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Giving inmates a second chance as prison call center agents

Televerde staffs contact centers with incarcerated women, where they are paid the federal minimum wage. CEO Morag Lucey and COO Vince Barsolo discuss the model.

Televerde, a marketing and sales call center outsourcing firm serving blue-chip tech customers, such as SAP and Microsoft, staffs B2B call centers with incarcerated women -- whom the company refers to as "ladies" when discussing its agents -- in Arizona and Indiana, with planned centers to open in Argentina, Australia and Scotland. The company launched in 1995 out of a prison ministry and was bought later that year by entrepreneur James Hooker. He served as CEO until earlier this year when he retired.

We sat down with incoming CEO Morag Lucey, previously an executive for SAP and Avaya, and COO Vince Barsolo to talk about how the Televerde prison call center model evolves to keep agents up to date with current cloud platforms, such as Salesforce and Marketo, to make them employable upon release from prison, training on a host of skills from sales calls to building account-based marketing heat maps.

Give us a quick Televerde history.

Vince BarsoloVince Barsolo

Vince Barsolo: One of the founders was involved in a prison ministries program in the early 1990s here in Arizona and working with women. He found this population intelligent, interested in changing their lives and really interested in learning new things. He started thinking, 'What could I be doing from a business standpoint to use this to create skill sets that are marketable on the outside?'

We chose the technology arena because it was an ever-changing environment that could satisfy intellectual curiosity. Then, [we] added sales and marketing skills, teaching business acumen, really understanding how tech companies go to market and their audiences. We've evolved with technology and rode wave after wave to where we are today. We have very large customers that we've worked with for a number of years, as well as startups -- high-growth customers that really don't have the sales and marketing presence in-house but are looking for rapid growth opportunities.

What is it about the inmate population that works for Televerde?

Morag LuceyMorag Lucey

Morag Lucey: I was a customer of Televerde before joining the organization. A huge benefit of Televerde is that the tenure of the salespeople is longer than that of any other like company. My experience in hiring [telesales outsourcing] companies is that the average agent tenure is, like, eight months. With Televerde, the average tenure is four years. That enables Televerde and their customers to really invest in agent training and education.

As a customer, I could see how the ladies have no distractions. They're not going home in the evening and dealing with family. Once they finish in the contact centers, they basically spend their time learning. Their capacity to understand complexities of the solutions we are selling for our clients is greater than probably any other company like ours.

Describe the prison call center agents' compensation plan.

Lucey: We are probably one of the highest payers in terms of what we pay -- a fair [federal minimum] wage, [one-third of] which they pay for their room and board at the prison. We're saving the state [in the neighborhood of] $25 million a year. They can send part of it home to help families, or they can use it to buy things that they are allowed to in prison. Another part of that goes into an account available to them upon release so they can buy a car, pay first and last month's rent, and get clothing to continue to be in the work world. A lot of our ladies come out with a fairly large sum of money that puts them in good stead for getting back into society.

Barsolo: We do training on the inside. I would say roughly 20% of their time is spent learning, either led by our civilian staff working inside the facilities or our customers, who provide training on products and solutions they're offering, what their brands represent and the personas that they're marketing. We've layered in outside educational activities through [learning management] technology, such as Coursera or Schoology, where the ladies can sign up and actually take college courses that are offered through these platforms, just like millions of students across the country.

Is there a certain type of inmate who's a fit for a prison call center? How do you choose candidates who are going to make good agents?

When you walk into our contact centers, they look and feel like any other. The main difference is that the majority of employees are all dressed in orange, and they're all women.
Vince BarsoloCOO, Televerde

Barsolo: We're partners with both the state of Arizona and the state of Indiana, and we defer to them. They do initial screenings, then we put them through an interview just like any business would. We're looking for skill sets and competencies that indicate someone has a higher likelihood of succeeding in the position. We have them come in for a basic skill assessment. They go through face-to-face interview processes. If someone doesn't make it or is not selected for the job, we'll spend time with them and give them feedback on areas that they need to improve. Some of our most successful reps have applied three and four times. When they get in, they do really, really well because they have the persistence and tenacity we're looking for.

How do you sell this model to a big tech company, such as Microsoft or SAP?

Lucey: When we look for companies to do business with, they have to want to be part of a bigger social purpose, so we can't do business with companies that will be concerned about the model. Our customers visit, and we take them to meet the ladies in the call centers. I think that is a life-changing experience for everybody that goes in there, because soon they realize that you move from the word felon to people with massive potential. They made a decision one day that affected the direction of their lives, but they're incredibly smart and want to change their life trajectories.

Barsolo: When you walk into our contact centers, they look and feel like any other. The main difference is that the majority of employees are all dressed in orange, and they're all women. Everything that we're doing has security built around it. [One example is] sending an email. It goes to our corporate office where it's scanned electronically. We also have people going in every day to do checks on the emails to make sure they're business and not personal.

We've focused on making the work product quality output, and we run the business like any other. We apply performance management principles. We have key performance indicators that we look at all the time to measure results and ensure the output is a quality product. The business model assists us in delivering that quality product.

Editor's note: This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity and is the first of two parts. Click here for part two.

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