The Impact of Call Blocking on Contact Rates
PacificEast has had many questions in the last few months about call connection rates, high rates of ring-no-answer calls and tritones back from apparently active phone numbers. The following article walks through the history and causes of call blocking and highlights why recent small changes to regulations have created such a problem for organizations reaching out to their customers and members by phone.
Imagine a future where a bad Yelp review controls traffic lights, making it difficult—if not impossible—to get to a bad restaurant. Absurd? Yes, but substitute the act of making a phone call for the act of driving a car to the restaurant in this example and it’s not silly at all. In fact, it’s what is currently happening. If your organization engages with consumers, you’re already feeling the impact of this even if you don’t know why. This is a complex problem so it’s important to walk step by step through what is happening and how you might solve it.
For many years phone companies have been allowed to block calls they believed “highly likely to be illegitimate.” However, until July of 2019, that mechanism was always left to the consumer to pro- actively choose to turn on. This choice to turn on is referred to as an “opt-in.” But in July of 2019, the FCC granted phone companies clearance to block calls proactively unless the consumer had opted-out of the call blocking program (An “opt-out” is when the consumer must choose to turn something off that has been automatically turned on for them.) This transition from opt-in to opt-out seems like a small thing but the impact has been far reaching. While the change was well-intentioned, it has not turned out well in practice for those performing consumer engagement. If a phone number is being used by an offshore scam artist who is “leasing” a US phone number in an attempt to disguise scam calls, allowing phone companies to “drop” those calls is positive. Consumers would receive fewer junk or scam calls. Consumers generally do want this capability. However, opting out from receiving illegitimate calls assumes that some piece of technology somewhere in the process knows how to correctly differentiate a good call from a bad call. In the current state of the system, this ability to differentiate good from bad is not very well developed. The FCC, in their declaration, noted this was a risk but decided to move forward anyway.
When the FCC made the rule change it should have better defined exactly what an undesirable call is and, more importantly, what calls would not meet that criteria. This had always been somewhat of a problem since the phone companies have had to make these judgements for years due to opt-in call blocking. However, having now forcibly opted-in all consumers to the service, the skyrocketing counts of blocked calls is exposing just how poorly the phone companies are at differentiating good and bad calls. To mitigate their self-professed lack of experience at making such decisions (or perhaps it was a choice to delegate liability for making the wrong decision) the phone companies decided to outsource this decision-making responsibility to third parties. Some of these third parties do a passable job judging an undesirable call, but many do not. In fact, some services even use crowd sourced information (crowd sourcing is essentially a way for the general public to provide their free and unverified input on a topic or reviews on a business). This brings us full circle to our earlier analogy to Yelp. To clarify and avoid lawsuits, let me be clear that the phone companies are not using Yelp. They’re using companies which you’ve probably never heard of. But as with Yelp or any platform that includes crowd-sourced data, the risk exists that all members of “the crowd” may not operate in the interests of truth.
The problem with this switch to opt-out for call blocking isn’t that it was ill intentioned. While the “pros” may have been well considered by policy makers, they didn’t spend much, if any, time considering or trying to proactively prevent the “cons.” The fact is that callers can be judged guilty of making an undesirable call even before they know they’re on trial. We’re in favor of pulling the plug on bad actors bent on their continual onslaught of—annoying at best and criminal at worst—phone calls. Odds are you’ve received at least one of these calls while you’ve been reading this. But how would you feel if your doctor is trying to call you and can’t get through because the third party hired as judge and jury decided your doctor’s phone number was making too many calls or had once been complained about on a public website? Or what if your favorite non-profit charity is calling for their annual pledge drive and your telephone company never connected the call to you because someone once complained about the phone number from which your charity is making the call—even if it wasn’t the charity’s number at the time of that complaint? Your charity won’t get through to you or anyone else from that phone number, at least not for a while. The same problem could exist for your pharmacy calling to remind you a prescription is ready, your local utility calling with a reminder your bill is due, or your child’s school calling to let you know the school lost power and your child is waiting to be picked up.
