Updated: 2 days ago
For over twenty years, telephone campaigns in education have been run by gathering a bunch of students in a room, training them, and then hitting the phones. Covid-19 has, almost overnight, introduced remote calling.
Now we are running campaigns with callers across the country, even overseas in some cases. The supervisor is in front of a bank of screens. One is running a video conference line. One is running calling software.
It is easy to see an immediate advantage: A remote team won’t be derailed by one person getting ill; the show will go on. It is clear this approach works. Income is great and callers are happy and effective. It is a solution. For now.
However, experience is showing that remote calling is more than a stop-gap. Our current campaign in The Netherlands has had no drop-outs (which is a first) and is at 80% of target, 60% of the way through the campaign. It is becoming clear there are other huge advantages that are proving to be so compelling that it seems likely that remote calling may well become the norm (or at least a true alternative) as the pandemic eases. So, what are these?
1. You don’t need a dedicated call-room space
Anyone who has run a phone campaign for the first time will testify to the work that can be involved in finding somewhere from which to call. It is hard to locate a space that is free for several weeks, where equipment can be set up and left undisturbed, that has good internet and is close to facilities like loos and somewhere to make a cupper. Of course, one can find such a venue. People have been doing so for over two decades in our universities and schools. But it’s really nice not to have to.
On top of that, if you are using a consultant, with remote calling you do not have to house them. This can save a lot of hassle and a very large sum of money.
2. Lower IT risk
Ever had the internet fail during a calling session? No software, no phones and panic to get IT to respond and sort it out. They probably don’t work evenings and weekends and it is easy for a whole session to be lost. When the callers are at home, the risk is spread. Yes, you may lose one caller, but not all of them. That caller also has 24/7 support for their home internet. They pick up the phone and someone responds and sorts it out, whereas onsite campaigning will leave you waiting till the following day or after a weekend for a resolution.
3. Enhanced security
Hold on, you say. It cannot be safer calling from home? When you do remote calling, you take time to set up secure phone lines, protocols for handling data, ways of monitoring callers. You make a big deal about confidentiality and GDPR, using tougher contractual clauses and lots of extra training. At the end of all this, far more care is likely lavished on security than if you were calling on-site.
4. Callers are more likely to apply
If one were to ask most students from disadvantaged backgrounds the benefits of coming to university, there is a significant chance some will say ‘because I won’t have to end up working in a call-centre’. If you google ‘graduates end up in call-centres’ you will find stories in The Mail, Mirror and Independent all reporting the ‘horror’ that so many graduates end up in such terrible and inappropriate jobs after they finish their degree. It is a totem of career failure to many.
However, we know it is a great job to be a student caller and it enhances life skills and confidence hugely and a benefit of a remote campaign means it can be advertised in a different way to any other call-centre role. The relationship (whilst a great team spirit can still be established - see below) is more equal. It is more one-to-one.
Remote campaigning also removes additional expenses for callers such as travel to get onsite and accommodation, if calling takes place outside of term-time - both of which are benefits that will encourage applicants.
5. Callers are more comfortable
Whilst we make huge efforts to make the experience nothing like the stereotypical ‘battery-chicken’ call-centre, students are still sitting at desks, round a room, making calls through headsets, watched over and dealing with at least some inevitable background noise. By contrast, callers love working at home.
Tea and biscuits flow like mana from heaven. They can fall out of bed at five thirty and make their shift at six. They only need to be business casual from the waist up (because they will be in pyjamas from the waist down). And Zoom filters takes away the worry of spending half an hour getting your eyeliner on point.
Of course, one may feel that this is not a productive way to go about things. Maybe that is true in theory. But given they seem to get very good results, it clearly works in practice. Being happy and comfortable really goes a long way.
6. Callers are more easily monitored and trained
It is quite a knack to listen to callers in a call room. Stand too close, you are leaning over them and they are uncomfortable. Too far away and it is hard to hear. All the time other callers are interrupting and you end up missing the ask, or the trade down or the objection. Then the issue you wanted to sort out has to wait for a later moment. When you get that moment, you need to find a way to talk to them that is collaborative. If you take them from the room, they are in trouble. Do it in front of the others, however quietly, and they can be embarrassed.
Online you can listen to them, you sitting elsewhere quietly in the background. The absence of your physical presence close-by lets them relax. You are equally undisturbed by others. When they have finished the call, you can give them an appraisal that is colleague to colleague. They listen and they learn faster and with more motivation.
7. Managers can engage and manage better
We have all noticed, working from home, that we are getting to know colleagues a little better. There is a more relaxed dynamic when chatting to each other from our living rooms or kitchen islands with our unwashed dishes blurred out in the background. Our personality comes out. The guitar on the wall, the three flying ducks, the picture from our great African safari becomes a talking point. We discover our colleagues have real lives. For managers, this is very valuable. Their authority grows by being real people, not just the boss. There is a problem within educational fundraising that the manager is always ‘head of the class’. Remote calling establishes an adult work environment where the manager is on the same level as the callers.
8. Greater team bonding
Students have friends at school and university, but it is often limited to term time, with the majority of their fellow students, they may chat in a group in a seminar, but don’t get to know them to any great extent. Calling from home changes that. They ask each other where they are calling from. They tell each other between calls about what they have done that day, or when their mum is getting back from the shops. They become more real to each other. The power of the breakout rooms means one can easily keep pairing people off in different combinations – strangers become acquaintances, acquaintances become friends. It has been striking how much closer the group becomes during a remote campaign.
