Robo Cops and Robbers

By Peter Bernstein
28 Jun 2017

We in the industry spend so much time talking about how technology, including things like bots, AI, chat, FAQs, etc., are improving the efficiency and effectiveness of outbound marketing campaigns by eliminating costly human interactions. We spend too little time discussing the customer experience of receiving and interacting with non-human inbound calls to us. This is an oversight.

While not quite as impactful as the opiod epidemic, the persistence and growth of unsolicited and unwanted robocalls needs to stop. This is particularly true with the advent of so-called “ringless voicemail.” This is the practice where a robocall drops a message into your voicemail box without the phone ever ringing. Yikes!

My prejudices on the subject, and I know they are not going to be universally popular, with some notable exceptions are that I always have and always will despise commercially oriented robocalls. I would also add political calls to the list. They are intrusive, annoying, and could be life threatening if your line is seized when you need to dial 911 for instance.

That said, as a marketing professional, I do understand the supposed value of robocalls. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says we receive roughly 2.4 billion robocalls every month. We would not be getting all of these robocalls if they demonstrated monetization ineptitude. The exceptions mentioned are for things like notifications of upcoming doctor visits, prescription refills, event and emergency alerts from various governmental agencies, etc. In short, calls we have previously consented to receive.

While inexpensive to send there are some monetary as well as social costs to commercial robocalls. However, the sheer volume of calls speaks volumes. The rewards for those looking to game the system outweigh the risks. Indeed, the rewards of skirting the law are such that violation of the “Do Not Call Registry” and other federal laws designed to protect consumer rights have been proven to be ineffective deterrents. In fact, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, has called robocalls, in this instance the increased use of such calls by scam artists, a “scourge” in a recent blog.

If you own a phone, you know from whence I speak. Every day I receive on my cell phone a call from Heather about getting a great rate on a mortgage. Interestingly, everyday Heather is calling from a different number and typically a different state. She really gets around.

I have blocked every number Heather uses to no avail. As a result, I am one of the 3.5 million complaints lodged with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year about such calls. That is a big number that is up 60 percent from 2015. The trend is not our friend. In fact, phony lead generation as part of marketing campaigns is a major growth opportunity exploited by scammers.

Yes, the industry is trying, with some government assistance, to stem the tide. Mobile operators are offering apps that flag obvious robocalls as probable spam. In addition, there are third-party apps. But, that just means we have to spend time deleting unwanted voicemail rather than having them blocked before they pirate our inbox from the likes of Nomorobo and TrueCaller.

There is even a subscription service from the Jolly Roger Telephone Company. For a nominal yearly fee, it enables called parties to have a bot listen to the other bot and take down the details so the offending party can be caught in theory.

The good news is we all have an opportunity to weigh in about this. The FCC will be taking public comment on a proposal to outlaw ringless voicemail. Keep your eyes open for the public comment period. By all means, express yourself. In addition, Senate Minority Leader, Charles Schumer (D NY) has said he will be introducing legislation to ban such calls. Call his office and once again express yourself.

This impending battle over just how intrusive we will allow those trying to reach us via electronic means is symptomatic of a broader issue that has been problematic for all channels we use for interactions.

Why is it that the default for almost “E”verything is opt-in? We need to be moving more toward a permission-based world where we only interact with those with whom consent for such interactions have been granted. It would certainly make life easier. In other words, whether it is email, voicemail, SMS, or even stronger safeguards on social media, should not the default be opt-out?

I realize marketers, and others like debt collectors, are going to say this impinges on their ability to offer valuable services. However, it depends on what your definition of value is.

“Cold calling” will always be part of the mix. When proper parameters are employed and enforced cold calls by humans and not machines should be allowed. That said, it only seems fair that commercial entities should be made to work hard to get our business. We should all have the right to speak to a person not a machine when some entity, man or machine, is attempting to get our attention.

This will not stop those with malicious intent from wreaking their havoc. The robbers inevitably are always a step ahead of the cops. Nevertheless, if for nothing more than peace of mind, stopping ringless voicemail is something we have permission to effect. Permission granted needs to be permission used. The customer experience needs to be holistically handled. This means fully appreciating what engenders loyalty versus hatred. It is time to send them a message!