1,048 phone calls in two weeks: Lessons learned

A medical association hired me to be a recruitment coordinator. That’s a fancy title for someone who for the most part gets on the phone all day, or hopes to, trying to persuade people to raise funds for medical research and summer camps (that’s most of it). It seemed like a decent cause. I needed work. I took the job.

In the first two weeks of working with them, I made 1,048 calls. That’s a little over a hundred a day. And I only worked part-time.

I learned a lot from those phone calls. I learned about people, how they act under pressure, the excuses they make, how common those excuses can be, even though they always feel novel to the person using them… well, most of the time. Every once in a while, I’d get someone who clearly didn’t appreciate us (me?) trying to recruit them. They didn’t even bother with excuses. I learned from them too.

Thinking over those first two weeks, this is what I learned.

  • Phones are ridiculously inefficient. We’re asymmetric now. No one wants to get on the phone. They want you to leave a message or, better yet, write them a message, and they’ll “get back with you just as soon [they] can.”
  • The nerves don’t go away, but the paralysis does. I can pick up the phone and call any random person now without freezing up. It’s not entirely comfortable, depending on the person, but I don’t shy away from it now.
  • For every 30 numbers I’d dial, one would give me something. Those are the stats we worked with. And I think those were pretty optimistic too. This gives me more confidence in other things I do that don’t have odds that bad.
  • The hard part is getting the right people on the phone. Usually, a secretary or operator would screen the calls first. It took me until the middle of the second week to realize that working with those gatekeepers, even though we were told not to “sell them,” actually upped my chance of success. Secretaries can check schedules so I could quit wasting time calling back for that off moment when Attorney So And So was free.
  • A lot of important companies have automated operators now, more than I realized. Those were a drag. Not only did they lower any chance of reaching the right person, they dramatically cut into the time it took to get to that “no.” In a numbers game like this, taking an extra minute to navigate those systems meant significantly slower work.
  • Leaving messages is pointless. No one calls back. The few who do, don’t know what they’re doing.
  • When I could get the right person on the line, though, the success rate jumped dramatically, like way up to 20 percent or so. It actually surprised me how often someone would agree to participate once I got to actually talk with them.
  • Enthusiasm is everything, all the better if I could get a laugh or two in there, on my side or theirs. It’s hard to turn down someone who’s either making you laugh or just laughing at their own jokes over the phone.
  • Accents can go a long way too, especially if the other person has somewhat of an accent as well. The key was to sound like the best version of the person on the other side of the call.
  • But best, best, best of all was getting a name. If I could say that one of their friends passed on their number and mention that name, the chance of getting the other person on board skyrocketed. That’s really what the whole thing was about, getting nominations from people so we could lasso their friends into participating with us.
  • In every phone call, though, regardless of whether or not we got a name from a friend, I’d say, “And it looks like someone nominated you…” because everyone wants to feel nominated by someone they know, not ratted out by a friend or, even worse, called from a list some telemarketer slapped together four years ago.
  • People lie. If someone didn’t want to participate, more often than not, they’d lie. Sometimes they’d get all complicated on me. Sometimes, they’d keep it simple. I was surprised how frequently this happened, though, and how formulaic the lies became. It seems like half of downtown Louisville is going on vacation the first week of June.
  • The ones who cut to the chase helped me do my job better. Sometimes, people would seem friendly, let me get through my spiel, only to turn me down with an excuse. If they legitimately had a reason – “My son is supposed to be having his baby that week” – no problem. But if they’re just going to tell me they’re too busy, they might as well tell me up front. That way, I could either tailor to fit their needs better (send an email or call back later) or just move on to someone else. If I learned anything about what to do when someone calls me like that, it’s to simply say I’m not interested. No excuse. No pretense. Just the truth, with a kind voice.
  • The lists we worked with were far from perfect. You know when you tell someone to take you off their list, and then you get upset because they call back the next day? It’s not always their fault. The people working there might not have ever called you before, might not have even been working there when the other person called the first time. Lists get confused. Callers just try to reach anyone, sometimes calling to speak with people who aren’t even on their own lists, which means some other caller might call because that number won’t be checked off the list. I don’t know about other places, but from what we were doing, it was far less organized that I imaged it would be.

Perhaps needless to say, I didn’t stick around that job for long. I guess that’s the last lesson I learned: that I wanted to go. Overall, though, the experience taught me more than I thought I’d learn. And that’s worth more than I thought I’d get from it. How many other chances will I have in my life to call over 1,000 numbers that fast?

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