Cold Calling: The subtle art of bugging strangers


Words || Jack Kingsland-Wills

Very few people are strangers to the frustration of an unknown number appearing on the screen, followed by the greeting of an undeniable spiel of a charity phone call. For the most part, it’s often an immediate hang-up, a sympathetic ear wrapped up with an excuse, or a simple “fuck off.” But did you ever think what might lie beyond the sales pitch? For a while, I was one of those people calling unsuspecting Australians while they tried to conduct their days in peace. The land beyond the pitch, in my opinion, is a strange and morally questionable battleground.

I came to understand various things while I worked my short stint at a call centre. There are ups and downs to every industry; the obvious here being that the money is raised for charities by these companies. However, I want everyone to take a glance into the world of downsides that forced me to reach for the swinging glass doors of my workplace, turn my back and never return.

The first thing that irked me about the job was the way I was instructed to deliver my pitch. I lived in England for the first several years of my life, which has left me with a rather weak Australian accent. After a day of very little sales, I was pulled aside by a supervisor. I was asked why I thought I wasn’t making any sales, and in all honest, I was unsure. After listening to me make a few calls to regional Queensland, I was told my voice wasn’t relatable enough. I was told that my current pitch was far more suited to places like Metropolitan Melbourne. After dropping my voice a few octaves, and chucking in some true blue Aussie slang, I got to work pitching raffle tickets to my fellow sheilas and cobbas.

I was shocked by the difference it made. Hiding behind this false persona helped me send raffle tickets flying out the door. After a while, it occurred to my why this was. In the scripts we are instructed to follow, we do mention that we are calling ‘on behalf’ of a certain organisation, but by throwing on this “manly man” persona, the lines between Call Centre worker and hearty volunteer were blurred. This sort of smoke and mirrors approach to selling tickets bothered me, but what prompted me to leave once and for all was the information left out of these deceptive pitches. The saying “it costs money to raise money” makes sense because it’s true, but how many people going through with these charity calls realise where their hard earned money is actually going?

As I began to master my new acquired accent and its delivery, I began to make more sales, meaning I would climb up through the tiers of the call centre. I went from making confronting cold calls to warm calls, speaking to those who had given some support before, to those who supported regularly. What became clear to me as I spoke to these supporters is that even from the lowest level of previous supporters, the overwhelming majority of people supporting were the elderly.

Call after call to elderly citizens I would hear complaints of tight pensions, hospital bills and rising rates, but regardless many continue to support, as they hold this volunteer organization in very high regard. It often played on my mind whether these people read the fine print of the tickets they were sold. The company I was working for split donations 60–40 per cent. The Call Centre kept 60 per cent of the total donation and the remaining 40 per cent was sent to the organization they were fundraising for. I decided to take a look at why these specific numbers were used to divide up the money given in a kind gesture.

In 2014 the NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming, and Racing declared that “At least 40% of gross fundraising proceeds must go to the not-for-profit organization. Expenses, including prizes, not to exceed 60% of gross proceeds.” With this information in tow, I gave a quick call to the volunteer organization I was calling on behalf of during my time at the Call Centre. I wanted to see if there were a more effective means to help out with donations. After being bounced around on hold several times I finally acquired the information that if you process your payment directly to the charity, 100% of the proceeds go toward the cause.

It’s only fair to recognise that these Call Centres do raise awareness by bringing the charity to the forefront of the minds of the people they are calling, and that without these calls, people are not inclined to log on and donate of their own accord. But the lack of information voluntarily given on the division of donated funds is a few steps down an immoral path, and if these loyal elderly raffle ticket buyers knew that 100% of their donation could go to the cause, they would undoubtedly choose that method.

Of course, there is the possibility that these lovely old people are bloody keen on trying their luck to win the grand prize, but in my experience, they never ask about the prize, when it’s drawn or express any interest in the raffle at all. All they deliver is a great appreciation for the work that volunteer organisation does. So if you have a lovely nanna whose kitchen counter is flooded with raffle donation forms, let her know she can donate directly. If she supports one of these raffles once every couple of months and isn’t bothered about the prize, show her how to set a reminder on her phone, or set one yourself and remind her, it’s a simple task to save your gran a few bucks.

If that isn’t the case, best of luck in your next raffle draw you lovely old dears, you deserve it.