The Great Answering Machine Debate

May, 2011

Tape-based answering machines have long been displaced by digital technology, rendering many answering machine detection (AMD) algorithms unreliable at best. But enthusiasm for the use of AMD remains strong. Why?

Once upon a time, some clever guy figured out that if you listened for tape hiss on an answering machine, you could quickly deduce that a live person was not present and hang up the call. Call center vendors and users embraced the idea enthusiastically. The use of answering machine detection (AMD) became widespread, especially in the US, and call center vendors made a lot of money from selling it.

Fast forward into the 21st century. Tape-based answering machines have long been displaced by digital technology where messages played to callers are indistinguishable from live voice. But enthusiasm for the use of AMD remains strong even though some leading users, like LBM in the UK, have realised that the costs outweigh the benefits. Imagine, for example, that you are a user, plagued with the silence at the start of a call that use of AMD always entails. How would you react? Well, consumers used to outbound calls tend to either

  1. hang up, or
  2. when an agent deigns to come on the phone to talk to them, give a pretty lukewarm reaction.

Nothing surprising in this and good reasons just to turn off answering machine detection.

In the past few years, the UK regulator Ofcom belatedly realised that use of AMD leads to ‘false positives’ as dialers hang up on consumers, mistaking them for answering machines. After much consultation and a lot of arm waving by industry, Ofcom finally decided to continue to allow AMD to be used, even though the extent of false positives in virtually all cases swamps the 3% allowance for abandoned calls. A bad day for consumers, a great day for some dialer vendors who get to sell more kit – but a very bad day for

  1. Ofcom, who should know better and
  2. industry, who continue to deploy technology that is in not in their own best interests.

Perhaps the highlight (or lowlight!) of this whole sorry episode was the view of Ofcom that with improvements in AMD technology, levels of false positives would fall in future. This is just not possible, since the issue has nothing to do with technology but how people answer the phone.

We expect Ofcom to rethink in due course. But give them credit – at least they have recognised the problem of false positives. We know of no other regulator in the world who even knows that such things exist.

But if you are a call center manager then take heart. Ignore the debate. Turn off AMD and give your customers a better experience by having an agent available to talk to them when they answer the phone. And don’t be surprised if your bottom line gets better as a result.

Oh, and if you were wondering – yes, we do supply AMD technology (and at no cost) if you absolutely insist. But before you choose it, read this blog post again or talk to us.

See also our previous blog post on answering machine detection (May 2010)

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