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Navigating the laws governing customer service call centers

Legal News Reporter

Published: January 16, 2014

In today’s Internet world many people have become accustomed to getting answers right away, a demand which a customer service call center can often fulfill. But call centers do not operate in a void and must follow the law when servicing needs or reaching out to sell items. Legal experts say when this does not happen these business tools can be hazardous to a company’s health.

“Whether a company handles its own customer service or hires an outside call center, there are three basic ways to measure impact,” said BakerHostetler Partner Craig Hoffman. “Does the center accomplish what it is supposed to do in a reliable way, is it a cost effective solution and does it work to boost customer confidence without creating legal liability?”

The liability component varies depending on the mission of the call center, said Hoffman, who is located in the firm’s Cincinnati office.

“If the center is taking an order for a product and dealing with sensitive payment information, there is a potential to run afoul of the regulations governing credit card data for instance,” said Hoffman.

In order to protect themselves Hoffman said call centers generally record telephone transactions. Whether the customer must agree to the recording depends upon the state.

Hoffman said Ohio has one-party consent, meaning that at least one person involved in the conversation must give permission for it to be recorded, including the person doing the recording. However if the conversations involve people located in more than one state it is prudent to get the approval from all parties involved since not all states are governed by one-party consent.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office lists a set of laws and guidelines on its website that inform sellers making calls to consumers what laws they must adhere to such as Ohio’s Telephone Solicitation Sales Act, the Federal Trade Commission’s Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, including their ‘do not call’ provisions.

According to the rules posted on the site, to comply with the state’s Telephone Solicitation Sales Act some telemarketing businesses operating inside and outside Ohio must register with the Ohio Attorney General and post a bond before soliciting Ohio consumers.

In addition, the attorney general’s office forbids telephone solicitors from blocking their phone numbers from coming up on Caller ID. Solicitors are required to state their names, the company name, purpose of the call and the goods or services being offered within the first 60 seconds.

If a sale or agreement is made during the call, DeWine’s office states that the solicitor cannot request payment before verbally providing the consumer with key information such as the company’s street address and phone number, total cost of the goods or services, restrictions, limitations or conditions, refund/cancellation policies as well as making the person aware of his or her right to have the telemarketer obtain a signed written confirmation or provide a 7-day notice of cancellation.

In cases where prize promotions are involved, the attorney general requires the company to provide at least 14 days notice to his office before making the call and the consumer must receive a description of the prize, terms and conditions.

Although Ohio does not have a separate ‘do not call’ law, the attorney general’s website advises companies soliciting via phone that they must comply with the restrictions of the Federal Trade Commission’s Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 requiring businesses to access the National Do Not Call Registry and remove registered numbers from their calling lists. Businesses must also maintain internal ‘do not call’ lists to track requests made by consumers upon receipt of a call. Companies that violate the provisions risk thousands of dollars in damages.

With so many different guidelines in place, some experts say more call centers are trying to eliminate potential problems by purchasing software designed to help reduce human error.

“The healthcare, insurance, mortgage and financial services industries have major compliance requirements,” said Patrick Hall, chief marketing officer at Columbus-based Uptivity Inc., which provides software to the customer service industry.

“Our software allows a company to decide what to record and what not to record,” said Hall. “For example, it can block recording of calls made to states with two-party recording laws, or restrict playback on portions of recordings that contain sensitive credit card information.”

Some of the other options include priority-based archiving to allow a business to decide which recordings to store short term and which to archive indefinitely. There is also synchronized desktop recording to idenitfy workflow issues in an effort “to improve call-handling times, customer satisfaction and first-call resolution.”

Hall said the company’s phonetics-based speech analytics solution locates key words and phrases contained within call recordings, “identifying opportunities to leverage business intelligence, reduce risk and improve operational efficiencies.

“Our software enables companies to see where the issues are and head them off at the pass through formalized programs and process management,” said Hall.