Four Tips for Training Annual Fund Phonathon Callers

Image of a student holding a cell phone

Despite how critical the phonathon can be to the annual fund, student callers are often given minimum training — or training that doesn’t set them up well to succeed in soliciting donor support for the institution. To learn some tips from past and present managers of highly effective phonathon programs, we turned this week to Jessica Cloud, who administers a comprehensive annual giving program for the University of Southern Mississippi Foundation, and Albert Melfo, director of annual giving at Kent State University.

Cloud and Melfo suggest these four tips for training callers:

  • Focus on helping callers understand the case for giving, more than on procedures
  • Focus on the structure of the call and the technique, rather than on overwhelming callers with objection responses
  • Motivate and retain callers by emphasizing the opportunity to develop career skills, rather than just creating a “fun” work environment
  • Strike the right balance with mock calling to best prepare callers

Cultivate the Larger Perspective

“Focus on the process, focus on the technique,” Melfo advises. “Don’t get hung up on the details; talk about the big picture. Devote training time to discussing what philanthropy is, its role within the organization, what it means to be nonprofit — why we need to raise money. Give the students the big picture case for giving. Help them understand why we do this and why they should feel okay talking with others about why we need their support.”

“Help your callers understand the real case for support, the reason we ask. The more we can help our student ambassadors internalize that and speak eloquently to it, the better the response we’ll see from our alumni.”
Albert Melfo, Kent State University

Often, phonathon training focuses too much time on:

  • Details about the institution
  • Details about internal policies, procedures, and payroll

“Keep the focus on the job,” Melfo advises. “That’s most important. The caller’s responsibility is to do the job. The rest is on the supervisor to figure out how best to track their time. With a new group of callers, there will be mistakes. Someone will forget to log their time or turn in their paperwork. We can fix this. Take a breath; don’t stress callers out about it, focus on their work.”

For example:

  • Rather than devote valuable training time to procedures, take a few minutes at the beginning of each shift to remind callers of the salient points
  • Rather than devote training time to details about the institution, provide all callers with an easy-reference fact sheet

Focus on the Structure of the Call

In a similar vein, Melfo advises focusing the training on a structure or outline for the call. “Too often, callers are overloaded with objection responses during the training, so they get overwhelmed and don’t take the time to really understand the process of a call. Then they just go through the motions. The key in effective training is to walk them through the whole process, and keep reinforcing how you move from one step to the next. Reinforce that the caller is in charge of the call’s direction and is in charge of moving it to the next step. Talk about pacing and momentum.”

In this book from Academic Impressions, Albert Melfo, director of annual giving at Kent State University, offers a structured approach to training callers to respond on the fly to the ebb and flow of a conversation with a prospect. What is unique about Melfo’s approach is his focus on call center scripting not just as a template but as a training tool.

In this report, you’ll see sample scripts and read about:

  • Tips for training and scripting the five stages of an effective call (Introduction, Engagement, Case for Giving, Negotiation, and Formal Close)
  • Tips for coaching callers to respond to concerns that prospects voice

“It’s easy for trainers to fall into an unrealistic expectation that in this brief training session, we’ll be able to teach someone how to be an effective caller,” Melfo remarks. “You can give them enough to get started, but you can’t really call them an effective caller until they’ve been on the phone for a couple of weeks. So rather than try to cover everything, focus on helping them understand the purpose and structure of the call, and help them practice guiding the direction of the call.”

Make the Connection to Career Skills

To motivate callers, Cloud emphasizes the importance of showing students how this job and the skills they will acquire will help them in the job market. “They’ll develop negotiation skills and skills for overcoming objections,” Cloud notes. “They’ll have served as long-term employees in an office with high turnover. They’ll have customer service skills. Make this clear to them — show them that the call center isn’t just a place that’s fun. It’s a place where business and career skills development happens.”

“Respect that these are young adults preparing for careers, and begin career pathing your callers during training. This will also help you get an early start on identifying and retaining your best callers.”
Jessica Cloud, University of Southern Mississippi Foundation

Cloud also suggests posting “levels of success” on the wall. When training freshman callers, show what past callers have raised over the course of their four years.

Melfo warns against overselling the position, too. “At times supervisors are worried about scaring away their trainees,” he observes, “so they soften the realities of the job. Don’t give false expectations. Don’t say things like ‘It’s really not that hard,’ ‘You’ll be successful as long as you do this or that,’ or ‘Most of your calls aren’t refusals.’ Tell students this is hard work, tell them they have to do it well to earn bonuses. There is nothing wrong with noting that not all of them will be here in a week, or that some will decide this isn’t the right job for them. Rather than making the job sound easy, focus on conveying what’s compelling about the job and what the opportunities are.”

Mock Calling: Strike the Right Balance

Cloud notes two common mistakes:

  • Too little mock calling. “Callers need to feel prepared and learning from a training manual will only do so much,” Cloud notes. “They need at least an hour of dedicated mock calling time.”
  • Too much mock calling. “Some newbies get more and more nervous during mock calling,” Cloud adds. ”The fear of actually doing it builds with delay. After an hour of mock calling, you have to throw them in and let them get their feet wet.”

We asked Cloud to describe one of the most effective approaches she has seen. She suggests these two training techniques:

  • Have the student call and leave a version of their script on the call center’s voicemail (or on their own voicemail). Then have the training group listen to the voicemail. “This is mortifying for the caller,” Cloud notes, “but also highly effective. It helps immensely with self-correction and brings tics to the caller’s attention that they might not be able to hear.”
  • Place the caller in another room and have them call a line that’s then placed on speaker phone; the other trainees listen in. “This is a great way to maximize time,” Cloud suggests. “If you have 12 callers in the training class and you don’t have time to give everyone a one-hour mock call, make sure everyone gets to hear the mock calls you do have time for.”