This is the last piece in our regular technology column dedicated to investigating what you should think about when buying a particular piece of technology. For our final editorial, we’ve asked four specialists – Aspect Software, CallMedia, Noetica and Sytel – for their advice on call centre diallers.

Ten things to consider when buying diallers

By Isabel Montesdeoca, senior director of marketing, Europe and Africa, at Aspect Software (www.aspect.com)

1) Can you adjust the pacing algorithm to meet business and legal requirements?

The dialler’s ‘pacing algorithm’ determines how rapidly numbers are dialled based on an estimation of agent availability. A good pacing algorithm maximises agent talk time and minimises ‘silent calls’. In March 2006, Ofcom’s new guidelines laid down that silent calls must account for no more than 3% of ‘live calls’ on each individual campaign over any 24 hour period. Above that figure and Ofcom has asked the Government to increase the maximum penalty for non-adherence to 50,000.

2) Does the dialler support a choice of predictive, progressive and preview dialling modes?

Does it allow you to run different campaigns simultaneously in different modes? Different campaigns may suit different approaches. The ‘predictive’ approach is often the most effective at maximising agent talk time but, when agents need more time to study account details before calling a client, the ‘preview’ approach may be more appropriate.

3) Does the dialler provide adequate list management capabilities?

On any campaign, there will be numbers that need to be redialled due to a no answer, busy signal, ‘wrong party connect’ or a silent call. Ensure that your dialler allows you to track, manage and prioritise how you want these numbers to be handled, regardless of what dialler is used or when calls are made. In the case of a silent call, Ofcom requires that any repeat calls in the following 72 hours to that number be made by a live operator.

4) Does the dialler support blended operation?

Does it deliver a fully integrated inbound and outbound approach that enables agents to either switch tasks between sessions or operate in a fully blended mode?

5) Can the dialler play ‘silent call’ announcements?

Ofcom’s new guidelines state that in the event of a silent call, a recorded message must be played within two seconds of the salutation in order to provide the recipient with information regarding the calling party.

6) How flexible are the dialler’s call-back features?

Can you set call-backs to go to the same agent or a group of agents? Can call-backs be scheduled for future days? Can call-backs be active even when a campaign is not active? Can ‘same agent’ call-backs be reviewed by supervisors and released to a group of agents or cancelled if the individual agent is not available?

7) Does the dialler support intelligent dialler management applications that maximise ‘right party contact’ rates?

Intelligent dialler applications use sophisticated patented algorithms to track call result histories over time and use this information to predict the best number to call and the best hour of day to reach the person at that number in the future. This feature improves your chances of reaching the people you want, rapidly increasing ‘right party contact’ rates and improving campaign effectiveness.

8) Can you integrate the dialler software with workforce management and contact centre analytics?

This will enable you to schedule and manage the right agents, at the right times, with the highest productivity work, to yield the best return on your investment in contact centre agents and technology.

9) Does the dialler integrate to all major brands of phone system/automatic call distributor (ACD)?

The ability of a dialler to integrate tightly and reliably with your in-house phone system is crucial. If the integration is not satisfactory, common problems can include calls being dropped, calls not connecting properly and call management information being lost.

10) Additional technical questions

(i) Can you upload new lists and append additional data without stopping a campaign and causing agent downtime?

(ii) How effective are the security features of the dialler? Can you restrict access to relevant data or campaigns per log-on?

(iii) How is the answer machine detection (AMD) rate calculated by your vendor? Are you getting the highest AMD rate? AMD should be calculated as a percentage of answer machines detected plus answer machines not detected and passed to agents.

The key considerations for compliant outbound dialling

By Rufus Grig, chief technology officer at CallMedia

I’m not sure there has ever been a more topical time to talk about diallers.

The past year has seen the controversy about silent calls rage in the media, has seen the telecoms regulator Ofcom issue rules on how predictive diallers must operate and, only in the past few weeks, seen the issue flare up in the media again with motions in parliament, hours of coverage on BBC Breakfast and Ofcom naming and shaming a number of high-profile organisations and talking about hefty fines.

There isn’t much technology you can buy for your contact centre that can land you on the front page of the Telegraph, in trouble with the law and 50,000 worse off, and it would be a brave buyer who would not exercise some not inconsiderable due diligence at the local dialler showroom.So, what to look for? For most people the headline – especially for keeping out of the headlines – is compliance.

