THE GODFATHER OF: The Contact Center
Ashley Unitt Explains Why the Human Connection Will Make or Break Your Business
The all-female Perryville prison complex in Goodyear, Arizona is aggressively uninspiring: a clutch of low-slung gray stucco buildings crouched behind endless stretches of chain link fences topped with razor wire and scattered across the sun-bleached, billiard-table flat Sonoran Desert 19 miles due west of Phoenix. Here and there, a cactus interjects itself into the landscape; the only significant difference between the surrounding desert terrain and the prison’s exercise and recreation yards are the foreboding fences. The conspicuous silence of the desert bleeds into the prison, too, broken only by the sound of the desert wind and, occasionally, the whine of pairs of F-16 and F-35 fighter jets zipping in and out of nearby Luke Air Force Base.
The Jets’ freedom stands in stark contrast to constraints of the residents of Perryville. Over 4,000 inmates, all women, live within 11 separate units at the prison; Arizona’s women’s death row is located in one of the units.
Prisoners arrive in Perryville after a series of losses. There’s the loss of freedom, of course, but there are other, deeper losses for many: the loss of meaning, the loss of possibilities, the loss of a future. For younger inmates, before they entered the gates of Perryville, they hadn’t realized they had a future to lose.
“We’re kind of beat up when we get here, because of our life choices and the decisions that we’ve made,” says Cortnee Hodges, a resident of the San Pedro unit. “It’s taken me a really long time to be in a place where I could look at myself and say, hey, you’ve got something worthwhile to offer society.”
Hodges is on her third stint at Perryville after two several-month terms, and ironically it was the length of her third term that opened the door to the opportunity she described as a “game changer.”
“The first time I was here, I saw the women and I wasn’t quite sure what was going on in the building,” Hodges recalled. “The second time, I was like, ‘what is going on in there? I really want to know!’ When I found out I was going to have to be here one more time, and the time was going to allow me to explore what went on in here… I was absolutely blown away. It was nothing like what I thought it would be.”
The opportunity that turned Hodges around – and hundreds of other women like her – is in the contact centers operated by global demand generation company Televerde inside the walls of Perryville. Entering any one of Televerde’s four contact centers within Perryville is like stepping from the harsh realities of prison into a scene jarringly familiar to anyone who works in an office: cubicles, computer monitors, desks with personal decorations and workers with headsets. The only significant difference is that everyone is dressed in the orange sweatshirts and “ADC”-stenciled pants that comprise their prison uniforms.
“We get to leave the yard and enter this building and we are no longer inmates,” said Danna Tongate, a resident of the Piestewa Unit.“We are professionals.We are powerful women in business.”
To work here, inmates must meet certain requirements: their sentence must be for 10 years or less, and they must have a high school diploma or a GED, have at least one year remaining and demonstrated good behavior. Once they’ve qualified, the women are interviewed to assess their ability to speak on the phone and to evaluate their interaction skills.
Once they’re accepted into the program, the women gain more than a job – they gain access to a set of life-changing skills and experiences that can completely alter their perception of themselves and their potential. The proof is in the numbers: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the overall rate of recidivism in Arizona is 49 percent. The nationwide rate for women in 35 percent. But for women working for Televerde, the rate is just 6.1 percent.
“When I found out that I got Televerde, I cried,” said Jennifer Nichols, now a 2 1⁄2-year veteran of the program. “It’s hard looking into the future when you’re in this place. It’s hard to see the world move on without you.” Nichols earned her GED in prison specifically so she could work in the contact center, and two weeks after her graduation, she entered training. “I knew that it was going to help me forever. It helps you with college courses. It helps you with professional skills that, no matter where you go, you can use forever. So it gives us back a future.”
The rigorous training course lasts a minimum of six weeks. “The first thing you think before you walk into the room is, I’m never going to make it,” said Michelle Murley, a recent graduate of the training program. “You listen and watch how these Televerdians speak and walk and you realize they have something I do not!” Then, Murley said, on the first day, women who have already completed training introduce themselves. “Then you say, ‘you seem like you have something different, but you’re telling my story.’” Over time, “you slowly progress, and at the end of it you walk out and you’re, ‘holy cow! I’ve got this!’”
