Call-screening puts telemarketers on hold

Associated Press

Caller ID: USWest does cold calls to sell its services

. OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - While call-screening methods might be gaining popularity with consumers, telemarketers say it doesn't necessarily spell the end of the industry.

Telemarketing is big business in Nebraska, where an estimated 20,000 in the Omaha area alone are employed by the industry.

Because of an increasing variety services, from caller ID to electronic roadblocks that ask unidentified callers if they are soliciting, telemarketers are having trouble getting through.

U S West Inc. reports that 35 percent of its Nebraska customers use caller identification and thousands more have a call-screening service.

"I'm sure it's making a dent" in sales, said Carolyn Predmore, a Manhattan College professor in Riverdale, N.Y., who studies the telemarketing industry.

Judith Oppenheimer, president of ICB Toll Free Consultancy in New York, said call screening can make telemarketing more expensive than other forms of marketing.

"If your conversion-to-sale is lower and your cost-to-sale is higher, then you are going to use a marketing tool that's more productive and cost-effective," she said. "That's Business 101."

U S West says more than 8,000 Nebraskans and 12,000 Iowans have signed up for U S West's call-screening services, which debuted in February. A caller to a phone with the carrier's "No Solicitation" service hears this recorded message: "You have reached a number that does not accept solicitation. If you are a solicitor, please add this number to your 'do not call' list and hang up now."

According to Denver-based U S West, more than 250,000 customers in the largest cities in the firm's 14-state territory use "No Solicitation" or an expanded version of caller identification that requires callers whose names appear as "unavailable" to identify themselves.

Telemarketing companies say the new technology does not spell the end of the industry and might even benefit everyone involved.

"If someone doesn't want to accept a call from us on behalf of one of our clients, we certainly don't want to waste the individual's time, our client's time and our time," said Carol Padon, vice president for investor and public relations with Omaha-based West TeleServices Corp.

Padon and representatives of Convergys Corp. and Sitel Corp. say the industry has moved away from outgoing calls to customers. Four years ago, 75 percent of Sitel's revenue came from outbound sales calls. Now, more than 60 percent of Sitel's revenue comes from handling customer service for corporate clients, mostly through inbound calls, Sitel spokesman Jim Jacobsen said.

U S West does a little cold-calling itself. Besides pitching its call-screening service through print, radio and television ads, the phone company is using telemarketers to reach potential customers.

If customers sign up, product manager Christine Petsch says, "it will be the last call they'll get from U S West."


1999 Associated Press