Telemarketing Forum: FTC, Telemarketers Clash Over Abandoned Calls

WASHINGTON — Tension between telemarketers and federal regulators over the issue of abandoned and “dead air” calls became apparent yesterday at the Federal Trade Commission's forum on the Telemarketing Sales Rule.

Abandoned calls, in which the consumer picks up the phone to answer a telemarketing call but no one is there, and dead air calls, when the consumer experiences a delay between answering the phone and the time a telemarketing agent connects, often occur because of the use of predictive dialers.

Introduced about two decades ago, predictive dialers made telemarketing more efficient by making calls in advance and predicting when an agent would be available, thus ensuring agents are always on the phone speaking with consumers. But their tendency to create abandonment and dead air has made their use controversial.

“There's a fear factor,” said Jeff Kramer of the AARP, a seniors organization. “A lot of people outside the industry don't understand predictive dialers.”

Much of the debate centered around how high a rate of abandoned calls is acceptable. Matt Mattingley, legislative director for the American Teleservices Association, appeared to raise the hackles of some FTC officials when he asked the how low they thought it should be.

“You guys are the telemarketing experts,” said Eileen Harrington, associate director for marketing practices with the FTC. “We're not.”

Mattingley noted that telemarketers would have to comply with any rules the FTC set. Harrington replied that she was “not impressed” by the ATA's apparent lack of concern about abandoned calls.

“There's a lot of public resentment about abandoned calls,” she said. “It's something an industry association should have front and center.”

Mattingley said the ATA was concerned with the issue. “I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree,” he said.

Early this year, the FTC issued a new interpretation of current law in which it said that abandoned calls were illegal, even though the FTC has not prosecuted telemarketers for abandoned calls in the past. The FTC argued that federal law requires telemarketers to make certain disclosures to consumers as soon as the call connects, which they are unable to do when calls are abandoned or when there is dead air.

Art Conway, president of DialAmerica Marketing, said that if that were the case, his company was already in violation. When his telemarketers reach a child, they ask to speak with a parent instead of immediately giving disclosures, he said.

“Well, Art, that's not what the rule says, for the record,” Harrington replied.

Industry representatives argued that a zero abandonment rate would negate any efficiencies gained by the use of predictive dialers. Dialers would have to wait until an agent was available before making a call and thus no longer would be predictive.

Costs will be passed onto consumers if telemarketers lose the efficiency they gain from predictive dialers, telemarketers said. The Consumer Choice Coalition said that $19 billion would be added to the cost of selling without predictive dialers, or about $6 per sale.

The Direct Marketing Association requires members to keep abandoned calls at 5 percent or less of their total calls.

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