivity of the average database in phonathon happens between the 1st and the 10th
attempt. That means that 37% of the productivity potential of any database happens after 11 attempts are made! By giving up early and coding the prospects as “unavailable throughout the campaign” or “reached attempt limit”, manager’s are essentially leaving money on the table…and forcing themselves to fight towards their goal with one arm tied behind their back. Even though any database naturally tapers off the farther complete you go, the majority of segments are still profitable…just at a diminished rate. You need to really understand the return on investment for each segment you call and weigh that against the prospect of stopping early. Any way you slice it, 37% is a ton of productivity.
Here’s the bottom line- the only thing attempt limits do is limit your ability to raise money in your phonathon program. They are artificial barriers erected to prevent alumni from becoming upset or to improve the chances of reaching other prospects. The intention is good, but the logic is flawed. Sure, you may need to temporarily stop calling a segment that you’ve hit pretty hard recently so that you don’t upset alumni. Just don’t completely give up on it. Let it rest for a while and go back to it later. Better yet, try to “nurse” the segment along gently by placing smaller amounts of calling over larger periods of time. You’re less likely to upset alumni and you will actually increase your contact chances for some of your hard to reach prospects.
As always, your comments are welcome.