In the winter of my junior year at college, I found a squirrel. The squirrel was frozen in a block of ice on the front porch of my off-campus apartment. I called my friend Chris over to see it, and we named the squirrel Timmy. Timmy was a pretty good visual representation of my life at the time. My grades were poor, my best friend had just transferred out of the school, and my acne was still bubbling at sixteen-year-old levels. Like Timmy, I was stuck.
I needed a change. Maybe a boost. Something.
My mother encouraged me to get a job. She thought making money and meeting new people would sort me out. Since all of the Provost and Dean positions required master’s degrees, I asked Chris about his on-campus job at the fundraising center.
Chris guaranteed the job was easy. This meant a lot coming from him. He was a smart guy, but he was smoking enough pot to make any job a bit of a grind. As he told it, the shifts were only four hours and the whole thing was done sitting at a desk with a headset.
Impressed by the “phone proficiency” I boasted about on the application, they offered me a part-time job with a non-negotiable salary and no opportunity for raises or promotions.
Since I had never worked a cold-call job before, I thought about how I would bring in the money. I decided on a call strategy that would be calm, conversational, and conciliatory. I’d ask them if they had some cash burning a hole in their pocket. If they said “yes,” great. If they said “no,” I’d kindly remove them from the call list so that they never heard from us again.
It became clear very early in the training session that the coordinator and I did not share the same philosophy. Standing before a whiteboard, looking down at the twelve new recruits seated around a table, he delivered a slick presentation that was motivational speaker meets penny stock pusher. He politely, yet forcefully, explained that we didn’t hang up the phone until we received three No’s.
First, we shot for the moon and asked for $1,000 dollars. If they declined—this was the first No—we recommended $100, or the amount they donated last year. If that didn’t work—the dreaded second No—we asked for a small amount so that we would keep participation numbers up. A rejection of the participation plea meant that you had done it, you had reached the third and final No. Only if they stonewalled us on all three asks did we hang up and let them live their life in peace.
Once we knew the script, they led us through a few practice phone calls in the training room. One of us played the caller and the other played the potential donor. The practice rounds were wholly unproductive since none of us could properly understand just how annoying it would be to receive a phone call from your alma mater during dinner when you graduated twenty years ago and the football team sucks.
I didn’t like the idea of raising money for this college, the same college to which my parents were simultaneously paying thousands of dollars every year and racking up thousands of dollars in loans. I was only a communications major but if I brought in $750 over three hours and they paid me $15 an hour, I was pretty sure the margins worked in their favor. At least I could tell my mom I got job.
Armed with a printout of our time-tested lines, we were ready for live action. Our fearless leader led us down the hall into the room where the begging happened. The office did not inspire a sense of calm. Unlike the college’s marketing materials, which showed students throwing frisbees on the sprawling quad or studying at long wooden tables in the stained-glass library, the call center resided in the basement of a building I had never entered and would never enter again.
Nothing but a ring of twenty-five computer stations with headsets strung over the monitors; I understood immediately why it didn’t make the welcome packet. I felt trapped the moment I stepped inside. “Sit wherever you like!” Our leader was a benevolent one.
The computers had one program with one function: making calls. The computer dialed a number for you while popping up the profile of the college grad at that household. I don’t remember the exact information, but it included general data like past donations. This was helpful because if they said no to $1,000 then I could say, “Well, I know I can count on you to match last year’s gift of $100. Right? Right? Hm?”
The timing of my first night on the job could have been better. It was the winter of 2008. Of all periods to be calling people for expendable income, the months directly following the 2008 financial crisis were some of the worst since the invention of the phone. It was made even more challenging by the fact that I was calling people whose financial problems might be due, in part, to the loans they took out to attend the institution from which I was calling.
For three hours, I sat at the computer, watching it dial numbers as I prayed for answering machines. Unfortunately, there was only a second of calm before the damn thing dialed a new victim.