A dialler that is not compliant or capable of being compliant with the new Ofcom regulations is no use to anybody. The regulations are all in the area of silent calls – and the requirement to stop making them, so it is worth explaining what these are and how they come about.Predictive diallers work by making more calls than there are agents available, because the dialler knows that only a small percentage of the calls that are made will be answered – as low as 15% for consumer calling during the day. The dialler’s job is to improve agent productivity by monitoring the campaign’s connect rates and making just enough calls to keep agents busy.However, there will always be occasions when a call is answered for which there are no free agents and the dialler has to abandon the call. In the bad old days, this would result in a silent call, where the dialler would simply hang up.

The rules

The rules are all about making sure this doesn’t happen. The Ofcom rules and the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA’s) code of practice state the following:

In the event of the dialler having to abandon a call, instead of silence, the call recipient must be played an information message that states who is calling. This removes the anxiety felt by many sections of society when receiving a silent call at home.
There is a limit to the number of calls a dialler can abandon – that limit is 3% measured as a percentage of live calls. That is not the same as 3% of all calls. Remember that often as many as six calls are made for every live call.
If a call is going to be abandoned, it must be abandoned within two seconds of the call being answered.
All calls must ring for a minimum of 15 seconds. Bad diallers, in the bad old days – and some today – achieve their productivity gains by making lots of calls and then, as soon as one call is answered, disconnecting all the currently ringing calls.
All diallers must present a calling line ID (CLI), which must be charged at no more than the national rate. The DMA guidelines actually say that, where possible, this should be an 0800 number.
Summary records must be kept for six months (24 months for DMA members) – showing the number of calls made and their various outcomes.
You must adhere to data protection legalisation regarding the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), and maintain a ‘do not call’ list of your own.
Productivity

The second thing a dialler needs to do is to deliver productivity. Now, this may seem like stating the obvious because the only reason anybody would buy a predictive dialler is to increase productivity, but many diallers were designed for debt collection in an era where generating huge volumes of abandoned calls was the norm, and they simply don’t work well if you force them to comply with the rules. It’s like trying to make a Formula One car comply with emissions regulations. The only way you can do it is to turn the engine off.

I have seen documents from dialler vendors (who shall remain nameless, unless I’m bought lots of beer) where they admit that the only way to make it comply is to turn off the predictive dialling feature.

There are oodles more reasons why one dialler is better or more appropriate than another – reporting, scripting, list management, campaign management, integration with applications and with PBXs and ACDs, support for multiple telephone numbers – but there isn’t space for them now. And don’t even get me started on the even more vexed subject of answer machine detection. That’s another article for another day, though.

But before you even start talking to prospective vendors, check compliance. Then check performance under compliance. Don’t take their word for it. Speak to customers, ask for stats. A dialler that doesn’t dial is not a dialler. Get that right, and your agents can enjoy better productivity, your prospects and customers can enjoy fewer annoying abandoned calls, and you can enjoy keeping your job and your 50,000.

A fresh approach to predictive dialling

By Jens Moeller, marketing director at Noetica (www.noetica.com)

The goal of every predictive dialler on the market is to increase agent productivity. They do this by maximising the number of outbound calls an agent manages per hour, relieving them from choosing who and when to call, as well as the time spent dialling the number. An unfortunate consequence of many of these diallers has been an increase in silent calling and the surrounding publicity has seen increased subscriptions to the TPS.For the call centre manager in a high volume outbound call environment, the value of the dialler cannot be disputed. Therefore both users and vendors have a responsibility to optimise and limit silent call rates in compliance with industry regulations if they want to continue to reap the benefits of these systems.

The trade-off

The dilemma is, however, that those companies who admirably place regulatory compliance as a top goal often suffer from reduced agent productivity. Meanwhile, those that place it low on the priority list face stiff penalties.

This issue is exacerbated with low numbers of agent seats, where diallers calculate non-realistic average values of a relatively low amount of calls. These call centres will face high agent idle times, call durations and wrap-up times, resulting in agent utilisation being reported at up to 50% lower that it could be. Now when you consider that human resource costs represent an average of 75% of a call centre’s operating costs, the financial loss is significant.

The vast majority of predictive diallers on the market work on algorithms that extrapolate probable agent availabilities based on historic call data from the PBX. The problem with this approach is that they cannot use real-time data to see whether an agent is indeed available to handle a call.

