Posted by: Malcolm Jarvis

Updated 1st March 2017

Back in August, when I first wrote this post, Which? group had been grabbing headlines with calls to have company directors made personally liable for breaching Ofcom guidelines. There's no sign of their wish coming true yet, but following an update to Ofcom's policy that came into force in March 2017, and the GDPR well on its way, there's little doubt about which way the wind is blowing for businesses in the business of outbound dialling.

Even if you’re outsourcing or offshoring all or part of your call centre activities, you need to remember that you’re still responsible for the marketing activities being conducted on your behalf. Ofcom guidelines are worded in such a way that penalties are directed at the company on whose behalf the calls are being made, even if that’s not the company that employs the call centre agents or places the calls. This means that you need to ensure that any company that’s calling out on your behalf is following all the rules, regardless of what country they’re in, as it’s your neck that’s on the block should the complaints start coming in.

So, in the interests of preserving a healthy working relationship between your organisation and the powers-that-be, here are 16 checks which I’ve divided into three sections that you need to regularly monitor in order to give your business a clean bill of health. The three sections are:

  • Handling Silent and Abandoned Calls
  • TPS Compliance and the Right To Opt-Out
  • Display Numbers and Calling Back In

(I’ve included a handy checklist at the bottom of this post that summarises all 16 points. You can use this to audit your own campaigns or simply as a means to skip the detail and get to the summary).

1. Handling Silent and Abandoned Calls

If you’re conducting outbound calling but you’re not using a predictive dialler (I’ll assume you have good reasons), then you can skip this one completely. In March 2017, Ofcom updated its policy statement on silent and abandoned calls, introducing a world of uncertainty for call centres using predictive diallers. For our full interpretation of the updated policy and what it means for your business, get the kettle on and have a read of the blog post here. As a quick summary though, your call centre system provider or dialler team should easily be able to provide evidence that each of the following points is being enforced and regularly checked:

Check your abandoned call message for all campaigns

In the event that your system “over-dials” and you have more answered calls than you have agents available to connect them to, you must play a pre-recorded message to the individual you’ve called within two seconds of them answering the call. The content of the message is very specific and you’ll find all the information you need to create a compliant abandoned call message in this blog post.

Monitor your abandoned call rate daily

Over the course of a 24 hour period (defined as midnight to midnight), it used to be the case that the proportion of abandoned calls (those that were answered but your system was unable to connect to a live agent) must not exceed 3% of the total answered calls. In other words, if 1,000 calls have been answered in a day, only 30 of them are allowed to be played the abandoned call message instead of being connected to a live agent. This 3% rate has since been disavowed by Ofcom, who now claim that it never really existed, but seeing as they haven't come out and stated that organisations mustn't make any abandoned calls, it seems that a certain amount is still acceptable. Until further information is available, our best recommendation is to continue to ensure that your campaigns remain within the 3% guideline, and to aim for lower where possible, especially on high volume campaigns.

Additionally, if you’re using answer machine detection (AMD), your predictive dialler needs to include a reasonable estimate of how many times the AMD gets the guess wrong and hangs up on an actual person instead of putting them through to an agent. However, the new legislation is particularly focused on eliminating silent calls and our recommendation would be to switch of AMD completely where possible.

In order to keep as compliant as possible, this means that you need to be able to produce a historical daily report (typically Ofcom will request 6 months of call history during an investigation) showing that each campaign and each call centre is keeping well within a 3% abandoned call rate. You also need to be able to demonstrate that your system is using a sound basis for calculating this ratio and is taking answer machines into account. Again, this is something that your dialler team or call centre system provider should be able to get for you without too much trouble.

Ensure your system enforces the 15 second rule

As soon as a phone call starts ringing that’s been initiated by your dialler, you must let it ring for a minimum of 15 seconds before terminating the call. The thing to look out for here is that the call needs to ring for 15 seconds, which is different to the amount of time that has passed since the call was placed. This is most significant when calling mobile phone numbers as it can take a second or two before the call starts ringing (this is known as the “post dial delay”) due to the phone network being congested.

