Telemarketers Favor Delay on CA Abandonment Decision

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Telemarketers are urging the California Public Utilities Commission to follow an administrative law judge's proposal to delay a decision on the maximum abandonment rate allowed in the state until April 1.


The commission originally intended to reduce the maximum abandonment rate from 3 percent to 1 percent starting Jan. 1. Though it has yet to confirm the details of its regulations, California is the first state to approve a limit on the percentage of calls telemarketers may abandon through the use of predictive dialers and has been criticized by the industry as trying to set unrealistic standards.


"It's a test bed," said Mary Corcoran, product marketing manager for Dulles, VA-based SER Solutions Inc., a provider of predictive dialer technology. "There's been some noise that other states are looking into it, but nothing has been formalized."


Companies that use telemarketing are asking the commission to keep the 3 percent maximum in place while it digests the flood of information it received from the industry in response to the proposed reduction.


In a written statement to the commission dated Nov. 5, telecommunications provider AT&T Communications Inc. of California said that 3 percent, which the company estimated would reduce abandoned calls by more than half, would give consumers enough protection while the commission reviews the issue thoroughly.


"The extra time will avoid a rushed decision that would be more likely to lead to an incorrect result," AT&T Communications said in its comments to the commission. "Avoiding an incorrect result benefits everyone concerned -- including consumers."


The commission discussed implementation of the 1 percent rule at a public workshop Sept. 19. The volume of comments received by the commission since the workshop warrants an extension, Glen Walker, the administrative law judge reviewing the commission's efforts to set a maximum abandonment rate, stated in his draft opinion on the issue filed Oct. 16.


"Our intention was to issue a final decision in this proceeding before the end of the year," Walker wrote. "However, because of the number of comments that we are receiving, and the need to circulate a proposed final decision for further comments, we now believe that additional time is required before we issue final rules."


The commission needs more time to clarify its rules on "dead air" calls, which are as much a nuisance to consumers as abandoned calls, said Michael McKinlay, CEO of Sytel Limited, a United Kingdom predictive dialer technology firm.


McKinlay called the commission brave for being the first to try to solve the abandonment problem but said it should wait until the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, which also are considering predictive dialer rules, offer their proposals.


"They might be having a bit of a rethink at the moment," he said of the California utilities commission. "Right now, it's just not clear to me what they're saying."


The utilities commission still must vote on Walker's recommendation. It has meetings set for Nov. 21, Dec. 5 and Dec. 17.


California's predictive dialer regulation aims to limit abandoned and dead air calls, which privacy advocates say annoy and sometimes scare consumers. The calls occur when a predictive dialer, which makes calls in advance for telephone agents to maximize productivity, places a call and no agent is available.


California defines an abandoned call as one in which the dialer hangs up after the consumer answers the call, or when a consumer does not receive a response from an agent within two seconds of picking up a call. However, the commission has struggled to determine the best way to enforce the new rules.


Telemarketers complain that a 1 percent maximum abandonment rate is unworkable and would eliminate any productivity increases gained through predictive dialers. The Direct Marketing Association recommends that its members allow no more than 5 percent of telemarketing calls to be abandoned, a rate supported by SER.


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