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How Automatic Dialers Work


Political candidates often use automatic-dialing technology to remind constituents to vote. Calls can be directed to an aide if the voter has questions.
Political candidates often use automatic-dialing technology to remind constituents to vote. Calls can be directed to an aide if the voter has questions.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It's 7 p.m. on a Tuesday. You're busy making spaghetti and meatballs for two teenagers and a screaming 3 year old. The TV is blaring, the pasta starts boiling over, and in the middle of it all, the phone rings. You clutch the phone between your neck and your shoulder and manage a desperate "Hello?"

On the other end of the line, you hear a telltale second of silence. Then a cheery recorded voice starts telling you about a special offer on lawn care services from G&G Garden Care. You want to tell him where he can stick his special offer, but it's less fun to threaten a machine. So you hang up and go back to your chaotic Tuesday evening while somewhere a computer is dialing the next number. "Hello, we're calling with a special offer from G&G Garden Care!"

After the call is connected, a live operator greets the potential customer, alerting them to that day's gardening specials. Automated dialing systems, such as this, are often used by telemarketing organizations. 

Automatic dialers, or autodialers, are an example of computer telephone integration (CTI). Using special software and a modem, a computer can be programmed to automatically dial a long list of phone numbers. Depending on the software's sophistication, the computer can detect whether a live person answers the phone and then hand the call over to a human operator. The computer can also be programmed to play a recorded message, leave a message on an answering machine, or provide a menu of options to the person who answers.

Autodialers aren't evil. It's true that some companies use autodialers to power annoying telemarketing campaigns, but they have many other uses as well. A school could use an autodialer to alert parents and students to an unexpected closure. A doctor's office could set up a system to remind senior citizens when to take their medication. A political candidate could dial out to thousands of residents to participate in a telephone town hall.

How does autodialer technology work? Is it expensive to set up a simple auto-dialing system? What are some of your options when choosing an auto-dialing provider? Read on to find out.

Automatic Dialer Technology

Each telemarketer at a call center needs his own telephone with a headset connected to a dedicated phone line for automatic dialers to work properly.
Each telemarketer at a call center needs his own telephone with a headset connected to a dedicated phone line for automatic dialers to work properly.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

A simple automatic dialing systems isn't very expensive or complicated to set up. You need four things to create a basic system:

  • A computer, preferably a desktop model
  • A voice modem
  • Auto-dialing software
  • An active telephone line

A voice modem allows a computer to play or record audio over a telephone line. On a standard desktop computer, there's room for two to four internal modem cards. Each internal modem can only be connected to one phone line. So the more modems you have, the more phone calls the computer can make simultaneously.

If the auto-dialing system is going to be used in a call center with multiple live operators, then each operator will need his own telephone with a headset connected to a dedicated phone line. Autodialers can work over both the regular public switched telephone network (PSTN) or Voice over IP (VoIP).

The most important part of the auto-dialing system is the software. The software tells the computer which numbers to dial and how to respond to different situations (if an answering machine picks up, a human answers, a busy signal, et cetera).

Voice detection is the technology that allows auto-dialing software to detect the difference between an answering machine and a human voice. Here's how voice detection works:

  1. If nobody picks up the phone for four rings or more, about 25 seconds, then there's an increased likelihood that the call will be answered by a machine.
  2. When the call is answered, the software measures the length of the first words spoken and waits for a pause. If the initial response is a short burst of words (one to three seconds) followed by a pause, then it's a human ("Dr. Johnson's office. How can I help you?")
  3. The software then passes the call to a live operator or plays a pre-recorded message.
  4. The telltale pause that accompanies most telemarketing calls is caused by the time it takes for the software to recognize a human voice and route the call to an available operator.

[source: Telecomlogic]

One of the most interesting developments in auto dialing software is predictive dialing. Predictive dialing is most useful in a call center setting, where multiple operators are making simultaneous calls. Predictive dialing technology uses a complicated algorithm to anticipate when an operator will be free to handle another call. Predictive dialing software analyzes several factors:

  • how many calls are answered by live people
  • how many calls are answered by machines
  • how many calls are never answered or encounter busy signals
  • the length of a typical call when answered by a live person

Using this information, the predictive dialing software can calculate exactly how often to start dialing a new number to maximize the amount of time the live operators are on the phone and talking. The system will often dial numbers when no operators are available, knowing that an operator is likely to end a call right when another one begins.

Interactive voice response (IVR) is an autodialing technology that supplies interactive menus on outgoing calls. For example, a marketing or demographics company can autodial consumers and present them with an interactive poll they can answer with their telephone keypad or voice responses.

Now let's look at some of the most common services and features associated with autodialers.

Automatic Dialer Services

Automatic dialer companies use software to route calls to the next available operator, particularly in telemarketing situations.
Automatic dialer companies use software to route calls to the next available operator, particularly in telemarketing situations.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Voice broadcast -- autodialing with a pre-recorded audio message -- is one of the most common autodialing services, used predominantly for marketing and sales calls. A marketing company can save money on live operators by making its sales pitch with a pre-recorded message. Using interactive voice response (IVR), the marketing company can include an option for pressing a key to speak to a live representative.

