It was my first call as a telemarketer. Saying it wasn’t going well was an understatement.
“Sir, I know you said you aren’t going to be able to give this year but we really like to encourage all of our alumni…”
"Like I said before, I can’t believe you are asking for money during this economy. Do you even know what’s going on in the world right now? I just lost my job. I’ve got three kids in college. Stop calling here or I will sue you.”
Spending my weekday night at the New York University Phonathon center calling alumni for money was not the college life I pictured.
“Sir, we understand that now may not be the best time, but…”
“No you don’t. You really aren’t listening. I have three kids in college and don’t have any money coming in. Any extra money I have will not be going to NYU. Do you get it?”
Thirty of us students were cooped up in a room with 30 outdated computers and headsets, facing a brick wall at the front of the room.
“That’s understandable. But support from alumni can help students like me, who aren’t sure we can come back next semester…”
“I guess you will have to get a job and work through college like I did.”
“This is my college job,” I mumble as I hang up the phone and take off my headset.
Before this job, I remember nights back in Colorado—when my whole family would sit down to dinner, just about to dig in, the phone would ring with someone trying to sell something to the anonymous someone. We had a solicitation blocker on our phone to weed out most of the telemarketers, but some still managed to get through. And those who got through, my mom met with a curt, “We don’t accept phone solicitations,” and a heavy click.
Now, I'm that phone solicitor who gets through. I’m the person on the other end of that phone call. I am the one calling people during dinner, while they are putting their kids to bed, during family functions.
And because those people, who have cursed me out, yelled at me, told me to jump off a building, claimed that NYU degrees were useless—I feel guilty. Every time someone tells me they lost their job, they just had a baby, bought a new house, or to ask Madoff for any money that I need—I feel bad.
But, it’s my job.
I am a sophomore in college, a complete stranger, who has done nothing to them but dial their phone number. Alumni really don’t have any right to curse at me. And I guess I really don’t have any right to ask them for money. But it’s my job. So that’s what I do. And that reason is good enough for me.
“Hit them where it hurts,” my supervisor at the NYU Phonathon once told me. “Even the people out of work have a little extra money to give. So ask them for it.” She chuckled, but was completely serious. I raised one eyebrow in a question of “Is that really what we do here?”
The CEO, Al Ruffalo, of the company we work for, came in one day to talk to us and thank us for all the hard work we do on the phones. Standing just a few inches above 5 feet, the man looks like a very tan Oompa Loompa. Strapped in his best suit, he scanned the room full of students and pointed to one of the phones.
“What you do here is magic.”
Wait. Rewind. One more time.
“What you do here is magic.”
All the callers looked at each other and stifled our snorts out of respect for the head of our company. But really magic?
Last time I put on my headset, there were no white rabbits, no black wand, no pretty assistant in glitzy evening wear and definitely no ‘ooohhs’ and ‘ahhhhhs’ from an audience.
There is nothing magic about what goes on in that dungeon of an office. Actually, magic is the last word that comes to my mind when I think of what happens at the NYU Phonathon. Better words would most likely be torture, exhausting, awful, soul-crushing.
There is nothing magic about asking people to rework their finances to donate to NYU. There is nothing magic about asking a wife whose husband just died if she would like to make a contribution to NYU in his honor. And there is nothing magic about reminding a 1918 graduate that yes, he did in fact go to NYU, and should make a contribution to increase the value of his degree.
Maybe what’s missing from the phone numbers, the hang-ups and the yelling, is the human explanation. The people on the other end pretend I am just like every other telemarketer that calls them. And I pretend like I understand their financial situation. That relationship leads to a lot of talking and less listening.
The call comes down to one thing: money. I need to get it. They need to keep it. These little green bills cause me a lot of emotional stress at my job. But it will never go away. Money is always in the driver’s seat and the rest of us, well, are just along for the ride.
How am I supposed to fit that all into a 1-minute phone call?
I put my headset back on and dial the next phone number.
Ring, Ring, Ri…
“Hi, my name is Kelly Burke and I’m a student at New York University…”
“NYU again? This is the third time you called today. These calls are getting really aggravating. Looking for money I assume?”
I sigh. “Yes, one of the reasons we are calling is to ask for money…”