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Spam Calls: The New Outbound Problem

An increase in junk calls requires added vigilance by legitimate firms.
By Alexandra Auckland - Posted Apr 30, 2014
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Scammers and spammers are no longer content with peppering our email inboxes with tales of sweepstakes won, account passwords lost, and expatriate princes in need of a kind soul to launder their millions. They have discovered the automated outbound dialer.

As a result, consumers everywhere are learning just how fast we can pound our hang up button.

Outbound applications have always been tricky. At best, they provide a service a customer needs but did not initiate. At worst, they provide another way for information predators to part unsuspecting consumers from their personal information. Some companies provide incredibly useful outbound applications. Pharmacy reminders. Overdue billing notices. Appointment confirmations. But these "good" caller-centric apps are increasingly lost in a sea of spam from unlisted or unknown 800 numbers. People adapt, and unsolicited calls are discarded or dismissed quickly, even when those who are called would benefit from listening.

In a world where the latency between the caller pickup and the start of the prompt is enough to cause a person to roll his eyes and end the call, the first impression is what keeps the caller on the phone. Designers may stress over the connotation of every carefully crafted phrase, but we cannot dismiss the fact that the first impression is the voice, not the words.

At the risk of giving spammers insight into what works (and irritating TTS pioneers who believe automated voices are just as good as real ones), I offer some advice.

  • Spam calls are often poorly executed. Some include fake accents in an effort to sound more official. For your legitimate outbound dialer, hire an experienced voice actor. The dialect should be neutral or authentic to the region the application is targeting.
  • An impression is made within the first 500 milliseconds. Fair or not, the greeting is often what makes the caller choose to stay on the line. The greeting is less about the words and more about the tone. What is the call about? Is it urgent, or is it good news? Choose one characteristic for the voice talent to convey in the greeting. Sincerity is key. A neutral tone demands patience from customers that might not be forthcoming, considering customers did not initiate the call themselves.
  • Understand trends and how callers have adjusted to them. A company may want to breed excitement, but starting a call with "Congratulations" may not be the best strategy, no matter how sincere the voice talent. As more spam-and-scam calls try to entice people into doing anything from buying a product to releasing personal information, the meaning of "Congratulations" is morphing into "nonessential call probably from someone trying to sell something."
  • Coach the correct words. Outbound dialers do not have the luxury of easing the caller into the application. The voice talent needs to hit key words that pertain to the customer's immediate interest, preferably within the first few seconds of the call.
  • A TTS voice beginning the outbound application with the words "Do not hang up" often results in a hang-up. Likewise, "This is an important call from...." If it were important, a person would be calling. Get to the point, and let the customer decide how important it is.
  • Understand the medium, and evaluate the strategy. A call is more immediate than an email. If an email is akin to leaving a note on someone's door, an outbound call is like tugging on someone's sleeve. If a customer has received three spam calls and then receives an outbound call from your company, is your call going to be considered spam too? The risk of a poor brand association in an increasingly spam-ridden world is rising as spammers reach into cell phones. Is the reason for the outbound call worth the risk?

One of the reasons "best practices" are a moving target for designers is that the context in which our applications reside is constantly morphing. Outbound dialers are no exception. With more and more spam hitting our cell phones, differentiation and relevancy are factors contributing to perceptions of legitimacy. It is an unfortunate by-product of a world in which our phone numbers are falling into the hands of unethical people that legitimacy is an issue we are constantly questioning.


Alexandra Auckland is a voice interaction design and tuning consultant at Sotto Voce Consulting. She can be reached at alexandra.auckland@sottovoceconsulting.com.


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