Once training is completed, they start calling as lead development representatives or inside sales representatives on behalf of Televerde’s customers, which include technology heavy hitters like SAP, Marketo, Adobe and Hitachi. The success rates they achieve on behalf of their customers is impressive – most of the SDRs are able to rattle off their pipeline numbers, often in the neighborhood of several million dollars.
The telephone is a great equalizer, and the vast majority of contacts the women have are entirely unaware that they’re calling from prison. As a result, the business leaders they speak to – CIOs, CMOs and CEOs – treat the women as peers, conversations few of them imagined they would ever have.
“I got to sit right next to the CEO of Marketo,” said Brooke Shafer, a Marketing Automation coordinator whose specialty is Marketo. “I met him in prison! How many people get to meet the CEO of their dream job? And then as he’s leaving, he looks me in the eye, shakes my hand, and says, ‘Brooke, you stay in touch with me and let me know when you get out.’ How cool is that?”
“I got to sit right next to the CEO of Marketo,” said Brooke Shafer, a marketing automation coordinator whose specialty is Marketo. “I met him in prison! How many people get to meet the CEO of their dream job? And then as he’s leaving, he looks me in the eye, shakes my hand, and says, ‘Brooke, you stay in touch with me and let me know when you get out.’ how cool is that?”
As in any contact center job, most agents have tales of calls that take unexpected turns. Nichols had a long-running series of calls with a buyer who was heavily invested in the success of his garden of green beans, updating her on their progress over the course of several calls and asking for suggestions about getting them to grow better. ISR Christy Chacon had a memorable conversation with one potential lead who, as it turned out, was taking the call while relaxing in the tub. These calls, and the rest of the calls over the course of the day, don’t just provide a chance to hone their skills – they allow the women to venture beyond the walls of the prison, if only in a virtual way.
“I get to go on field trips every day!” said Shafer.
The contact centers actively compete with other work within the facility. Every prisoner in the complex must have a job; these can be manual labor jobs, typically very low paying, which are required to keep the prison running – in the kitchens, laundries or doing maintenance work in the complex, often for very low wages. The wages the women earn for these jobs goes to offset the costs of their food and clothes and to address any restitution required by their sentences. Televerde pays its workers a fair market wage for the work they perform, an amount that allows them to provide for themselves, pay fines, restitution, child support, contribute to the cost of their room and board and save money for their future. An outsider might assume that the contact center workers – about 300 in all of Perryville – might be resented by the other women. Not so, said Crystal Allen. “We lift them up and make this a goal for them. There have been plenty of interactions for us to inspire them to get their GED and make that a part of their roadmap. We’re the Televerde cheerleaders.”
“We try to be role models as best we can for the other women in the yard,” said Harriet Hemerling, “because I think a lot of women have the goal of working here. Even if they don’t pass the GED, they’re going to keep taking it. There are a lot of those stories, where they interview two or three times but they never gave up. And they came back and they got it and they were very successful. We’re always trying to encourage other women to apply and to help them prepare.”
“There’s a common theme you hear from many women here. They’ll tell you they came to prison extremely broken,” said Samantha Garcia, a resident of the Piestewa Unit. “I was a broken individual who didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t know who I was, what I wanted to be, or where my life would be after I left prison.”
Garcia started as an agent, but later applied for a job in people development – essentially, the team that trains other women in the contact center. “When I got it, I was terrified – who am I to tell somebody else how to do something? But someone saw in me something I didn’t see in myself. What I learned through becoming a trainer is that I’m valuable, I have a lot of things to give away, and I found a passion for sharing that. I’m now creating e-learning content.”
Televerde also employs women with proficiency and interest in technical roles. For example, Shafer works to synch proprietary calling systems with Marketo, and syncs Marketo to Salesforce in many cases. “I’m also actually acting as a Marketo admin for several businesses,” she said. “I push data to Televerde and as well as to our competitors. It’s a unique role where I have to keep up with data privacy and compliance laws.”
The turnaround for Shafer has been dramatic. “I’m college-educated and I come from a good family. Coming here was earth-shattering. This is not my first time, it’s my second time. I came from an abusive relationship and I thought I didn’t have a voice. Now, I’ve been with Televerde for three years, and I talk to major corporations on a daily basis! I have chief marketing officers listening to what I say – that’s huge!”
