Public trust for telephony centered communication will erode by robocalls, impacting businesses with legitimate need to contact customers.

By JD Fairweather

“Hello! Please, don’t hang up. This is an important message from …” Click. Click.

Actually, that clicking sound referenced in the opening sentence is an exaggeration as phones no longer “click” when you hang them up. But there is no exaggeration when I declare robocalls are a nuisance that may very well destroy the future of virtual agents and digital messaging.

I’ve noticed my tolerance for robocalls has decreased in recent years and has now reached the point where I might disconnect a call early into the sales pitch or simply refuse to answer it at all. There is nothing more annoying than reaching for your phone to answer what seems to be a familiar phone number, only to be greeted by an automated message. Behold, the robocall.

Robocalls are powered by an auto-dialer, feature a pre-recorded message, and often conclude with a call-to-action for the recipient: “Please have your student come dressed tomorrow for Picture Day.” “As a reminder, your dental appointment is this Thursday at 10 a.m.” “Vote for Pedro.” For telemarketers and pollsters, they’ve been an effective way to deliver an important message, market to existing clients or subscribers, and prompt listeners to opt into an outbound call with a live representative.

As an expert in contact center management, I have encouraged my clients, particularly those in the utilities industry, to use robocalls to provide timely updates during outages and to inform customers about upcoming changes to their service. But in the wrong hands, and coupled with Caller ID spoofing, robocalls can become a pernicious threat to the very marketing, sales, and political efforts they were designed to support.

Robocalls are nothing new (they’ve been around since the late 70s) but their explosive growth has come at a time when companies are pushing towards digital conversations led by virtual assistants, utilizing machine learning and natural language solutions that mimic the experience of speaking with a live agent. Even though robocalls don’t come close to the technology currently powering the best virtual agents, they are starting to deteriorate the trust consumers have when dealing with anything other than an actual person on the other end of their phone.

As a counter measure, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is moving aggressively to combat robocalls by encouraging carriers to adopt solutions to block spoofed calls. The FCC’s SHAKEN (Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs) and STIR (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited) systems would require digital handshakes on both the sending and receiving ends of the call to validate the caller is actually the registered owner of the number. Participation from all carriers would be needed to verify most calls, and only on VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) networks that originate in a participating country.

When SHAKEN/STIR is in place, the caller ID display whether authentication has occurred on the receiver’s phone, allowing the recipient to decide whether the call should be answered. Some, including FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, are pushing for calls to be automatically blocked if they do not pass authentication but concerns exist that such functionality would block important, legitimate emergencies calls – something the carriers are unable to guarantee won’t happen.

What SHAKEN/STIR has shown us is that any system introduced at this point is not foolproof, has as many supporters as it does detractors, and comes with numerous workarounds. And as the technology to combat robocalls improve, so will the spoofing and spamming equipment available used to produce them. Until more impervious processes can be implemented, public trust for telephony centered communication will continue to erode, impacting businesses with legitimate need to contact customers.

This could end up becoming a cat and mouse game even James Bond would find formidable.

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Jul 17, 2019)