Sales Calls from Inside Prison Walls

Lead-generation firm Televerde puts purpose over profit by employing hundreds of incarcerated women to make sales calls and improve their lives.
David McCannFebruary 21, 2019
Sales Calls from Inside Prison Walls

As a lead-generation company, Televerde’s business is obviously very sales-oriented. CFO Jill Barnard says she works very closely with the sales organization to tailor the firm’s approach on behalf of specific customers and to develop a broad menu of pricing options.

Still, she doesn’t any have in-person contact with most of the sales staff. About 400 team members — more than half of Televerde’s work force — are incarcerated women working in contact centers within minimum security prisons in Perryville, Ariz., and Rockville, Ind.

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The women’s direct supervisors, who are not incarcerated, work every day at the prisons as well.

Privately held Televerde, with annual revenue of $40 million to $50 million, serves business-to-business technology companies; high-profile clients include SAP and Marketo.

Jill Barnard

“This is the third sales organization I’ve been in, and it’s pretty unique to not see a majority of your [team] day to day even though they’re a big part of your life,” says Barnard, who joined the company last October.

Televerde has two missions. One is standard for any company: delivering shareholder value. But if anything, the company is more about purpose than profits. It was created in 1994 with the specific goal of giving disempowered women the opportunity to learn and to improve their lives.

Since then, more than 3,000 women who have worked for Televerde have been released from prison. Many then continued to work for the company or its affiliate nonprofit organization, Arouet Foundation, which provides women such as themselves with programs focused on mentorship, coaching, family reunification, financial literacy, and career preparation.

At present, 57% of Televerde’s corporate employees were formerly incarcerated.

For most of the company’s history it shunned publicity. That’s changed since a new management team came in last year; it’s set a goal to help enrich the lives of 10,000 more disempowered women over the next 10 years.

“I Fell in Love”

Barnard was between jobs last year and preparing for a move into interim finance work when she took a backpacking trip in Asia with her daughter. A colleague of Barnard’s on the board of the Arizona Business Leadership Association called her in Thailand with news that Televerde, where he had a contact, was doing a CFO search.

“I had some things in my pipeline and was totally approaching them from an interim standpoint,” she recalls. “Then I read about the business model and oh my gosh — I fell in love.

“Within our current leadership team,” she continues, “we’re all at a stage of our careers where the thought of being able to deliver shareholder value combined with our opportunity to help disempowered women brings an amazing, next-level purpose to our lives.”

Women at the prisons apply for employment with Televerde as positions become available. The company sifts through the applications and conducts an interview process focused on making sure women are committed to learning and working.

Those who are selected go sequentially through a training program; a side-by-side mentorship phase with experienced employees; auditions on the phone with Televerde employees posing as customers; being part of a two-person team calling actual customers; and finally moving on to making calls themselves.

“We’re in the technology industry, and our customers have very complex product offerings,” Barnard says. “There’s a lot of learning. The women are able to spend lots of time researching and understanding the clients they’re making calls for. That separates them from an average caller who may have a family to go home to at night and is dealing with kids and the rat race.”

Balanced against that advantage are certain realities of having an incarcerated work force. There are delays on emails Barnard sends to the incarcerated employees, because electronic communications have to go through the security protocols required by state corrections departments. Likewise, while employees have access to the internet, their usage is monitored.

The CFO’s job encompasses making sure Televerde is compliant with all corrections department rules. “There are interesting challenges that come from the workforce model, but it’s well worth it,” says Barnard.

Hiring activity is constant, with the company growing its business and employees regularly being released from prison. Some women apply for jobs several times before finally landing one.

The contact-center jobs are not all the same. Some employees simply provide clients with potential leads. Some are more involved in mid-funnel opportunities where they’re building rapport and a relationship with sales targets (although the latter aren’t aware that they’re communicating with an incarcerated person).

Aside from calling potential end customers, other activities a contact-center employee may be involved in include setting up in-person appointments between Televerde salespeople and potential end customers that have already shown some interest, and generating attendance for clients’ user conferences.

The most desired positions involve actually closing sales on the phone, to the extent that contracts with particular clients afford that opportunity.

While most of the positions are callers, there are opportunities for inmates to perform other roles for Televerde. “I work closely with a gal who is an SQL programmer, and she does a lot of reporting for the finance team,” Barnard notes.

Other positions include call-center trainer, which facilitates training and onboarding for new hires; messaging coordinator, which develops talking scripts and playbooks for calling; quality assurance representative; service delivery project coordinator, which facilitates the design and execution of client campaigns; business intelligence technician; and data services coordinator.

A big part of Barnard’s role is making sure the company’s technology is current, including evaluating all the AI software that’s becoming available, how to use it, and how to avoid overusing it, she says. Some such software identifies sales opportunities for particular products and assigns callers trained in those products to contact targets at the right point in the sales cycle.

Meanwhile, the company is hoping to expand into more prisons. One possible opportunity at present is with a prison in Glasgow, Scotland, where Televerde currently maintains a contact center staffed by non-incarcerated individuals. There’s another such office in Cordoba, Argentina.

There’s no better time than now than to be engaged with a business model like Televerde’s, according to Barnard. “With the millennial workforce really driving the idea of purpose-driven companies that change the world by doing business for good, it really lines up with the opportunity for us to share our story,” she says.