Uncomfortable silences

Consumers are tired of silent calls – they are signing up to the TPS in huge numbers, and legislation looms. Jo-Anne Flack looks at the causes of the problem, and what can be done to solve it

The call centre industry has a remarkable talent for shooting itself in the foot. Just as it was recovering from the “satanic mills” sweatshop image of a few years ago, it took aim and fired again – this time with the lethal combination of offshore call centres and out-of-control technology.

To be fair, the offshore call centre controversy is more the result of client intervention – but the general public neither knows nor cares about that. The irresponsible use of technology, however, is entirely down to call centres trying to make their agents as cost-effective as possible.

The problem has been well documented in the trade and, more importantly, the national press. Predictive dialling software, when used properly, can save significant time and money by removing the need for individual agents to dial numbers and wait for someone to answer the phone. Over-enthusiastic use of the software, however, has led to “silent” calls – where people answer the phone to find no one on the other end – and more than 1 million people registering with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS).

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) estimates that 37 per cent of all TPS registrations are made as a result of people receiving silent calls.

So the industry finds itself on the back foot again – accused of acting irresponsibly and being threatened with legislation if self-regulation is not forthcoming.

The industry only has to look to the US to see how drastic such legislation could be. Clearly more militant people, US citizens took unkindly to silent calls and lobbied their politicians hard. Since the US introduced the Do Not Call Register, it is estimated that about 60 million people have signed up.

It gets worse. According to the US legislation, if a consumer has made a purchase, the seller is entitled to contact that person for only up to 18 months after the purchase is made. If a consumer contacts a company for any reason, the company is allowed to contact that person again for only up to 90 days after the initial contact was made. It is not difficult to see how these rules could severely restrict business opportunities for clients as well as call centres.

The law is an asset

But the legislation has not had a wholly negative effect. Dudley Larus, marketing vice-president at call centre software provider Amcat, says the restrictions have actually been positive for the call centre industry, forcing clients and call centres to rely on customer relationship management in order to make the most of limited opportunities.

“The ‘cold-call’ mentality is disappearing in the US because of restrictive legislation and this is good news for the industry. People are having to pay more attention to who they call. It means more work, but it is worth it,” says Larus. “Business practices have had to change. Increasingly, outbound systems are being tied into CRM programmes.”

There is widespread doubt, however, that the UK industry as a whole is willing to invest enough effort in improved management of customer relationships to see off the threat of legislation.

Maggie Evans, head of marketing at outsourced customer care company iSky, says legislation is inevitable, as too few call centres can be trusted to regulate themselves. The DMA’s guidelines specify that only five per cent of calls per campaign per day can be silent, but Evans recalls that when she spent seven weeks working from home last year, seven out ten cold calls she received were silent.

Not blindly into silence

Prolog Connect business development manager Paul Turner says silent calls are “typically a result of poor technology or of poor management in the call centre. Dialler management, in particular, ensures that call centre managers make conscious decisions on whether to attempt to make a call without knowing for sure that an agent is available, how many rings to allow before the call is abandoned and how to handle answering machines.”

There is some good news, however. Dylan Pemberton, director of support services company The Ops Room, says that clients, especially those that experience high churn rates, are finally being forced to take notice of the “importance of aligning the customer with the brand experience”.

Pemberton says clients, particularly utility companies, are having to concentrate on customer retention, which can only be done by improved customer service and experience.

He says: “Centrica, for instance, traditionally outsourced its gas and electricity business-to-business activity. But complaints were so high that it decided the whole process wasn’t worth it. Now it is increasingly concentrating on customer retention rather than acquisition.”

Pemberton says that call centres cannot hide behind the excuse that they are dancing to the client’s tune. Call centres should insist on reasonable targets and guarantee a level of quality, even if achieving that means a reduction in the number of calls being made.

“Clients also need to demand high-quality conversational telemarketing as part of their fundamental requirements. The bigger, faster, harder approach is not always best for their business.”

Another element that contributes to the problem of poor telemarketing is the fact that, very often, companies or their agencies leave this aspect of the campaign to the last minute.

Larus says: “Too many campaigns have the potential to cause consumer anger. Outbound calling is often operated in isolation from other marketing, and fails to match up a product or service with the appropriate consumer base. If telemarketers want to get the most out of a marketing campaign, they need to ensure their consumer information is refined by drawing on knowledge and centralised data available from all parts of the organisation.”

Although Larus claims legislation in the US has proved beneficial to the call centre industry, many in the UK do not see legislation as a solution.

Evans at iSky points out that offshore call centres are the main issue here. “It is not viable to ban diallers as we cannot legislate against call centres in other countries ringing into the UK. Telemarketing activity would shift overseas beyond control of the regulators and this would lead to the proportion of rogue calls increasing. It is therefore in everyone’s interests to work harder at finding a solution,” she says.

If the problems of silent calling – and the consequent consumer alienation – are to be solved, there will have to be co-operation between all parties. Call centres, agencies, clients and technology providers will have to ensure that more effective planning, better use of customer data and more foolproof software are combined to forestall legislation and to keep consumers happy and receptive – which is, after all, the aim of all telemarketing.

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