At least I wasn’t alone in this room of money-grubbing chatter. The girl to my right seemed equally uncomfortable. We shared a few looks of terror before leaping back into our spiel.
I was on one call, rolling through my rebuttals, when I heard a third voice enter the conversation.
“Keep going with the script!”
I worried the voices in my head had finally become audible. Hoping for an alternative to schizophrenia, I looked around for the speaker. I spotted one of the advisors in the middle of the room with a phone to his ear. He gave me a thumbs up. I nodded. I wanted to punch him in the face. He had mentioned that he might listen in on some conversations to give us guidance. I didn’t think he was dumb enough to actually do it. I awkwardly returned to my call, which I now knew had as much privacy as any East German could expect.
Luckily, the financial crisis didn’t affect everyone the same way.
“Hi Ma’am, I’m in my junior year…” I continued with the script.
“Would you like to donate to our campaign for…”
“What did I give last year?”
“Let’s just do that again. And can I put it towards the women’s crew team?” she asked.
“Why yes you can. We’re trying to go paperless. Can I put that on a credit card for you?”
“Of course. Hold on a minute and I’ll get my card.”
And just like that, I had made a sale. Well, I didn’t make a sale but it felt like making a sale. I turned around and told the advisor. He skipped over to a bell and started ringing it.
“Christian just got $300 on a credit card!”
Oh, I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that at all. I wanted to get back on the phone and cancel the donation. I wanted to tell her that the crew team was disbanded due to all of the dead bodies found in the river. That or I wanted to keep her on the line and take her for all she was worth. If this woman casually gives $300 to a crew team, surely I could sell her on my business idea for a college that focuses on lowering the cost of tuition instead of increasing the number of Olympic-size pools.
Either way, the excitement of my big get was short-lived. I could barely take a breath after saying “goodnight” to this patron saint of ancient water sports before the computer made another call.
I fed the guy on the other end my lines and asked for an over-the-top sum. The man sounded anxious, but not because of me. I could hear some chaos in the background.
“Look, I would love to give, but I just lost my job,” he said.
I had no rebuttal for that. Somehow, despite the meetings upon meetings these call center geniuses likely spent wordsmithing the script and preparing materials for the training sessions, they didn’t come up with a response when you reach someone who has just been negatively affected by one of the largest financial collapses since The Netherland’s Tulip Mania.
I apologized and awkwardly ended the call. I wish he had yelled at me. I deserved it. But he couldn’t have been more polite. Once I realized that everyone I called might be in the middle of a financial crisis, my killer instinct wore off. Even worse, I began to think of all the other ways a call could go wrong.
“Oh, I would love to give, but my grandmother just died in a fire accidentally started by my fifteen-year-old cat, who also perished in the fire.”
“I gave last year, but unfortunately, in addition to lowering my quality of life to a level I didn’t think possible, my rapidly-worsening glaucoma makes it hard for me to read the little numbers on my credit card, and I know you’re trying to go paperless.”
“My entire identity was stolen after using my credit card at a Latvian strip club. Call me back after I have patched up the relationship with my wife and our three children, who just days ago referred to me as their hero.”
Mercifully, the clock hit nine and my shift was over. I scored a few more donations, though nothing worthy of a bell ring. I practically ran out of the basement. I had never been so happy to return to my apartment, even with its raccoon-infested back porch and skunk-infested front porch and the occasional frozen squirrel. I knew I would never go back to the basement. I couldn’t.
That night, I crafted my resignation email. I made up a vague story about finding another job. As much as I didn’t like lying, I preferred it to serving more time on the headset.
The top dog replied the following morning. With a touch of attitude, she informed me that I hadn’t worked enough hours to qualify for payroll. That was fine by me.
I hope the alum who I called—the frazzled one, not the crew enthusiast—found a new job. I hope he is making enough money that donating $100 to his college wouldn’t hurt him. That said, I hope he keeps it for himself.
Image: “Money Hand” by Neubie, licensed under CC 2.0.