More than telemarketing: connecting Colonials

Telemarketing. It often carries a bad connotation, bringing up images of call centers in India that try to sell you a timeshare. But at GW, they don’t call them telemarketers. Instead, callers and connectors are the terms of choice.

The University’s Colonial Connection call center contacts alumni, parents and friends of the University to update demographic information, solicit monetary gifts and maintain a relationship with past students, while providing a well-paying, on-campus job for students.

“It’s not a nine-to-five desk job,” said Chelsea Theis, manager of the Annual Giving Program and head of the call center. Far from the dreaded fluorescent solitude of a telemarketing land of cubicles, the energetic work environment features weekly themes and games.

Whether they’re passing a plastic jack-o-lantern filled with candy up and down the rows of cubicles, or receiving stickers on their name tags as part of a donor solicitation points system, employees said they enjoy festive incentives and a fun office environment.

“It’s not at all like you’re stuck in a box,” said sophomore Sebastian Benitez, who has been working at the center for five weeks. “It’s a great working experience. I look forward to doing it.”

During the average 15-minute phone conversation, callers first build rapport with the ‘prospect,’ asking about the person’s college experience and current life, then plug the ‘ask,’ in which callers solicit donations.

But even considering the stagnant economy, Colonial Connection has seen an increase in its pledged and received donations since last year. For the fiscal year 2010, year-to-date gifts received are at a current count of 955, an increase of 575 gifts since 2009. Cash received is at $88,214, which is $60,595 ahead of last year, Theis said.

Monetary contributions can go toward a specific location designated by the alumnus. If not specified, the money gets sent to President Knapp’s Fund for Excellence, which provides student financial aid and scholarships, creates and sustains research opportunities and contributes to the quality of student life, Theis said.

“Even if they want it to go to the Starbucks at Gelman, we can send it there,” said senior James Swanson, an intern for the Development and Alumni Relations department who oversees hiring, the caller incentives program and the background functions of the call center.

Awkward moments do come up, the callers said. Junior Lauren Kienzle once called the mother of a student in one of her classes at GW. The mother had a different last name, so she didn’t recognize it at first. But Lauren mentioned the student’s name to make the call more personalized.

“It was still awkward asking her for money in the end. It’s like going up to your roommate’s parents and asking them for money,” Kienzle said.

Sometimes, the calls can just be plain weird.

“In a 35-minute conversation, I probably said two sentences. [The prospect] was going on about how the current administration is destroying America. He wouldn’t let me speak. It was really awkward still asking for money at the end,” Benitez said.

Despite the awkward situations that arise from calling familiar names, Kienzle and other callers said usually they feel confident asking for donations because the more money is donated, the higher a caller’s statistics are.

“Ideally, we build up rapport and use something from [the alumnus’] experience to bring up the money question,” Kienzle said.

In a room full of people who love to talk, employee camaraderie abounds.

“If you’re a people person, you’ll like it. You meet new people all the time. It’s a very social environment,” said senior Marissa Tonelli, a manager at Colonial Connection.

Colonial Connection’s M Street office houses 45 call stations and callers make around 200 calls a night. With a base salary of $10.50 plus bonuses, flexible hours and opportunities for advancement, the job attracts a wide variety of students looking for one of the best-paid jobs on campus.

One of 12 managers in the call center, Tonelli has worked her way up the hierarchy of Colonial Connection since her sophomore year. Progressing from a caller to a team leader to a manager, Tonelli said she has acquired valuable communication skills and networking opportunities.

“You get to know things about the University, you talk to alumni, they tell you about satellite programs,” she said. “You learn to appreciate your education more.”

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