9. Flexibility of campaign dates
Many institutions are incredibly limited in when they can call. Physical space is one factor but the biggest is student availability. In Oxbridge, one cannot call in term and one cannot get people to come back mid-vacation, so there are only a few times a year when people can be encouraged to stay up or come back early to take part. In universities, term time is limited by exams and out of term is hard to achieve as many callers will be the other end of the country, or even in another country. In schools, one is limited to the summer holidays as the recent leavers are usually busy at university.
Calling remotely gives Oxbridge the chance to call deeper into vacations. It allows for longer campaigns with fewer callers. It allows for the option to do some calling one side of Easter or Christmas and restart the other. It makes calling in December when the college is bed-blocked by interviewees an option. Universities can consider the long summer holidays. It even opens up the opportunity to conduct campaigns to places like Asia with international callers who are back home in the right time zone. Schools are left with extraordinary freedom, only needing to avoid university exam seasons.
10. Flexibility of campaign hours
One of the most disheartening things about on-site campaigns are the requests by alumni to be called at times outside the set calling hours. What does one say when someone who is being asked for £1000 a year says ‘phone me at 10am Tuesday’? What about if they asked to be called three days after the end of the campaign? You want to say yes. You also know that supervisor and caller will drag in for one call and the alumnus probably won’t answer!
If the calling is remote, it takes a few seconds for the supervisor to go online, allocate the prospect, the caller stops reading Nietzsche or pauses the Xbox, and they try the number. If answered, great. If not, you pay the caller for 15 mins of their time and that’s the end of it. Such flexibility can easily add £5,000 or £10,000 to a campaign total all with a couple of clicks of a button and no extra time or money wasted on travel.
This flexibility also extends to the number of shifts. In university term-time campaigns, it is common to have twice as many callers as seats. This is because calling takes up so much time. A three hour shift might really be a five hour one by the time they have got to campus and got home again. Remote callers do not have this burden. When they are done for the evening, they still have some time for study or to relax. This makes for a happier, less stressed calling team.
1. Getting started – training and early monitoring
Whilst overall it is easy to monitor and manage callers remotely, remote calling lessens the ‘learning by diffusion’ that occurs in a call-room. Some might argue that such learning would not be needed if the formal training is good enough. There is some justification to this. But some callers learn better from example, from seeing the person next to them deliver an excellent case for support and a seamless ask. Hearing someone else do it well can fill in knowledge gaps. These gaps may not be glaring but they can cost the campaign time and money if the uncertainty is not dealt with swiftly.
Everything needs to be succinctly explained and key points need repeating. It is vital the supervisor explains what they are doing. Why are they allocating prospects in the way they are? What are the aims that evening? How is the programme going? Will it make target? In a physical room, one caller asks and others hear. In a virtual campaign, the supervisor needs to deplore a lot more care and experience to ensure everyone receives a message.
A simple glance across the call room can reveal if a caller is stressed. Remote calling makes this harder. There are breakout rooms to jump between which means a potentially distressing call is missed by the supervisor. A caller might not have the confidence to speak up about the worries. Remote calling demands clear communication and this is sometimes simply not possible to achieve through a computer screen.
Within the room, callers can support each other which not only gives confidence, it improves wellbeing. The supervisor can pick up a distressing call or upset caller in seconds and be with them offering reassurance in just a few moments more.
3. Technical setup
Callers need good kit if working remotely. On-site, there is logic in having basic machines because communally used equipment can take a bit of a beating. Of course, basic kit may not be all that reliable, but one can counter that with some spares and just swap them out. Offsite, it all needs to work reliably as replacement will cause delay.
The temptation is that one might use the callers’ own laptops. This has a number of issues. Firstly, they are unlikely to have the anti-virus and browser security settings the way you want them. This can be addressed, but it is more robust to have a specific machine set up in advance and used for nothing else. Secondly, it can reduce the applicant pool to only those students with money to own such equipment. That is neither useful nor fair.
4. Gift fulfilment and confidentiality
It is vital the software you use has Attestation of PCI Compliance. This is not just about taking gifts. In a call-room, it may be workable to get round PCI by taking single Direct Debits, with PDQ machines, etc. And if one is watching what is happening, then the fact the software is not as secure as it should be may be OK for the rest of the data. Far from ideal, but maybe a risk some are happy to take.
One would have to be quite brave to do this remotely. The reason for this is that, if there is a data breach, the first thing that will be blamed is the software. It is vital the institution can be certain that the software cannot be responsible. It is irrelevant that only the credit cards need to be PCI protected. You need to know that all of your data is incredibly secure. That way, the callers know that only human error on their part, involving actions outside the system, can cause a breach. That will make them much more careful.
Human error can be almost entirely eliminated within an onsite campaign. However, with the right software and campaign management, this worry can be overcome within a remote setting. The happy result of using PCI compliant software is that one also has a solution to gift collection, taking card details and bank details over the phone. All you need is the right software (like ours) and encrypted VoIP (voice over internet phones, which we can supply). That way, you don’t have to worry about the home network.
Remote calling is an exciting development. It will transform the ease and frequency institutions can run campaigns. I am currently writing a guide to Regular Giving for the IDPE and remote calling will feature. I would love to hear from people with ideas/opinions/experiences of remote calling so I can make this section in the guide as comprehensive and useful as possible. Please get in touch email@example.com.