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The call center where people actually want to work

Friendly chats? Shared advice? This team has completely upended the low expectations of the cold-call industry.

December 6, 2016

Mark Cox

Call centers are horrible places, right?

You know the kind of thing. Soul-sucking vacuums filled with unhappy workers who don’t want to be there, calling people who don’t want to speak to them, to ask for things they probably won’t get.

That’s certainly the popular perception. And for the large part, it’s probably a deserved reputation. After all, who among us hasn’t been annoyed at some point by one of those unsolicited bringgg-ing calls? (Which, bizarrely, always seems to happen while you’re in the shower.)

But now a resourceful team in Denver has completely re-imagined the whole concept of the call center and transformed it into something much more targeted and user-friendly. And, well, just nicer.

Genuine bond

Ripping up the old rule book, the call center at MSU Denver does everything differently. First, it only contacts alumni of the University – people who already have a vested interest in the place (So, if you’re in the shower and not connected to the University, you should be safe).

Second, it is staffed exclusively by student callers, which is something alumni love (Many say it’s like getting a call from their younger selves). But here’s the really clever part: The MSU Denver call center puts its focus squarely on building relationships with graduates – sharing stories, giving updates, even getting advice – rather than just asking for donations.

Bre Milnes, call center manager, explains: “It’s so important for us to build a genuine bond with our former students, and we recognize the huge value of that. If people also want to donate that’s great, but it’s definitely not the point of the call.”

Even among universities, this is a slightly radical approach. As if to prove the point, Bre recalls: “Someone from my old university called recently and basically said: ‘Hey, you were a student-athlete! So am I. Will you make a donation?’ That’s not how we do things here.”

Shared experience

So instead of a simple fundraising ask, callers invite graduates to share their own memories of university life and tell them all the latest news about campus life. Calls aren’t rushed. Often, students will speak to alumni who did their own degree. Understandably, there are lots of “Hey, you’re doing my dream job. How did you get there?” conversations.

It’s not hard to see how such an approach might work well. Alumni love to pass on their knowledge, while the students’ anecdotes and updates provide a link back to fondly remembered times.

Creative writing student Taylor Atkinson is assistant manager at the center. He’s always struck by how willing alumni are to engage with callers: “We get an overwhelmingly positive response – unless we call on Broncos game night or something terrible like that! I find, if someone picks up the phone, they’re generally happy to talk.”

He is also emphatic about the value of pumping former students for tips and information. Taylor says, “I always ask them: ‘What do you wish someone had told you at my age?’ That really gets them opening up.”

And when graduates open up, students get to mine a rich seam of useful knowledge – about leadership, interview techniques, team work, even how to negotiate office politics. In many respects, talking to experienced graduates gives the callers an invaluable sneak peek into their own future professional lives.

Constant surprises

These conversations also bring tangible benefits. Random calls have resulted in internship offers. One recent chat led to a caller meeting an alumnus for coffee and ultimately helping out at his nonprofit.

And don’t forget the fun element. Once a rapport has been established, conversations can swirl off in all kinds of quirky directions and students never know what they’re going to hear next. “Put it this way,” Taylor said. “I’ve learned more about plumbing in the past three years than I ever expected. And if anyone needs to know how to get tree roots out of sewers, I’m their man."

In fact, for Taylor the whole experience has been transformative. He said, “I honestly have no idea where I’d be now if I hadn’t done this. It has been a huge learning curve and completely life-changing. I can’t imagine not being here.”

One big family

But while it’s great that both the students and graduates are having such a good time, you may be wondering: What about the bottom line? After all, isn’t this – once all the warm, fluffy stuff is accounted for – meant to be a fundraising enterprise? First: Not exactly (The team does take the outreach aspect of their role very seriously). And second, it turns out that doing the right thing does, literally, pay.

Despite its almost anti-business model, and in spite of all those long conversations about campus and careers (and removing tree roots from sewers), guess what’s happening? Last year, the call center reached more people and brought in more money than ever.

Why? It’s basic human nature: People are more likely to support something they care about, and which they believe values their input. Taylor puts it nicely: "We always say: It’s not about the dollars; every conversation counts. And a great conversation is its own reward.”

This is the grand irony. By putting fundraising at the bottom of the priority pile, they’re actually bringing in more money. And that’s because people tend to remember a friendly call from the student team at MSU Denver. It reminds alumni that they’re valued and appreciated. It tells them they’re still needed.

More than anything, it lets them know one thing: They’re still part of the Roadrunner family.