ATA releases self-regulatory standards

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CRYSTAL CITY, VA ­- The American Teleservices Association released the first public draft of self-regulatory standards for the contact-center industry 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 standards, which were announced at the 2007 ATA Washington Summit, were compiled by the ATA's Self-Regulatory Organization, an ensemble of industry leaders with a stake in the future of the contact center industry.

"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.

A key standard requires 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.

"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."

Teleservices terms and concepts have been streamlined and standardized within the document. Other standards involve centralizing the FTC and FCC regulations, opinions, enforcement actions and state rules in one set of coherent standards.

The standards include specifics about consumer override of in-house do-not-call requests, which allow 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," Mr. Searcy 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."

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

The comment period for the self-regulation standards lasts 60 days past their initial unveiling on April 23. In 90 days the ATA's SRO committee will release the standards. They become effective Oct. 19, a 180-day period from the unveiling.

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.

Attendees here discussed the standards. In general, most said the standards were the right path for the industry and 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 questioned the need for the standards, because the DMA Teleservices Council has similar rules. But Mr. Searcy disagreed.

"The DMA does not have standards; they have ethics guidelines," he said. "And there is a difference."

Mr. Searcy said while both groups have similar goals - to protect consumers and eliminate bad actors from the industry -the DMA's schema is not designed to clarify issues between the FTC and the FCC or to create guidelines for previously unlegislated areas.

"[The DMA's guidelines] are designed to target and to focus companies on executing good, honest business practices," he said. "Ours are around the assumption that companies will execute good, honest business practices, but that they need better guidance around legal practices."

Other attendees feared there may be some financial impact of complying with the standards, and still others worried about what might happen if 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.

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, North Little Rock, AR. "It will help the industry clean up its act before the regulators do it for us."

The ATA seems to already have support from the FTC. Federal Trade Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch was a keynote speaker at the event and offered both his support and encouragement to the ATA and its membership.

"The FTC strongly encourages self-regulatory efforts that provide clear guidance to industry and create effective enforcement mechanisms to protect consumer rights," Mr. Rosch said.

"I would like to compliment [the ATA] on the thoughtful and thorough job [it] has done in undertaking this comprehensive self-regulatory initiative," he said.

Mr. Rosch said professionals within an industry have the "inside knowledge on how best to craft best practices" and that self-regulation provides a "critical complement to the FTC's law enforcement actions."

Mr. Searcy is very optimistic.

"The ATA continues its commitment to a balanced approach of consumer-driven contact delivery and business encouragement through self-regulation," he said. "Commissioner Rosch has chosen to publicly encourage our ambitious effort, and we look forward to a close partnership with the FTC on this initiative."

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