Phone Devices Put Chill on Cold Calls Screening, ID Altering Telemarketing

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Ann Corporan is relieved to be in control of her telephone again. In February, the Omaha resident began using a call-screening service designed to prevent telemarketers from reaching her at home. She used to get about 15 calls a month from sales people pitching everything from credit cards to long-distance phone service to charitable causes. Now, she gets only three such calls a month. 

She said the service is well worth the $6.95 monthly fee: "It's one of the best things that they have come up with." 

Corporan is among a growing number of people who use some type of call screening on their phones, making it tougher for telemarketers to reach them. For example, the number of Americans using caller identification has grown from 9 percent in 1995 to 40percent today, according to a survey by Arbitron NewMedia. 

US West Inc., the largest phone company in the Midlands, reports that 35 percent of its Nebraska customers use caller identification. Thousands more have a call-screening service like the one Corporan uses. 

Such products help consumers fend off phone solicitations, but they also may take a toll on the telemarketing industry, which employs an estimated 20,000 Omahans at telemarketing firms and thousands more at in-house call centers. Although telemarketing executives say this trend shouldn't hurt their business, it's apparently becoming a deterrent to the companies that hire them. 

That's the case with the Omaha Public Power District, which has used telemarketing but is rethinking its strategy with marketing of its credit cards and home-security services. 

A recent phone campaign by a telemarketing firm to sell OPPD electronic-surge protectors was not as successful as utility officials had hoped. Part of the reason, they think, was that the telemarketing firm they employed encountered caller identification and other electronic roadblocks. "We felt that we weren't getting through to people," said OPPD spokesman Jeff Hanson. 

As such, OPPD "is leaning against" using telemarketing for its new product campaigns, he said. 

If other companies lean in the same direction, the telemarketing industry will certainly feel it. 

"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. 

The negative reaction of most people to sales calls is a "problem that the telemarketing industry has started themselves," she said. "They call people that have not replied to their sales efforts in the past. They call at hours when they know you will be home, in the evening and over the dinner hour." 

Representatives of some of Omaha's large telemarketing firms say call-screening measures are not hurting business because they don't want to call people who won't even consider buying goods or services over the phone. 

"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., one of the nation's largest telemarketing firms. 

Padon and representatives of Convergys Corp. and Sitel Corp. noted that the majority of their sales now come from taking inbound customer service calls for companies - not from making sales calls. 

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, said company spokesman Jim Jacobsen. 

Industry consultant Brent J. Welch said call screening actually helps telemarketing companies become more efficient by allowing them to avoid people who "technologically and quickly are just saying no to that telemarketer" even before they pick up the phone. 

But 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." 

Those other tools are likely to be direct mail, which has become more sophisticated, as well as targeted print and broadcast advertising, experts said. Many firms are pouring money into Internet advertising. 

Welch, president and managing partner of Teleservices Partners Inc. in Omaha, said there is a danger for the industry if screening and blocking devices become a "basic, included service" for phone customers. He doesn't think that will happen, though. 

There will "always be a place" for outbound cold-calling, he said, but it will probably diminish as telemarketing firms and corporations with their own call centers focus on contacting existing customers or former customers. 

Forces beyond call-screening technology are affecting telemarketers, according to industry experts. Chief among them is the ability of consumers to tell phone solicitors to take their names off marketing lists. They also can request the same thing in writing from the national Direct Marketing Association. About 18,000 Nebraskans and nearly 40,000 Iowans are on the association's no-call list. 

However, these requests do not apply to marketers who make in- state solicitation calls, such as small businesses and local charities. Some states have established their own "do not call" lists and penalize companies that violate them. A bill to establish such a list in Nebraska was introduced in last year's legislative session, but it was opposed by the telemarketing industry and failed to advance. A similar bill has been proposed in Iowa. 

Tracy Zaiss, president of Zaiss & Co., an Omaha marketing and advertising firm, said advances in call-screening technology and increasingly tougher laws eventually may require telemarketers to get permission from consumers before they can contact them at home. 

Meanwhile, Corporan is among more than 8,000 Nebraskans and 12,000 Iowans who have signed up for US West's call-screening services, which made its debut 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." 

This service, plus other forms of call screening, have been a marketing hit for the Denver-based phone company. 

Despite its success, US West apparently does not think its latest products have made telemarketing a thing of the past. Besides pitching its call-screening service through print, radio and television ads, the phone company is using telemarketers to reach potential customers in Omaha. 

If customers sign up, said Product Manager Christine Petsch, "it will be the last call they'll get from US West." 

(Copyright 1999 Omaha World-Herald Company)