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Who’s That Annoying Telemarketer on the Phone? It’s the Opera

“For the past three weeks, I have been harassed by Carnegie Hall telemarketers,” one reviewer, Youma W., posted on Yelp in March.

Money pressures have risen for many cultural organizations as box-office revenues generally pay a smaller share of the cost of performances than they used to. While the bulk of that money is raised from well-heeled board members, or at star-studded galas, or by wooing big donors and foundations for major gifts, smaller donations are still seen as important, and as a way of building a broader community of supporters.

But some organizations are raising less over the phone than they used to, even as they increase the volume of calls. In its most recent tax return, the New York Philharmonic, for example, reported taking in $778,436 from telemarketing, about half what it raised five years ago, a drop it attributes to shifting patterns in how people give.

Telemarketing, which cultural organizations often refer to as telefunding, is nonetheless, still seen as important tool. Calls are harder to ignore than mail or email, and some organizations said they believe many patrons appreciate getting reminders of when to renew their memberships, or when hot tickets are going on sale.

“One of the basic things is, we don’t want salespeople — we want art lovers,” said Phil Miller, the president of DCM Inc., a firm that conducts campaigns for many big cultural institutions. “Part of the training is, look, you’re not calling to sell aluminum siding where you’re just going to go through the phone book and if you don’t get the person in 32 Main Street, you call the person at 34 Main Street. This is about leaving people with a positive feeling.”

Major performing arts institutions said that while phone calls yield only a tiny fraction of what they must raise each year, they are vital. Carnegie Hall said that 41 percent of its new entry-level memberships came as a result of telemarketing. The Metropolitan Opera said that the phone calls yielded about a third of its contributions of less than $25,000 a year from individuals. New York City Ballet said that it views the calls as “an important tool for continuing to bring new people into our subscription and donor pools.” Many organizations do well selling subscriptions by phone.

At the Brooklyn Academy, the calls have been more successful of late, even though the number of calls has not risen, officials said. Bill Kramer, the academy’s vice president for development, said the center was now raising more than $500,000 a year over the phone, and that revenue from telephone-solicited memberships had risen 9 percent from last year.


Jessie Benton, left, and Lisa Flythe, former telemarketers for the Brooklyn Academy of Music outside the Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn.

Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

The academy, like other leading cultural institutions in New York, pays its telephone fund-raisers both an hourly salary and a commission. (In recent years, the academy had paid $12 an hour and up to a 10 percent commission on donations they brought in but it declined to release the current figures.). The institutions, many of which use outside telemarketing vendors, typically view percentage-based commissions as an important motivating factor, though the practice is frowned upon by some professional organizations. For example, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, an industry group, prohibits the practice in its code of ethics, and warns in a position paper that by paying commissions on donations, “charitable mission can become secondary to self-gain.”

“The issue that we have with commissions is, it’s all about the self-interest of the fund-raiser,” said Michael Nilsen, the association’s vice president for communications and public policy.

They can lead, he said, to increased pressure on fund-raisers and donors alike — which is one of the reasons the association favored using other forms of merit-based bonuses.

The commissions and other costs of collecting the money can also eat into an organization’s take: City Ballet reported on its 2015 tax return, the most recent available, that its vendor, SD&A, raised $570,000 by phone — but that fund-raising costs ate up more than a third of that, $214,782, leaving the ballet company with $354,755.

At the Brooklyn academy, the commission system led to intense competition for the best leads that were doled out each night at the call center, located in an office building about a mile from the organization’s stately Beaux-Arts opera house. Arts institutions have grown more sophisticated in recent years at using software to keep tabs on patrons — how often they attend, how much they give, what they like — and such information is crucial for phone campaigns. A weak lead, such as someone who bought a ticket to just one event four years ago, is far less likely to purchase a membership — and lead to a lucrative commission — than a lapsed but previously committed donor.

“We were all there for commission,” said Lisa Flythe, who worked at the academy in 2014 and 2015.

She and five other veterans of the telemarketing operation there said that the job was high-pressure but that most of their co-workers had been honest, devoted to the institution, and conscientious about developing good relationships with patrons. Ms. Flythe eventually resigned, though, complaining in a letter about a colleague who had engaged in “deceptive, aggressive and coercive pitches” only to be rewarded with “the choicest leads.”

Another former telemarketer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Jessie Benton, supported Ms. Flythe’s recollection, noting that the colleague “would say something like, ‘Henry V’ is sold out, but if you become a member, you might be able to get in.”

“But it wasn’t sold out,” she said.

Ms. Benton, who worked there for three years, ending last year, took her complaints to the human resources department.

Mr. Kramer, the academy vice president, said those complaints had been investigated, that other callers in the room had been interviewed and the academy had found the accusations to be unsubstantiated. But he said that officials have since clarified the rules governing the call center to make sure leads are distributed equitably, and they monitor calls to make sure they are pleasant and accurate and reflect the organization’s standards. He said the telemarketer about whom concerns had been raised had since left the organization for reasons unconnected to any complaint.

“These are employees of BAM, and they understand the ethos, the aesthetic, the look and feel of BAM, and they can convey that to our donors appropriately,” said Mr. Kramer, who said he visited that office regularly.

Of course, other, less objectionable tricks of the telemarketing trade are employed by callers for cultural organizations, according to interviews.

Don’t bother calling on a Saturday night. No one will be home.

Push the tote bag. Some people enjoy them.

And never open a call with a question like “Do you have some time to talk?”

“No, we wouldn’t say that,” Ms. Benton said, “because that would give them time to say no.”

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