Monday, December 10, 2007

Outbound, an explanation of the technology

I've had a number of requests from my previous post ("Outbound - industry reputation, branding and regulation"), for a better explanation of outbound technology. Some readers had assumed the silent calls were an accident or a technical failure rather than a deliberate business practice.

Unfortunately, the silent calls are actually a business decision based on how you set up your outbound dialler.

A dialler is simply a piece of hardware (or sometimes software) that can place an outbound call from a computer based list (usually a database). It may be obvious, but for the call to work there needs to be a connection at both ends, so the outbound call needs to be answered and then the dialler needs to hand the call to an agent or a pre-recorded message. It's a further small step to appreciate that many numbers dialled will not connect. The number may be engaged, no longer exist, or be for fax machines and when it receives the appropriate tone, the dialler will then not pass the call to an agent. Beyond this signal based intelligence, smarter diallers can recognise answer phones and voicemail

Generally speaking, a dialler can be set up in three modes:

  • Preview Dialer - This allows phone agents to view the call information prior to the outbound dialler calling. The agent can decide not to initiate the call and when they do, the number may not be answered.

  • Progressive Dialing - This passes the call information to the agent at the same time the number is being dialed by the phone dialer. The agent usually has a few seconds to view the call information, but cannot stop the call process. This method avoids engaged tones and (usually) fax machines, but will not avoid voicemail.

  • Predictive Dialling is more sophisticated because the phone dialer automatically calls several numbers and only passes a call to an agent when a person has been contacted. This eliminates busy signals, answering machines, etc.

The important thing to note is that the first two result in the same number of outbound calls being made as agents. The third option means that more calls are placed than agents. How many more depends on some fairly complicated algorithms based around predictions of calls that will get an engaged tone or otherwise be unavailable. Ofcourse, this algorithm is not necessarily that accurate and that plus the error level (i.e. the number of calls placed successfully greater than available agents) are what result in silent calls.

The prime industries generating these calls (according to the UK government regulator, Ofcom) are telemarketing, market research, financial services (including debt recovery) and number scanners. The last group, which may not be familiar to readers, is where numbers are dialled at random to check which work, so that a list of 'clean' numbers can be sold to other telemarketers.

The problem these outbound businesses generate is that while cold calling may be unwelcome (and silent calls especially so), the outbound technology has beneficial uses that can get lost in the regulation. Getting a call back, rather than waiting in a queue or being pro-actively told information by a company are all much more positive uses. As so often, the problem isn't the technology itself but the uses is can be put to.

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