We’re gearing up for another exciting year of phonathon! With just weeks to go until the majority of programs kick off their campaigns, I thought I would share my thoughts on how managers should be using the remaining time before calling begins. While there are a multitude of things to focus on, here are five questions you absolutely need to ask yourself to ensure your phone program is pointed in the right direction.
5. Have I created an atmosphere where callers will not use the economy as an excuse?
The hottest topic in higher education development last year should not be a built-in excuse for callers this year. Yes, we know the economy is still rough in many parts of the world. The recession has not completely disappeared- and in some cases it has gotten worse because unemployment continues to rise in some locations. But let’s not be all gloom and doom here. When Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. collapsed last year, the panic alone caused a ripple effect that halted regular patterns of giving in many of our prospect pools. That initial fear is gone…and while hesitation skill exists in some capacity, optimism is returning in many parts of the world. The stock market is above 9,000. The financial sector still sports some wounds, but many banks are now showing profits again. Unemployment in July even fell in the
If you allow the economy to be used as an excuse this year, you will almost certainly realize worse results than your program is capable of producing. Look folks…this is not wishful thinking here. Is it still rough out there? Absolutely. Will some prospects still be reluctant to give because of the economy? No doubt about it. But this doesn’t feel like last year to many people. Do not allow your callers to fall into the mindset that nobody has any money, everyone is unemployed, and a depression is on the way. Prepare for the economy related objections, assume nothing, but above all else…be positive and optimistic. No excuses!
4. Have we sufficiently focused on cell phone acquisition and cell phone productivity potential in our program?
Procrastination on this issue will cost phonathon programs for many years to come. Don’t make the assumption that your boss will take care of this…or that it can wait another year. It can’t. Every day thousands of people are disconnecting landlines in favor of cell phones only. Every day that your callers are not asking for cell phone numbers, that your advancement services staff is not researching or tracking cell phone numbers in your database, or that you are not calling cell phone numbers in the phonathon along with landlines is a day of wasted opportunity. Get ahead of this problem now! Your scripts should include cell phone identification and acquisition wording in the demographic updates, and your callers should be trained on how to properly use that verbiage. Make sure that you’re including cell phones in your segmentation and calling strategy and that you have a plan to track statistical performance for the time you spent in those areas. As I’ve said many times in this blog, ignore this issue at your own peril.
3. Do I have enough time built into my calling calendar and budget to grow my program?
Contact rates continue to trend downward as cell phones, caller ID, do not call lists, and apathetic prospects work against the productivity potential of the phonathon. But the overall productivity of your phonathon does not have to diminish with the trend if you plan ahead and build some additional time into your calling calendar to account for these factors. Here’s how to do it.
First, be sure to target a set number of completed calls for the year to allow for maximum database completion that is consistent with the industry’s best practices. If you’re not attaining at least 70% complete with your database of records, you could be leaving money on the table and not sufficiently growing your program. Once you have identified the number of completed calls that allows you to achieve this threshold, divide your total number of completes by the average completes per hour you can expect for the entire program. This will give you the total number of calling hours needed to achieve 70%. Find this number using last year’s statistics and determine how the trends will affect your program. Or, follow industry averages for the type of program you run. Most automated programs today achieve between 8-12 completes per hour. Manual programs can expect about 60% of that figure, with 5-9 being normal. Don’t confuse contacts with completes. Contacts are just solicitations (pledges, refusals, and unspecified pledges) while completes include contacts plus other response codes that take that prospect out of the calling pool for the rest of the project. These include wrong numbers, already pledges, do not calls, deceased, and others.
Once you know the total number of calling hours needed to accomplish your objective, work backwards with the figures to be certain you have planned enough time. Remember, expected calling hours for the year can be calculated by taking the number of calling shifts x length of calling shift (in hours) x calling stations. This will give you the number of hours possible given your current shift parameters. Adjust accordingly to make sure you can fit all your calls in. Look at least year’s completes per hour figure and find ways to increase it, primarily through better time management. If you believe you are at your maximum ability in that area, you’ll need to increase the number of shifts, increase the average length of the calling shift, or add stations to raise the total number of hours possible within the fiscal year. The number one reason programs miss their goal is that they do not maximize their database completion potential. This is not an area where you want to be number one.
2. Should I really be leaving every night at 6:30 or 7:00, letting my supervisors run the shift?
If you can help it, absolutely not. As good as your student supervisors are, they cannot replace the leader of the phonathon…and that is the phonathon manager. I work with many assistant directors and phonathon managers who have other responsibilities on their plate. It’s understandable that they don’t want to put in 14 hours days, 4 days a week. But to the extent that it’s possible, these managers should try to adjust their hours so that they are at the phonathon for a majority of the calling shift. Great phonathon management is not a part-time job! As the only full-time fundraisers assigned to the phonathon program, their leadership and guidance will be sorely missed by the callers. Plus, any adjustments in strategy are best left up to the manager since they are the ones with the most experience. In my 20-year career of phonathon fundraising, I have seen 2 programs that I considered well run enough by the supervisors for the manager to be gone more than half the time…that’s 2 out of hundreds. And truth be told, the supervisors may have been better at running the phone center than the manager! So don’t fall into the old trap of thinking that having your supervisors run the program is the same as you being there. It isn’t…and the faster you realize that you’ll be leaving money on the table when you leave for the night, the better your program will be for it.
1. Do my supervisors (and do I) really understand what a good fundraising phone call sounds like, and how good are we at teaching negotiation skills to our callers?
This is the $64,000 question of every phonathon. Since our primary focus in this profession is to raise money, every other component of a well-run phonathon is ultimately meant to support this very concept. You can be the greatest motivator on Earth, and if your callers cannot effectively negotiate inside a call, your motivation is neutralized. Can your callers effectively negotiate on every call? And do you, as their manager, really and truly understand how to make a great fundraising phone call? I cannot answer those questions for you, but I can say that most programs overestimate the quality of their calls. My advice to phonathon managers is not to confuse current productivity with productivity potential. In other words, don’t count how much money you’re raising…count how much money you’re NOT raising.
There’s always something to work on in phonathon. From learning curves of the new callers to questions of complacency by veteran callers, there are plenty of opportunities within each program to improve results. How aggressive a manager is at attempting to understand the weaknesses of their program, and how intellectually curious they are about how a good fundraising call really works, is usually the difference between the A phonathons and the C phonathons.
My recommendation on this topic is simple. Make a pact with yourself this year that you will do everything in your power to help your callers raise more money. You’ll do this by really paying close attention to the input factors of good negotiation- training, coaching, scripting, motivation, communication skills, overcoming objections, and leadership. You’ll break down each call and become a teacher in phonathon…helping to raise the awareness of all the little things that make up a good phonathon call. As I’ve told my managers numerous times, it’s not just the number of coaching forms you do….it’s also the quality of the advice you give during your feedback that ultimately helps somebody become better at their job.
Want other ways to improve? Buy a recording device and record calls for training purposes…providing that’s legal in your state (and it is in most states). Coach calls yourself until you really understand how you want your philosophies taught by your staff. Take time to listen to prospect reaction to your script and adjust accordingly. Train callers for the industry best-practice of 10 hours minimum before allowing them to make calls. Award prizes based on the quality of the call…not just the quantity.
Ultimately, there are a multitude of different ways to improve negotiation if the manager is motivated enough to find them. Make negotiation skills a priority this year and focus like a laser beam on it.
As always, your comments are welcome.