Posted by: Mike Clarke
Within the UK we are quickly progressing through the Consumer Duty timeline introduced by the Financial Conduct Authority in 2021 and finalised on the 27th July this year. These regulations represent a paradigm shift in the way that financial products are marketed, sold and delivered and underscore a new customer-first approach in the sector. This has already seen the end to cold calling regarding pre-paid funeral plans, with a similar ban relating to pension related calls predating the Consumer Duty in 2019.
Regulatory bodies such as the FCA are always looking at new ways to further protect consumers whilst trying to strike a balance that enables businesses to continue to function in a fair way. While it’s essential to keep up to speed on laws and regulations that relate to your business in your own country, it’s worth keeping an eye on what’s being implemented overseas, especially in countries close to home. If new regulations abroad are seen to be well received and beneficial to the population at large, there’s a high chance that similar regulations could be introduced at home in years to come.
Additionally, it’s always worth remembering that you do not need to be operating within a country to fall under their regulations. If your customers are based in another country then you are highly likely to be bound by that country’s regulations.
Two countries introducing significant changes to call centre related regulations are France & Spain. The former to do with outbound calling and the latter concerning inbound calls.
France: restrictions on outbound calling
Earlier this year France introduced a new regulation requiring “technical platforms” (including call centres, automated messaging services, appointment reminders, event confirmations and delivery services) to present numbers prefixed with 09 on all outbound calls. This is to ensure that consumers can identify such calls and, unless they are expecting a delivery etc, decide whether to answer the call.
It appears this change was in response to French companies presenting mobile numbers when making outbound calls. As this approach is becoming more common in the UK, it is likely we may see a similar regulation appearing in the future. There are currently no figures available indicating the effect this has had on answer rates within outbound call centre operations, but it’s safe to assume that it has been substantial.
In addition, as of March 1st 2023, France will be introducing more new regulations aimed at restricting telemarketing activities:
- Telephone canvassing will only be permitted between 10am-1pm and 2pm-8pm Monday-Friday with no cold calling allowed at the weekend or on public holidays.
- Companies will be forbidden from attempting to call the same person more than four times within a month.
- If a consumer answers such a call and is not interested, the company must refrain from further contact for 60 days.
It is worth noting these regulations will even apply to people who already have an existing relationship with the company calling them unless they have specifically requested to be contacted outside the permitted times and rules. Violating these rules could lead to fines of €75,000 for individuals or €350,000 for companies.
Spain: new obligations for inbound call centres
In Spain, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs is considering a series of changes to existing regulations. These are currently being discussed as part of a wider approach to improve consumer experiences within the country. As part of this the government is aiming to put an end to sharp practices which are intentionally designed to encourage customers to give up when trying to resolve queries or complaints. They have also put additional requirements on to the utilities sector, given the significant impact they can have on their consumers.
If passed, these regulations will apply to all businesses operating in Spain with 250 employees or annual revenues exceeding €50 million. A summary of the new regulations being discussed is as follows:
- 95% of inbound calls in a 12-month period must be answered within three minutes.
- Customer queries are to be resolved within 15 business days (currently 30 business days).
- Utility companies must inform customers of issues within two hours, detailing the cause of any fault and the time it will take to resolve.
- 24/7 customer service must be provided for free and at no point can a customer be transferred to phones that incur charges.
- Customers must be provided with the ability to speak to a human on request. Artificial systems such as chatbots are allowed but customers must be able to connect with a live human on request.
Spain is considering fines of €10,000 for minor infringements but up to €100,000 for more significant breaches of these rules. These are in addition to the ability for consumers to receive compensation or discounts for outages to their utilities.
These changes represent a clear focus on the customers’ ability to connect with companies that are providing them with products and services and their ability to speak to a live agent if desired. By implementing these rules, the Spanish government is preventing companies avoiding talking to customers by hiding behind automated messaging systems and insisting that they must interact with their customer base. This represents a significant move in the opposite direction from industry trends, where businesses are replacing more and more of their call centre staff with automated systems, with varying degrees of success.
What comes next?
Regulatory bodies around the globe will be watching closely what happens in France and Spain once these new regulations come into force and have time to take effect. Depending on the outcomes in these countries we may begin to similar regulations being introduced elsewhere. Here in the UK, we can be sure the ICO and Ofcom will be watching closely as will their opposite numbers around the globe.
In addition, these changes show the regulators taking initial steps to place limitations on what companies can do through automation and AI-based systems. Just as auto-diallers were initially unregulated, as customer complaints and dissatisfaction piled up, more and more regulations were introduced to define what was and wasn’t acceptable practice. This took a number of years to reach our current state of affairs, but as the pace of technological change accelerates, we may see new rules being implemented on a much shorter timeframe. Companies that are considering a complete switch to an AI customer service offering may well need to think again.