This means that you need to ensure that your system first of all ensures that calls are never hung up before they’ve rung for 15 seconds, and that your system doesn’t start counting until the phone at the other end physically starts to ring.

Check your system follows the 2 second rule

The 2 second rule is mentioned a few times in the Ofcom guidelines, and this simply means that answered calls are either connected to a live agent or played your abandoned call message within 2 seconds of the call being answered.

Check your system enforces the 72 hour rule

Another point you need to confirm with your dialler team is that you have a mechanism in place to ensure that after being played the abandoned call message, a number cannot be retried for at least 72 hours (3 days). The only exception to this is if a live operator is guaranteed to be available to speak to the customer if they answer the call.

Check your system follows the other 72 hour rule

This rule appears to have disappeared in the latest Ofcom policy statement presumably because Ofcom are taking a strict stance against silent calls, and it's answer machine detection (AMD) that generates most silent calls. If your system really must use AMD, any time the system detects that a call has been answered by an answering machine and automatically terminated the call as a result, it used to be the case that the number could not be retried for a further 24 hours. This rule has disappeared from the legislation, but it's possible that it's now been incorporated into the 72 hour rule that applies to abandoned call. The wording isn't clear though, so again, if possible you're much better off doing without AMD.

2. TPS Compliance and the Right To Opt-Out

The Telephone Preference Service

Screening numbers against the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) register is a well-known requirement for outbound telemarketing campaigns. What’s possibly less well-known is that this is not a one-off process and all numbers need to be screened against the TPS at least once every 28 days.

Details about the TPS can be found herebut the key point is that a number is not to be called for direct marketing purposes if it is on the TPS register unless you have the express consent of the individual. If you have their express consent to call them on that number, then that number is considered to have “opted-in”.

I’ve also recently had confirmed by the ICO that even if a company buys residential data from their data supplier and a business number is accidentally supplied with that data, if that number is on the corporate TPS (CTPS), but the call centre only screens against the residential TPS, the company is still in breach for having called a number registered with the TPS. For this reason, I’d recommend screening against both the TPS and CTPS regardless of whether your campaign is B2C or B2B.

Gaining Consent

So, what constitutes “consent”? There’s a lot of information in the guidelines, but essentially the ideal situation is where the individual explicitly states that they are happy to receive future marketing communications from your company. This can be in the form of a recorded statement on a phone call, an opt-in tick box on a web page or printed form, or an opt in via a text message or e-mail.

Third party opt-ins are especially important when buying lists of customer records for an outbound campaign as, provided they follow all the rules, they can provide significant volumes of data for which TPS screening is not required. If buying an opt-in list, you need to ensure that you have a record of when the customer opted in and what they opted in for. It’s not enough for customers to have opted into receiving “communication from trusted partners” if it was five years ago or there’s no clear link between the company that opted them in and your campaign or company.

It’s worth noting that just because a customer has previously been happy to receive unsolicited calls from you, this does not count as consent. The ICO also got wise to the idea of generating leads via a “survey” campaign with the sole reason of then using those leads for a follow-up marketing campaign (this is known as “sugging” or “selling under the guise of research”). You can carry out market research campaigns in this way, but customers must still be screened against the TPS.

Screening Your Data

As opt-ins are so important (and often expensive), and the TPS rules are increasingly strictly enforced, you need to ensure that you have a clear policy in place to ensure that your opt-ins are tracked and protected from screening, and that all other data is screened and suppressed at least once every 28 days. You also need to ensure that all new data is screened against the TPS before you run it for the first time.

You don’t need to TPS cleanse data yourself - there are plenty of companies that can screen data lists for you, and most data list providers can provide new data pre-screened. However, unless you are only calling records for a maximum of 28 days before retiring them, you’ll need to ensure that you have systems in place to re-check data regularly in order to remain compliant with the TPS.