With her hope and her confidence restored, Shafer is “getting ready to go home in two years, and I have amazingly marketable skills,” she says. “I’ve learned SQL database query and I’m learning HTML coding. Certified in Marketo? Who would have thought when I started this journey five years ago I would have that skill set?” She’s now looking forward to a future that holds the potential of a six-figure job once she rejoins the workforce.
Women have the ability for mobility within Televerde, too. April Mooney came from corporate America, she says, but “Life took a left turn. I worked in finance, and I’m never going to be able to work in that field again. How am I going to be able to support myself? How am I going to live the kind of life I lived before?” She started in quality control, monitoring lead quality and helping to find areas where agents were particularly strong or where they needed coaching. Her outgoing nature led her back into the call center, where she now calls on behalf of SAP in healthcare and utilities. “I like people and I like talking, so it was a natural progression! It doesn’t matter what I’m calling on – I can talk to anybody. What matters is that I’m listening to what’s important to you.”
“We live and work together, and this is what we focus on, every day all day, on the weekends, all the time. That’s what we have – time. We take our products home, and we study the ins and outs of them. We talk to each other. We use our strengths and build each other up, unlike the corporate world where – especially in sales – it’s every man for himself. We have the unique ability to work together all the time. Instead of having to worry about anything else, this is what we do. It is our entire life in here, this is our entire life in here.”
While Shafer and Mooney had work experience to draw from, other women arrived with fewer tools to draw on. “had never held a job before,” said Tongate, now a project coordinator in the Piestewa Contact Center. Tongate said she feels like a professional now, but when she arrived at Perryville “I don’t think that I wanted that back then. I didn’t have any desire to be that person. I had no integrity. I really only knew how to make bad choices really well. When I came here, I had no hope for the future.”
But Tongate saw the potential of the program and worked hard to get her GED. “I had no idea what the business world was, or how to have conversations with people who had educations. They were smart, and I didn’t feel that way about myself.” After training, Tongate remembers “getting on the phone and being scared to death that someone might actually answer!”
A few years later, Tongate was excelling at the campaigns she worked on. She moved into a project management role for Televerde’s clients and managing Televerde internal demand generation campaign, which allowed her to take risks – something that she had always feared, “because I was terrified of making a mistake, because in my life mistakes meant bad things. Here, mistakes are learning opportunities.”
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Now, Tongate finds herself on the phone with executives of her client companies, dispensing advice based on her experience over her years in the contact center. “It’s humbling,” she said. “Here’s little old me, sitting in orange on this side of the phone, giving them information that helps them make better decisions.”
Tongate’s training role gives her an ability to look back at where she was when she started – and to appreciate how far she’s come. “I get to see the growth of the women that are coming in as they go through new hire training and they come in just as broken as I was. They come in tears because they don’t believe in themselves, but we believe in them.”
The teams in the contact centers are unusually close and remarkable supportive – for an obvious reason. “We live together, we eat together, we sleep together, we work together – there’s no getting away from these girls,” says Tongate. “We go back to the yard and we talk about our day. There’s a lot of investment that goes into us to get us to where we are, but that investment also comes from me investing my time in her, and her investing her knowledge and skills in me, and us collaborating as a family. This truly is a family, and it’s a family of women. There’s a different dynamic than there would be in a mostly male-led organization.”
“We’re only as strong as our team. If the program isn’t performing as well as it should, then we’re looking to each other to answer why isn’t it performing,” said Hemerling.
“This is our entire world,” said Nichols. “We live and work together, and this is what we focus on, every day all day, on the weekends, all the time. That’s what we have – time. We take our products home, and we study the ins and outs of them. We talk to each other. We use our strengths and build each other up, unlike the corporate world where – especially in sales – it’s every man for himself. We have the unique ability to work together all the time. Instead of having to worry about anything else, this is what we do. It is our entire life in here. This is our entire life in here.”
After release, Televerde hires about 40 percent of the women working in the Perryville call centers to work in its other contact centers. It gains not just a group of agents who are thoroughly trained to Televerde’s own standards but a cadre of women with shared experiences who are committed to looking out for one another now that they’re back in civilian life.
