ATA releases draft of self-regulatory standards

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Crystal City, VA - The American Teleservices Association has presented a self-regulatory standards draft that is designed to incorporate federal and state laws and regulations, clarify the gray areas in current rules, anticipate additional issues and incorporate future trends.

The announcement was made at the 2007 ATA Washington Summit here.

"Our ultimate goal is to supplant the need for the federal government, as well as the regulators - the FTC and the FCC - to regulate us because we are unwilling to do so ourselves," said Tim Searcy, CEO of the ATA.

The ATA is a nonprofit trade association representing inbound and outbound contact centers; users of teleservices; trainers; consultants and equipment suppliers who initiate, facilitate and generate telephone, Internet and e-mail sales, service and support.

Founded in 1983, the ATA represents more than 43,000 contact centers employing more than 1.8 million professionals in the United States and other countries.

The standards provide guidance and best practices for outbound and inbound calls; state registration requirements; call monitoring; compliance; calls by charities; and privacy standards.

"The standards are not all-encompassing yet - [they do not] cover political calls or nonprofit calls," he said.

A key standard involves requiring members to follow a "Teleservices Bill of Rights," which says that ATA members must commit to uphold the highest standards of conduct in their inbound and outbound telephone communications with customers, consistent with the following principles.

--Be fair, responsible and honest, and follow the standards set forth herein as well as applicable state laws and regulations.

--Treat consumers with courtesy, dignity and respect.

--Provide accurate information in a clear, understandable manner in all communications with consumers.

The bill of rights also says members will not engage in undue sales processes or unfair, deceptive or abusive tactics; respect consumes privacy; and protect their information in a secure manner, and provide prompt, high-quality customer service designed to respond to consumers' changing needs and expectations.

"It's amazing that in 25 years we have not created a teleservices' consumer bill of rights," Mr. Searcy said. "These [provisions] are common sense but not commonly held.

"We think members need to uphold the highest standards of conduct in their inbound and outbound telephone communications with customers consistent with these principles."

Other standards involve centralizing the FTC and FCC regulations, opinions, enforcement actions and state rules in one set of coherent standards and streamline and standardize key teleservices terms and concepts.

The standards include new concepts that provide specifics about consumer override of in-house DNC requests, which allows for sellers to contact consumers if permission is given. Others involve answering machine rules and the "press-zero option."

"Members recognize that some companies who make incoming calls press zero in an attempt to bypass IVR systems," he said. "Members shall therefore acknowledge this as a universal default action and program their IVR systems to recognize and respond accordingly. This does not mean you must go to a live operator - which has a number of issues associated with [it]."

The 89-page standards document is available at www.bryancave.com/ata-sro.

The timeline for the standards says that 60 days from April 23 feedback is due; in 90 days the ATA's Self Regulatory Organization committee releases the standards; and in

180 days the standards will become effective.

The ATA also must decide how the standards will be implemented; plan training and certification for the standards; and devise a communication plan about the standards.

Mr. Searcy also stressed the importance of member feedback on the standards and encouraged members to act quickly.

At a luncheon after Mr. Searcy's presentation, attendees discussed the standards.

In general, most said the standards are the right path for the industry, and most said they were comfortable with managing compliance under the new standards in their companies.

Most also said they were already doing many of the things that were being called for.

However, some attendees said they feared there may be some financial impact of complying with the standards and were also concerned that the FTC and FCC may not have a positive reaction to the standards since only ATA members - not the whole industry - must follow them.

Others worried about what might happen if the suppliers or vendors - to whom they outsource contact-center work - do not comply and what that will that mean to their companies.

One attendee, who did not want to be named, wondered what the benefits would be to an organization, especially to one already doing the right thing.

"What's the carrot?" he asked.

Generally, however, attendees said the standards were needed and important to the industry.

"While the devil is in the details, I believe the standard is very positive for the industry," said Steven Dawson, director of communications and strategic planning at the Heritage Company in North Little Rock, AR.

"It will help the industry clean up its act before the regulators do it for us."

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