Tracking Opt-Outs

As well as opt-ins, you also need to keep track of your own opt-outs. Ofcom states that organisations must not make it difficult for individuals to opt-out of future marketing calls (such as by making them fill in a form or send their request in writing), and that as soon as an individual states they want to opt-out, all further marketing calls must stop. For this reason, you need to ensure that you have a “do not call” feature in your call centre system and that this can easily be accessed by agents and managers in the event a customer states they don’t want to receive any further calls. This also needs to be checked against any future data that’s loaded so that customers that have previously requested to opt-out aren’t accidentally added back in for calling again.

 

If keeping on top of all this all sounds daunting and time-consuming, then don’t panic. Good call centre systems should take care of all or most of these tasks for you, and the days of sweating over a large spreadsheet for hours before importing new data should be far in the past.

3. Display Numbers and Calling Back In

The last step that we’ll examine to ensure that your outbound campaign is fully compliant with Ofcom rules is the requirement to present a valid number for customers to call back in on. This is good business sense anyway as customers will feel much more comfortable with your services if they can get back in touch via the number you’ve called out on.

As of May 2016, calling out on a withheld number is against the law. I’d like to think there was little benefit to doing so anyway, as I’d hope most consumers were wise enough not to answer calls from withheld numbers in the first place, but evidently this wasn’t enough to put some businesses off. However, even if your policy has always been to display a number when calling out, a misconfigured dialler campaign can result in a withheld number being displayed by accident.

For this reason, it’s worth having a test number added into your data that is periodically called so that you can see what number is being displayed and then confirm that you can call back on that number and get the experience you would want a potential customer to have.

When choosing an outbound number to present, referred to as a CLI (caller line identification) number, you’re free to choose any UK geographic (01 or 02) or non-geographic (0845, 0800, 03) number as long as it enables the individual you have called to phone back and return a message to you. Premium rate numbers are, for obvious reasons, strictly off the menu. Also, if the number simply beeps and hangs up when called, you’ll not be giving the best impression to people phoning back from a missed call, and you’ll also be breaking the law, so it’s worth checking that your CLIs actually go somewhere useful periodically too.



It’s not a small list, I agree. The regulations have been building up for some years now in response to public irritation with call centres that ignore the rules leading to legislation that makes working in the industry harder for all of us. However, the majority of these rules should be enforced automatically by any good call centre system / dialler, and equally your systems should make it easy to monitor the rules over which you have a degree of control. Any good predictive dialler should also be able to work within these rules and still keep your agents productive, your managers informed, and the bosses on the right side of the law, which sounds like money well spent for everyone concerned.



Outbound Campaign Ofcom Compliance Checklist

Handling Silent and Abandoned Calls

  • Check your abandoned call message is being used for all campaigns
  • Check your abandoned call message content is correct for all campaigns
  • Monitor your abandoned call rate daily
  • Ensure your system enforces the 15 second rule (that calls must ring for)
  • Check your system follows the 2 second rule (when calls connect)
  • Check your system enforces the 72 hour rule (for Abandoned Calls)
  • Check your system follows the other 72 hour rule (for AMD)

 

TPS Compliance and the Right To Opt Out

  • Is new data screened against the TPS and CTPS registers?
  • Is existing data that is not "opt-in" screened against TPS at least every 28 days?
  • Is opt-in data protected from TPS screening?
  • Can the source and date of the opt-in for all in-house and purchased "opt-in" data be demonstrated?
  • Can agents and managers easily add customers to the "opt-out" / "do not call" list?
  • Are "opt-outs" applied if a number appears in a future import?

 

Display Numbers and Calling Back In

  • All outbound campaigns display a valid CLI for individuals to call back on?
  • All outbound CLIs allow customers to speak to someone or leave a message that will be checked?
  • All outbound CLIs are either geographical or non-geo and are not premium rate numbers?
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