Virginia Morales is a great example of this. She was addicted to heroin for 28 years, and her last stretch in Perryville came as the result of a seemingly insignificant offense. “I was charged with third-degree burglary for taking $27, and for that I was sentenced to six years. That’s $6.75 cents a year – believe me, I had time to do the math!” she says.
She also said that being sent to prison saved her life. “I was not arrested – I was rescued,” she says. While she was in Perryville, she discovered that her calling came as a trainer at the San Pedro contact center, a role that allowed her to invest in other people and, at the same time, discover who she really was.
“That’s when I realized there was more to me than I ever dreamed possible. I never knew that this was inside of me,” Morales said. “I never knew I had the ability to transfer knowledge to other people in a way that would help them be successful. And I love what I do. If it was not for Televerde, I shudder to think where I would be, because I never would have discovered the talent that I had.”
Now, Morales works as an agent in Tel- everde’s Phoenix office, nestled behind the angular black-and-white glass façade of an office park less than 20 miles from Perryville. She works as the corporate call center trainer, and has added the responsibility of training Televerde’s international locations. She’s also planning to buy her first home, and to visit Argentina in 2019.
She’s not the only “graduate” of Perryville. A large portion of Televerde’s staff learned their trade while clad in orange. “The only difference between now and when I used to work for Televerde inside is that it takes me a lot longer in the morning to figure out what I’m going to wear,” quipped Tara Miller. She’s being somewhat facetious – life on the outside comes with responsibilities, temptations and challenges that were absent in prison. The company runs a program through the non-profit Arouet Foundation to help inmates adjust to a life of freedom.
“sure, you can follow the rules inside. But when you come home, can you follow the rules? Can you be a good person? Our desire is to prove to ourselves that yes, we can do it – we can do it for a month, we can do it for years, we can keep doing it.”
The foundation provides pre- and post- release training and support the for recently released women, and at the Televerde’s office that includes assigning a mentor to each new "graduate". “We check in with them on a daily basis for the first 30 days,” said Miller. Mentors are enormously valuable sources of support, she said. “I have somebody who, no matter what, is never going to judge me for anything that I do.”
The other vital component of this adjustment for Televerde’s employees is the support and understanding of their fellow workers.
“The majority of us, 85 percent of our workforce, lived through the darkest moments of our lives together,” Morales says. “We did a lot of time together and we became family. When we come here it’s like a homecoming. I can’t help but want someone else to succeed. Outside of here, we talk to each other every day. I never understood the value of female friendships and female relationships. This is the first time I’ve ever had so many sisters in my life.”
“A lot of us never had those female relationships because of the lifestyles that we lived,” Miller says. “You don’t have that option in prison – it’s really sink or swim in there. I have a lot of female friends now, and I never thought I’d have one in my life.”
The prison contact center’s atmosphere also helps with the transition. “One of the really great things about Televerde in prison is when you walk into the contact center, you are walking into a corporate environment,” said Andrea Walker, a recent arrival to Televerde’s corporate offices. “It wasn’t that different here – you walk in and you’re speaking to people with proper business etiquette, and having professional business conversations on and off the phone. That culture inside isn’t much different from the culture that’s here at corporate – we just have more tools, and more life.”
The women who make it into Televerde’s corporate office are also highly motivated.
“Our desire is to be successful now that we’re home,” said Christine Martin, an ISR. “Sure, you can follow the rules inside. But when you come home, can you follow the rules? Can you be a good person? Our desire is to prove to ourselves that yes, we can do it – we can do it for a month, we can do it for years, we can keep doing it.”
Prison is an odd experience to have on your resume, but gaining a purpose and a career changed many of the women’s views of it. “Perryville saved my life, and Televerde changed my life,” says Brandy Smith, now an SDR for the Arouet Foundation. “I will be forever grateful I wore orange, and I learned my lesson, and I’ll tell my story to whoever will listen to it.”
“My entire life, I always thought I was playing a part,” Morales said. “I felt that any minute the other shoe was going to drop, any minute people were going to find out who I was. Then I came to Televerde, and who I was was enough, because the people around me were going to stretch me to be something different. I don’t feel like I’m supposed to be anybody else for once in my life. I feel like this is who I’m supposed to be. It took me a while to get here, but now just try to chase me out!”.
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