Get Involved in Pending Legislation

It is my guess that you are well versed in the revisions to the Telemarketing Sales Rule proposed by the Federal Trade Commission. As such, it makes little sense to rehash the good, the bad and the ugly of the FTC’s document. But it may be helpful to look at how the call center industry has transformed over the past decade and why the stakes are so high for those affected parties.

In our society, the almost unbelievable pace of evolving technologies for sharing information and conducting business provides a constantly changing landscape. To compete effectively in that dynamic environment, businesses need to know how to apply sophisticated information technologies to real-world business situations.

Like nearly every sector of the economy, the call center industry has undergone rapid changes, but its essential function is much clearer and more apparent than ever. Call centers do not simply handle calls or answer e-mail. They serve customers, and while the concept of maintaining relationships with customers influences entire companies, for many of them it begins in call centers.

Customer service is no longer a necessary evil, but rather has emerged as a skill, a profession and a career. Both the traditional outbound call center geared toward the development of new customers and the toll-free call center, where customer service representatives handle inquiries as fast as possible over the phone, have been forced to adapt to the demands of doing business on the Web.

Your CSRs no longer are asked only to place or take customer phone calls. Now, they also may conduct Web-based chat sessions with customers, browse with them on the Web or prepare responses to incoming e-mail about the products or services their corporation markets.

It is now an incontrovertible rule that these transformed call centers, often referred to as customer contact centers, can boost sales and cement customer loyalty through more personalized service. For many companies, the call center has been transformed from a cost center to a profit center.

It is this technological innovation that has fueled the industry’s growth over the past decade. Once a tool of a few companies looking for cost-effective and innovative ways to reach new customers, call centers are now the primary means of consumer contact for businesses in nearly every segment of the U.S. economy.

Companies that never considered themselves part of the call center industry are seeing how integral to their business models this has become. As a result, companies that traditionally have not been identified as part of the industry are the ones driving its growth.

As with all growth industries, those companies that have created, and benefit from, the industry’s growth must also share in the industry’s challenges. And these now consist of more than the normal daily operating challenges of finding and training the right kind of CSRs, choosing the right technology and creating the right feel to satisfy customer expectations.

For both the traditional and the newly converted call center business, these new workplace challenges also bring new regulatory challenges. Federal, state and local governments are rushing to catch up with the pace of technology and create a regulatory environment that reflects this new way of doing business. By and large, they have tried to establish a balanced regulatory framework that adequately protects consumers and the marketplace without stifling the innovation and creativity that has fueled this growth in our economy.

Though some legislators and regulators take an unreasonable approach to the industry, the overwhelming majority work day and night to achieve this balance. In recent years, there are clear examples of legislation where the legislators and regulators succeeded in reaching this balance while there are glaring examples where they may have failed miserably. The one certain thing is that legislatures and regulators will continue to search for additional ways to regulate the industry.

Given the importance of the industry to the U.S. economy, the widespread use of call centers through all sectors of the economy, and the potential damage to the economy if regulators don’t strike an appropriate balance, it is no longer possible for any company that uses a call center as a customer contact tool to ignore the legislative arena. All companies, from major insurance and financial services institutions to small local call centers with a handful of employees, must make sure that government understands:

o How the industry works in today’s world.

o The wide range of companies that use call centers.

o The effect regulation would have on the economy as a whole.

o How this industry evolves to meet the expectations and needs of consumers.

Only then will legislators have the full picture of the industry and be able to draft laws that strike that effective balance. Though many companies may argue that they do not need to be involved as they are already regulated by other agencies or are exempt from the specific call center regulations by virtue of their business, that argument no longer rings true. At both the FTC and the states (where exempting certain businesses has been the rule, not the exception), the times are changing. Government is no longer willing to grant these broad, industry-wide exemptions, and in many cases no exemptions exist. We also are seeing an attempt by the FTC to slowly repeal the existing exemptions.

Whatever your position, it is incumbent upon you, the industry practitioners, to address these issues head on. The industry is too integral a part of the economy to let it be defined in a vacuum.

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