Last night's Despatches
programme on Channel 4 examined bad practice at 2
outsourced call centres which focus on the charity
The media in The UK seems obsessed with bashing call
centres but on this occasion, they actually have a
pretty fair point. That's not to say that
the operations they focussed on were necessarily bad
operators. The tv show has clearly picked out
a relatively small number of issues. We should
therefore not to look to sensationalise in the way
Channel 4 did but there are issues which clearly
need addressing in charity fundraising as a whole.
That's not to say that the operations they focussed on were necessarily bad operators. The tv show has clearly picked out a relatively small number of issues. We should therefore not to look to sensationalise in the way Channel 4 did but there are issues which clearly need addressing in charity fundraising as a whole.
For those of you who didn't watch the show, the allegations (or the facts to be more precise) were than 2 companies (NTT & Pell and Bales) engaged in a number of activities including harassing people who didn't wish to donate and failing to inform the call recipients that the caller was being paid to make the calls at the correct time. There were some other minor issues raised but to be honest, these highlighted the programme makers lack of commercial knowledge more than wrong-doing at the call centres.
As someone who has audited huge numbers of outsourced telemarketing operations, I wasn't surprised or shocked that these activities were going on in the charity sector. These were exactly the same issues we saw 10 years ago in other sectors which use telemarketing extensively such as financial services, utilities and telecommunications companies. However, unlike these sectors, the majority of the charity sector has simply failed to adopt any form of compliance in relation to their telemarketing activity. As a client of mine in the financial services sector told me a few weeks ago, they have 3 priorities in their telemarketing; compliance, compliance and compliance. The issues raised in the programme would have been quite easy to spot. These were basic compliance issues which were widespread across the call centres. Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital have come out today and publicly apologised for the bad practice but had they adopted a fairly basic compliance programme, these issues would have been spotted a long time ago.
In terms of the specific allegations made, I believe them to be quite serious. The most serious of which seems to be the harassing of people who don't wish to donate. The call centre had effectively categorised the people who didn't wish to donate into soft and hard refusals. The soft refusals were the people who didn't wish to donate but were quite polite. The hard refusals were the people who said they felt would never donate. The soft refusals were then called back at a later date and then continually called back until they cracked. The reason they do this is that these call centres buy lifestyle survey data or profiled data which is relatively expensive and so they want to maximise the use of the data. The call centres must also believe that they have a high likelihood of receiving a donation from these people on the subsequent calls. Do the people who run these operations honestly believe that this is ethical? I certainly don't and it is exactly this kind of bad practice which gives the honest telemarketing industry a bad name. In the charity sector, it is even worse because the people who are likely to be more polite i.e. the soft refusals are elderly people. It is also elderly people who are more likely to donate to charities. 11 years ago, I was asked to audit an outsourced operation conducting telemarketing calls for a B2C phone provider. There had been a lot of complaints of mis-selling and my job was to find out why. It became very clear that the vast majority of the problems involved selling to people over 70. Within 2 hours of my audit, I told the client that we should simply stop calling people over 70 and even consider not calling anyone over 65. Of course, some 65 year olds, 70 years and even 80 year old people are completely capable of dealing with a telemarketer but there has to be a line drawn. With this particular operation, we implemented a number of measures and reduced complaints by over 90% and most of this was due to the change in demographics we were calling. Obviously, harassment doesn't just impact on the elderly. For example, my wife is always very polite to telemarketers (possibly because her husband makes a living out of the industry) and she receives a lot of call backs from companies to which she has previously said that she wasn't interested. I personally believe that there should be legislation to stop this. In the case of charities (who always claim that they have strong brands to protect), they should have extensive time limits for calling back 'refusals' in order to protect their brand. However, many companies involved in industries such as PPI reclaim and accident claims really don't care about their brands. In order to protect the legitimate telemarketing industry, there should be legislation to stop repeatedly calling people in the same manner as we have for silent calls.
The other big issue raised related to informing the call recipient that they were receiving money to conduct these calls. The callers were often only informing the call recipient of this once they had donated. Now, I'm not bothered about the issue of people (or outsourced call centres) being paid to make telemarketing calls for charities. I'm more bothered about heads of charities receiving six figure salaries than telemarketers earning '7 per hour. However, I do believe that it is right to present all relevant information prior to a sale (or in this case a donation) being made. Yes, a few people might be put off by this but it's quite simply the right thing to do. If you were selling mobile phones through telemarketing, you wouldn't inform them of the cost of the handset after you've taken the payment details, so why should you do something similar in fundraising? The issue of companies being used to collect payment isn't new. Back in 1994, I was working with Merit Direct (now SITEL) in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The TV cameras were outside our offices on Timothy's Bridge Road because it had emerged that the donation calls we received cost the charity over '2 per call. The media were outraged that a private company was being used to collect this money. In reality, this was a bit na've. Did they really believe that hoards of volunteers sat on phones to receive these calls? I'm sure they didn't but the media has always felt they could raise the nation's collective blood pressure by bashing the call centre industry. The moral of this story is not that charities shouldn't use outsourced call centres. The moral of the story is that charities should act more like other industries and be commercially savvy. Non-charity clients had negotiated far less for comparable length calls. The moral of the current day story is exactly the same. Charities should act far more like non-charities in their marketing efforts. The energy sector in The UK came in for a lot of criticism in past years for their sales process and let's not forget that this wasn't just call centres. Door-to-door sales teams were equally as unethical in their sales approaches as the telemarketing teams. They replaced their strategies with a more ethical sales approach where compliance was as important as customer acquisition. We should also not forget that charity fundraisers are also unethical outside of the telephone. Many of the door-to-door fundraisers or those who collect along Oxford Street adopt overly-aggressive techniques which give the wider industry a bad name. This should therefore be recognised as a charity sector problem as opposed to a call centre problem.
The sad part of this is that the charities will undoubtedly see a drop off in donations. I understand that many have already cancelled their agreements with these call centres and rightly so. It is quite clear that these issues were systematic within the operation. This won't be the end of outsourced fundraising but we are likely to see a very rapid slow-down and hopefully, we will see charities start up again in a few months when they have adopted a more compliance led approach.
This article was written by Rob O'Malley, a leading call centre outsourcing expert. His phone number is 077400 96598 and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org