Moreover, wrap-up time after the call has been finished will typically not be considered by these diallers. Therefore agents will often receive outbound calls from the dialler while they are still on a call – resulting in a silent call – or they are interrupted while they are still busy with their last call or their wrap-up.

The answer is to change the perception of how a dialler works.

What to look for in a predictive dialler

Rather than using algorithms, there is a new generation of dialler that does away with the statistical guesswork and bases its dialling decisions on the facts. This new dialler technology is able to integrate with the database and the agent’s interface to understand how far they have progressed through the interaction, pinpointing when they will become available for the next call.

An example of the impact a dialler can have on performance comes from a case study with Acxiom’s customer management services company, 2Touch. It was managing an average of 250,000 outbound calls per week, using a team of 250 agents across 136 seats. When it implemented this new form of predictive dialler, it reported a reduction in agent idle time from an average of 50 seconds to five seconds and increased the number of calls made to 300,000. This performance improvement resulted in at least a 20% increase in productivity with an associated 450,000 saving per year, with return on investment of the dialler being achieved in under two months. All of this was achieved while reducing silent call rates.

This new approach to predictive dialling can also compliment a call recycling strategy, enabling the automatic management of unanswered or failed calls according to the call centre’s own predetermined business rules, such as how often to call an address, when to change to other contact channels, or whether to put them on ‘do not call’ lists.

It is time to revisit the long-held view that predictive dialling is a trade-off between silent calling rates and agent productivity. By making the right choice of dialler and instilling best practice it is possible to make significant improvements in both areas.

Why is the king not wearing any clothes?

By Michael McKinlay, managing director at Sytel Limited (www.sytelco.com)

Anyone hazard a guess as to why so many consumers have joined the TPS in the UK (last count at 13,812,070 registrations)? The main reason cited in all studies, is simply because of the volume of nuisance calls that they have been subjected to. For years, Ofcom stood on the sidelines and called for the market to regulate itself. This showed a complete lack of understanding of how the outbound market operated – especially given the compelling evidence in the US, where attempts to self regulate were a disaster.As UK consumers continue to join the TPS, we could be forgiven for wondering whether outbound dialling has any future. It does, based on permission-based marketing, and it might even recover over the years, with fewer TPS registrations, if dialling behaviour improves. And this is the crux.When Ofcom set its rules, little consideration was taken as to whether diallers could work effectively under them. Their hands were tied. The dialler industry has its roots in the US, and some clear rules had been set there, back in 2002. Even if it had wanted to, practically speaking, Ofcom had no option but to adopt pretty much the same rules.How tough is the challenge set by Ofcom? It doesn’t lie in the playing of messages; that’s straightforward for the majority of vendors. It lies in the ability of diallers to provide effective performance under compliance. This issue, and not compliance itself, remains the key concern for the dialler industry.

So how has the dialler industry met the challenge of dialling at such a low level of abandoned calls? There has been a flood of white papers, lots of expensive software upgrades and any amount of marketing on the importance of compliance. But when it comes to dialling effectively under compliance, is the king wearing clothes or riding around naked, with everyone scared to comment?

What the experts have been saying

Users are a shy lot when it comes to talking about how effective their diallers are. After all if you have paid handsomely for a product, maybe with a big brand name, that doesn’t perform well under compliance, you are hardly likely to tell the world, are you? But Ipsos MORI broke ranks earlier this month when a director there publicly stated, “There are some exceptional products in the marketplace that can deliver the goods. However, there are also a large number of substandard products”. He didn’t name any actual predictive vendors so is unlikely to get sued.

Fact is, he has done users and vendors alike a huge favour in saying that actually the king is not wearing any clothes.

So if you are a user reading this, what are your choices? First, you need to get some honest facts about what your dialler can or can’t do. If your performance goes through the floor under compliance, then you need to decide whether any promised future upgrade will solve the problem, or whether you should consider an alternative. There is of course a third option being widely exploited at the moment, and that is to let the dialler work outside the rules and hope Ofcom does not notice. Of course no one is going to admit to doing this, and let’s just hope that Ofcom deals with anyone who does.

For dialler vendors there are also tough choices. For too long vendors have released products that their users have been able to abuse consumers with, by making any number of nuisance calls. If vendor compliance with Ofcom rules is to mean anything, then it should mean that any product released to UK users enforces compliance upon users so that there is no scope for doing anything else. Just offering compliance as an option and providing supervisors with the opportunity to just do their own thing, as many dialler vendors do, is no longer an option if we are looking to regain a healthy outbound market.

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