For anyone who owns a smartphone, it will come as little surprise that robocalling activity is up 15% year to date. The jump follows an increase in robocall complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) from 3.4 million robocalls in 2016 to 4.5 million last year.
Regulators, legislators, telecom providers, and industry are working feverishly to develop policies and technologies to better protect consumers and businesses from robocalls – in particular, unwanted and abusive robocalls that attempt to procure money and/or personal information through aggressive and deceptive tactics.
The stakes extend far beyond the nuisance factor, as bad actors have polluted the voice channel for the legitimate members of the ecosystem. Service providers are required to deliver billions of high-risk and nuisance calls that their subscribers don’t want. Call originators making legitimate and wanted calls are seeing their business impacted by lower answer rates, driven by consumer distrust of any call they don’t recognize.
Many consumers are now conditioned to not answer the phone unless they know who is calling. In a study by Software Advice, just over 80 percent said they’d be “extremely unlikely” to answer a call from an “unknown number”. If the call is from a telemarketer, it’s just another missed robocall. However, when the caller turns out to be the local hospital informing you a family member has been injured or your child’s school with an important message, the stakes of ignoring calls become much higher.
While unwanted and annoying robocalls have eroded trust in voice calling, they are in fact part of the evolution of voice calling, as unwelcome as this may be. Restoring trust in voice calling will require that stakeholders accelerate this evolution towards branded calling and trusted calling to begin unwinding the damage robocalls are exacting on consumers, businesses, carriers, and others.
Robocalling may accelerate the evolution of voice
Mobile technologies and communication often evolve not just because they can, but because they must – often driven by improving how consumers interact and engage with one another or how brands interact and engage their customers.
If you go back roughly ten years, Alcatel deployed the first mobile caller ID solution (City ID) that identified the City/State of the caller. Shortly after, T-Mobile was the first carrier to deploy a caller ID solution to identify callers by name. Verizon extended caller ID marking a leap forward for person-to-person (p2p) and business-to-person (b2p) communication – allowing users to set their personal “brand” with caller name and picture information, while businesses could deliver their “corporate brand” through customer names, numbers and corporate logos to people they call. All of this provides further value to consumers so call recipients could “trust” the call, yet that trust has started to erode.
The evolution of voice calling over the past few years has been disrupted by the emergence of a third type of communication: spammer/spoofer-to-person (s2p). Bad actor s2p robocalls threaten to undermine the relationship that businesses have with consumers, as well as the relationship between carrier and subscriber. As a result, stakeholders must evolve voice calling and usher in the next significant evolution in voice communications: Branded Calling.
Unwanted robocalls have unintended consequences for legitimate businesses that use automated calls to communicate with customers and consumers. A pharmacy needing to verify personal information when filling a prescription or any business using robocalls in an above-the-board way suffers if these calls are mislabeled as spam or simply ignored because consumers don’t answer the phone. Enter Branded Calling.
At its most basic level, Branded Calling (for example, a Walgreens logo that appears on your phone when the pharmacy calls to say your prescription is ready) is not a new concept. As noted above, Verizon was the first to deploy this service in 2013 and other carriers have been offering some of these capabilities to business customers dating back several years. Branded Calling not only provides this helpful identification on the incoming call screen but allows the brand to provide additional information – pharmacy location, hours of operation, nearby doctors offices – imagine how helpful some of this information might be if you’re on vacation.
A key aspect of Branded Calling is enriching the call and user experience and b2p relationship through better interaction and engagement. Brands can create lasting interactive experiences with Branded Calling and contextually relevant engagement triggered by a call event with their customers. Staying with the pharmacy scenario, if the user declines the incoming call the brand can leverage Branded Calling to post a notification with an option to “chat with the pharmacist” which might be more appealing to a consumer than calling the brand back.
Ensuring “trust” with Branded Calling
Branded Calling can improve the customer experience when engaging with a brand, but it doesn’t guarantee that the brand logo a user sees on his/her phone corresponds to the call originator. An incoming call might display your bank logo, but doesn’t eliminate the possibility the call could be originating from an overseas call center or a scammer with bad intentions. This is an opportunity for mobile operators to help preserve and if necessary rebuild trust in voice calling.
Evolving to more trusted calling requires multiple developments in the industry, and addressing several challenges:
Verifying legitimate robocall campaigns
Political hate robocalls attempting to influence voters and key races became an unfortunate reality leading up to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections – despite policy and regulatory efforts. The calls were not only an issue for voters, but also for legitimate political candidates and advocacy groups whose robocall campaigns risked being blocked and rendered less effective if voters decided to tune out all incoming call ‘noise.’
The political example extends to businesses as well. Call-center centric businesses that rely on high volume automated calling will have an increasingly difficult time connecting with customers or reaching new consumers. The industry must continue to work with carriers and regulators on solutions that enable brands to authenticate legitimate campaigns so that these calls can get through.
Tapping into data analytics
Effectively discerning between bad actor and legitimate robocalls must rely heavily on advanced analytics that come from analyzing massive volumes of call events each day to identify patterns and emerging bad actor robocall tactics. There will be a need for advanced machine learning methods for blocking robocalls using real-time Artificial Intelligence (AI) in combination with big data gleaned from telecom networks to address the constantly changing identities of robocallers.
With data in hand, organizations will gain greater confidence that their robocall campaigns will be deemed legitimate while carriers will have the information they need to support their business customers.
Leveraging crowdsourced feedback
A key finding from our recently completed 2018 Robocall Investigation Report, which drew from over one billion call events across hundreds of carriers every day, is that users are frustrated with the volume of robocalls and are increasingly taking proactive steps to voice that frustration. Specifically, the report finds that feedback subscribers provide to their carriers has nearly doubled in the past six months.
Meaningful steps to better capture crowdsourced robocall data can be taken to ensure that legitimate robocall campaigns don’t run afoul of best practices and compliance, as well as what exactly is being said (or not said) by bad actor robocalls that users answer.
The aforementioned scenarios can be improved by leveraging the same infrastructure that delivers and displays a branded call to a consumer. For some calls that would be considered “high risk” if the number was being spoofed, calls from medical, financial or similar, the business can choose to “certify” their branded call, improving “trust” between their brand agents and the consumer. For other businesses where a spoofed call isn’t as “high risk” to the consumer, a brand could use a non-certified branded call event and leverage powerful data analytics and consumer feedback to protect their consumers from malicious “bad actors” attempting to assume their identity. In either case, Branded Caller ID is a powerful delivery and display platform that can help re-establish trust in the caller ID ecosystem.
In October, a bipartisan coalition of 35 state attorneys general signed a formal request for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create a new rule specifically targeting neighbor spoofing – along with calling for government and the telecom industry to collaborate more closely on the issue. And more recently the FCC Chairman wrote to service provider executives, urging the “call authentication system” to be launched no later than 2019 to combat robocalls.
It is clear that stakeholders across the policy, telecom, and industry arenas are highly engaged in addressing the robocall challenge, recognizing that the erosion of trust in voice calling threatens a vital communications medium. Restoring trust in voice calling is core to these efforts.