Another useful application of voice broadcast is for notifications and reminders. Notifications and reminders can be automated and customized using text-to-speech technology.

For example, an airline can call customers to notify them of a change in an upcoming flight schedule. The auto-dialing software is connected to a database of customers and flight schedules. When a flight time changes in the database, the software automatically dials all of the customers on that flight. Using text-to-speech technology, the message can be personalized for each customer: "Mr. Johnson, your flight now leaves Denver at 6:02pm."

Here are some more real-life examples of using voice broadcast for notifications and reminders:

  • A university sets up a mass notification system in which all students, faculty and staff are notified by phone of a campus emergency.
  • A doctor's office uses an autodialer to remind patients of upcoming appointments, to take a certain pill at a certain time, or to check in with elderly patients.
  • The hospitality industry sends reservation confirmations for restaurant reservations and hotel bookings.
  • Financial services companies send automated fraud alerts, payment reminders and debt collection notices.
  • Manufacturers and retailers send automated product recall alerts, order status updates and shipping notifications.
  • Political campaigns and activist organizations broadcast their message to voters and remind them to go to the polls to vote.
  • A police department issues a phone alert to residents in a certain area notifying them of a possible kidnapping. The message includes a physical description of the victim and the suspect.

Voice broadcast is designed for pre-recorded or automated text-to-speech messages. But there are several other auto-dialing features, including predictive dialing, that are tailored to call centers with live operators:

  • Preview dialing -- Before the software dials the number, it allows the operator time to review information about the call. This is useful for customizing a script when making a sales call.
  • Progressive dialing -- The software connects the call to an operator as it's being dialed to give the operator a few seconds to review on-screen information.
  • Predictive dialing -- As we discussed, the software uses special algorithms to dial as many simultaneous numbers as possible while maximizing operator talk time. This saves money by allowing call centers to hire fewer employees to make more calls.
  • "Smart" predictive dialing -- Calls answered by a live person are programmed to first play a pre-recorded voice message. The call is only transferred to a live operator when the person expresses interest by pressing a key. This is useful for identifying customers that are truly interested in the product or service being pitched.

[source: Call Center Systems and Software Resource Center]

Now let's take a look at a few auto-dialing service providers and what they have to offer.

Automatic Dialer Providers

Automatic dialers require a phone, modem and single phone line.
Automatic dialers require a phone, modem and single phone line.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

There are two basic options when choosing an autodialing service provider. You can either purchase all the equipment to run the system in-house or subscribe to a monthly hosting plan. There are several companies who offer both services. Here are a couple of representative providers.

Database Systems Corp (DSC) is a Phoenix-based company that supplies autodialing and IVR services to small and large clients across the United States. We spoke with a sales representative from DSC who gave us some quotes on both in-house and hosted autodialing systems.

Let’s use the example of a mass notification system for a school. The school wants to be able to contact 1,000 people with a 30-second recorded message in 25 minutes or less. If the school were to purchase the autodialing equipment and run the mass notification itself, it would need over 40 separate phone lines to send a 30-second message to that many people. According to DSC, this type of system would cost around $48,000.

Now let’s look at the same parameters with a hosted mass notification system. DSC charges a one-time setup fee of $250. The fee includes a toll-free number to record messages, reporting features and a Web interface for creating and managing phone number lists. It costs $25 a month to keep the account active five days a week, 16 hours a day. Or $50 to keep it active 24/7. When you actually use the service, DSC charges 15 cents for each phone number (includes three attempts) plus the cost of the call. So with the hosted system, the price varies greatly depending on how much you use the system, but could cost as little as around $1,200 a year if only used once and only used to make local calls.

AutoDialerPlus specializes in autodialing software. It has several software packages for different-sized companies with different autodialing needs.

At the low end, there’s a simple autodialer called Cheetah. You upload a list of phone numbers, press dial and it begins dialing one number at a time. If someone (or something) answers, then the call is connected to a live agent. If Cheetah encounters a busy signal or no answer, it moves on to the next number. The on-screen interface allows the operator to see information about the call and read any associated scripts. There’s also an option to play a recorded message if you reach an answering machine. Another nice feature is the ability to check uploaded phone lists against the National Do Not Call Registry. Cheetah costs $299 and works with only one phone line.

On the higher end is a software package called Piranha. Piranha is a predictive dialer for up to 24 different agents and phone lines. As a predictive dialer, it maximizes the amount of time that live agents are talking. This software includes some other features that you find with other high-end autodialing software:

  • Call recording, both by agents and by supervisors
  • Call conferencing and transfers
  • Callback scheduling
  • “Whisper” coaching, where a supervisor can listen in on a call and train the operator in real time
  • Built-in do not call “scrubbing,” where uploaded phone lists are purged of numbers that appear on the National Do Not Call Registry
  • Faster connections to agents to avoid the telltale telemarketer’s lag

The Piranha system starts at $1,500 for the basic software and $3,600 for an eight-line predictive dialer operated by two agents. The system maxes out at 72 phone lines being operated by 24 agents and costs close to $40,000.

For more information on autodialers and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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