DMA to Explore Predictive Dialer Abandon Rates

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The Direct Marketing Association is preparing to re-examine its guidelines for the use of predictive dialers. One particular area of concern will be the abandon rates, or the percentage of calls that do not immediately connect to a live operator.


The DMA's board of directors approved guidelines for the use of predictive dialers in January 1999 and said then that it would revisit the rules after a year, according to Marsha Goldberger, director of ethics and consumer affairs at the DMA.


"Right now we just want to find out how it's working," she said. "When we drafted this, because it was so new, we said, 'Let's look at it again in a year.' "


Goldberger said the process of revamping the guidelines will begin within the next few weeks and will involve members of the DMA's Teleservices Council, companies that manufacture the dialing equipment and other interested DMA members. Any changes would have to be approved by the DMA's board. Goldberger said the American Teleservices Association also will be asked for its input.


A DMA spokesman said the Ethics Committee is working with one of its members now concerning the use of predictive dialers. If the organization receives a complaint about a member failing to abide by the guidelines, the Ethics Committee will meet with the member to encourage compliance, but those who continue to be noncompliant may be kicked out of the association.


The move to revisit the guidelines comes as more consumers are asking the DMA to be put on the DMA's national do-not-call list. The DMA's Telephone Preference Service, a list of consumers who have asked not to be called and whom DMA members must agree not to call, has 3 million names. The list is now comparable in size to the Mail Preference Service, which a year ago had been a much larger list.


Some states, including Maryland, Minnesota and, more recently, Kansas, have considered legislation prohibiting or restricting the use of predictive dialers.


Goldberger said the dead air that consumers sometimes hear when they receive a call placed by a predictive dialer is the reason for the concern over use of the devices.


"Some consumers were saying they thought they were being stalked or harassed," she said. "I think they might have felt somewhat comforted that it was just a telephone machine, but there really is a great annoyance factor there."


Telemarketers use the devices to increase their efficiency. The machines dial consumers automatically at a pace determined by the number of telemarketing agents, the number of available phone lines and the average talk times of the sales calls. The machines can thus start dialing a number even though a live agent is not immediately available because it calculates that an agent will become available by the time the consumer answers the telephone.


The result is that there might be a delay between when the consumer picks up the phone and when an agent actually becomes available. The percentage of answered calls in which no live agent comes on the line is called the abandon rate. The DMA's guidelines suggest a maximum abandon rate of 5 percent, but Goldberger said she thinks the guidelines will need to be revised to a lower number.


"I think what we really wanted to concentrate on is the 5 percent abandonment rate," she said. "I think what we'd like to do is go back to the members and see how the guidelines have been working out, and get some comments and feedback and see if we can get it lowered."


That might not be so easy, according to one DMA member who asked not to be identified. Companies might not be willing to accept the added costs that could come with slowing the pace of the predictive dialers, the member said.


According to one maker of predictive dialers, EIS International Inc., Herndon, VA, telemarketing agents can be twice as productive in a predictive-dialer call center. Agents will spend an average of 45 minutes of each hour talking with customers in a predictive-dialer center compared with 22 minutes or less in a center that uses manual dialing, according to an EIS report written for the DMA last year.


Goldberger said input from practitioners will be critical in determining whether abandon rate can be revised.


"We need to be realistic as we do these self-regulatory guidelines, but do the best thing for consumer protection as well," she said.


Mark Meyer, a spokesman at Stratasoft, Houston, a manufacturer of predictive dialers, said the technology is not an impediment to low abandon rates. Call center managers have the ability to set the abandon-rate goal as low as they would like to, he said, and the dialers will use sophisticated algorithms to self-adjust their dialing pace to maintain that rate. The lower the rate is set, however, the less productive agents will be because there are likely to be times when there are no customers on the line for them to speak to.
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