New Dialer Rules Worry Telemarketers Despite Assurances

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Major predictive-dialer makers are assuring customers that their systems can meet new federal rules on abandoned calls, but a trade association study shows that some telemarketers may need to spend money on upgrades.


Several telemarketers have expressed concern that their dialers will be unable to meet the new requirements, including a rule prohibiting them from abandoning more than 3 percent of their calls per day. Another rule requires telemarketers to set their dialers to allow consumer phones to ring at least 15 seconds or four rings before disconnecting, then connect consumers who answer to a live agent within two seconds.


Failure to do so would result in the call being considered abandoned, thus counting against the 3 percent daily maximum. Telemarketers can avoid this by playing a recorded message identifying themselves and giving a telephone number when an agent isn't available within the two-second limit.


The rules take effect 60 days after the Federal Trade Commission, which enacted them as part of its amendments to the Telemarketing Sales Rule last month, publishes them in the Federal Register. The FTC has yet to do so.


According to makers of major brands of predictive-dialer systems, telemarketers who have kept their technology updated and followed regulatory changes should be able to comply without costly upgrades.


"We've been telling customers we can keep them in compliance, as long as they act responsibly," said Eric List, product manager with Avaya.


Many dialer users already observe the 3 percent abandonment maximum, said Steve Herlocher, vice president of product management with Divine Inc. California enacted a 3 percent maximum last year, and Oklahoma previously had set a 5 percent maximum abandonment rate.


More worrisome to some is the option to play a recorded message to avoid abandoning a call, which may not be available to all telemarketers. A survey by the American Teleservices Association last year revealed that 27 percent of its membership lacked this capability.


Among those without a recorded-message capability are smaller call centers using older systems or those using PC-based dialers from small vendors, List said. Nevertheless, by keeping abandoned calls below 3 percent, users of such dialers should still be able to comply.


Though Kansas enacted a law in July requiring telemarketers to play a recorded message if a live operator isn't available within five seconds, to date the law has not been enforced, the ATA said.


The lack of actions shows how difficult call abandonment rules are to enforce, and the ATA anticipates that the FTC will hold a workshop prior to enforcement to further clarify the rules, ATA legislative affairs director Matt Mattingley said.


Herlocher said that customers who haven't had an upgrade in three years or more probably would need one to comply with the regulations. However, "99 percent" of Divine's customers in the United States already have done so, he said.


Some international clients, who may operate on tighter budgets and might not have kept up with technology, may need to upgrade now to do calling into the United States, Herlocher said. Upgrade prices vary by the size of the customer but generally cost less than one-third that of a new system installation.


Dialer makers cautioned that having the right technology does not ensure compliance. Running your dialer "hot," or making calls faster than your agents can answer them to ensure productivity, still can run you into trouble.


Vendors only produce the dialing technology, List said. They cannot force customers to use them within the bounds of the law.


"The state says the speed limit is 60 mph," he said. "But they still design cars to go faster."


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