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The Norberto Effect

Sad depressed alcoholic businessman on his 40s with loose necktie looking wasted and drunk drinking whiskey and smoking at home living room couch in alcoholism problem and alcohol addiction

The Norberto Effect

More than twenty years ago, at the beginning of my career I earned some extra cash working for a telemarketing agency. Our primary customers were rural non-profit organizations, volunteer emergency service providers, and others of similar mission.

Beginning at 5pm, the auto-dialer would begin its work, and we would wait at our desks for a successful connection to be made.

Hello. My name is Jonathan, and I’m calling on the behalf of the Town of Jogger Volunteer Ambulance Corps. We’re trying to buy two new ambulances to replace aging and unreliable vehicles in our fleet. I’m sure you can imagine, [first name here], when you dial 911, how important it is that help comes quickly. But we need your help to ensure that happens. Can you make a pledge of $100 to help the Ambulance Corps? [Click Yes/No]

Even before I memorized the script, I made it a point to read it well. My boss at the time thought I was super-well educated, while I considered competent reading to be a basic skill. It wasn’t long before I understood the reason why my boss thought the way he did: my colleague Norberto.

Norberto was — how do I put this delicately? — a barely functioning nearly illiterate drug addict. And while the rest of us recited our scripts well, Norberto would enunciate every. single. word. It was like listening to a child in first grade sounding out every syllable. And even though we would read it twenty times every hour, eight hours every day, Norberto never remembered anything.

Hey, yo, dis Norberto. An’ I’m callin on … be… half… of da town of… Jog… Ger… Voll… yoon… teer… Am… bill…ants… corpse.

And although I’m not exaggerating for effect, the real mind bender — at least to me — was that Norberto led the company in sales. He brought in more daily donations than the rest of us combined. (I came in dead last, in case you were wondering).

It took a long long time for me to understand how that was possible.

The conclusion I arrived at is that every message can be delivered in a variety of ways and through a variety of channels. It’s incumbent upon marketing to select the right tool for the right job, to be mindful of the target audience, and to speak to them on their terms. It is not about what we would respond to as communicators and business owners.

My colleagues and I were calling on very rural communities — the kind that ran volunteer emergency service departments. These were folks that lived by traditional values, preached kindness and respect, and appreciated plain speech in which every word said what was meant.

Where I presented pretentiousness, Norberto presented authenticity. While I was trying to earn trust with a veneer of sophistication, Norberto was actually earning trust with his genuine simplicity. I came across as a smooth talking silver tongued salesman. Norberto came across as sincere and likable.

All these differences in perception and effectiveness with two men delivering exactly the same scripted message.

That’s The Norberto Effect.

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The Norberto Effect

At the beginning of my career I earned some extra cash working for a telemarketing agency. I was a polite, well-spoken, accomplished young man, and closed roughly a full quarter of my calls. The only person with better numbers — by an incredible margin — was Norberto, a barely functioning heroin addict whose spoken English was severely broken, and whose reading skills were almost nonexistent.

Jonathan D. Spiliotopoulos

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