The third parties making these decisions for the phone companies aren’t making a personal judgment about the caller. On the contrary, it’s very impersonal. Most of them don’t know who is actually using the phone number. They only know their algorithm indicates that a particular phone number is acting— or has acted in the past—the way they believe a “bad” caller would act. If the algorithm says the call is likely bad, the phone company doesn’t connect the call. It’s not personal—it’s an algorithm. It’s not about who is calling; it’s about the phone number they’re using to make the call. It’s also important to note that the reason the algorithm doesn’t work very well is that the factors it uses to determine a call is bad are largely the same for both illegal robo-callers as they are for legitimate callers. The algorithm can’t measure intent to defraud. In the end, the choice given to consumers to opt in or out, requires consumers to, as they say, “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Consumers can only choose to receive calls or block calls from certain calling scenarios that include both good callers and bad callers.
If you’re the person not receiving the call from the pharmacy, non-profit charity, or school, this apparent overstep of power is frustrating or even potentially dangerous. However, what if you are the pharmacy, non-profit charity, or school? If your call completion rates have dropped through the floor in the last few months, this new opt-out call-dropping policy is likely the cause.
Diagram 1 below demonstrates the problem. Prior to the FCC’s rule change, your phone company— referred to as the “originating carrier” when it is making a call—simply routed your call to the phone company responsible for the number you are calling—called the “terminating carrier.” The process is largely the same now, except that the central decision about whether to block certain types of calls is defaulted to “yes”. How a blocked or dropped call is handled depends on the terminating carrier. Some may send the call to the called party’s voice mail. Some may connect the call but label it as “Spam Likely” or “Telemarketer” or “Fraud Risk.” Some drop the call without alerting the called party at all. To the caller or the caller’s telephone/dialer software, these calls could generate a tri-tone message which the dialer would likely interpret as a disconnected number. They could also be flagged as RNA (“ring, no answer”,) meaning the called party didn’t answer. If you’ve recently noticed your disconnected or RNA rates jumping you are likely seeing the impact of this new call-blocking rule.
Another detail you will notice in Diagram 1 is that there are two types of call blocking determination services; one used by the telephone companies themselves (labeled call scoring services) and a different set of services that run on mobile phones (labeled on-device call blocking apps). To get a call to connect callers must run the gauntlet first through the services phone companies use to determine if a number should be blocked, then through the services that consumers can download to their mobile phones that provide another potential gating layer.
Diagram 1. Call Blocking Ecosystem
What can be done?
Lest you feel hopeless about this problem, there are several things you can do. The first step is to educate yourself on this problem—this article should help—and look for tool providers that can help work through and around this problem. Sadly, the days where every number you dialed is routed all the way to the called party every time are likely gone. From now on, most callers will need to take a few extra steps that weren’t previously necessary and won’t always seem fair or reasonable. But this is a great example for legitimate callers where focused action can mitigate the bulk of the problem.
Here are our recommendations for a high-level response plan:
Determine the extent of the problem. If your phone appending and hygiene processes haven’t changed recently but your RNA and disconnect rates have suddenly jumped up, the problem is likely not the phone numbers you’re calling but the outbound numbers you are calling them from.
Monitor, Monitor, Monitor. Monitor the problem so you know if it’s getting better or
worse. Sign up for a service (see several options below) that continually checks your outbound dialing numbers to see if and when they become “hot.” A “hot” number means calls made from this number have a high chance of being blocked. There are many reasons a number can become hot, however, so don’t assume a number that hasn’t been used in a while is going to work for you when you need it. Monitor all of your numbers and monitor them often. Most of these services check your numbers daily but if you’re making a lot of calls, you may want to make sure you can monitor them daily, or at least some of them more often.
Check in with your T1 vendor. The terminating carrier’s perception of your originating carrier can be a contributing factor in their decision to block calls. You may need to consider switching originating carriers to improve the reputation assigned to your outbound numbers. Cheap T1 vendors may be costing you in the long run if the calls you make through them have a higher chance of being blocked or dropped.
Get your numbers whitelisted. Whitelisting means proactively registering your outbound dialing numbers on lists used by third-party call blocking services. Theoretically, the whitelists act as an exception list that the call blocking services should use to allow legitimate numbers through to the called party. We have included a list of these in the resources section below.
Don’t believe service providers that sell you expensive Caller-ID updating solutions. Don’t waste money on services that tell you that keeping your Caller-ID’s up to date will solve this problem. First, your Caller-ID values are probably already up to date, especially if you don’t change them often. Second, the call blocking mechanisms likely aren’t using the Caller-ID value anyway, but rather are using the calling number itself. PacificEast sells Caller-ID lookup and hosting services so we would stand to make money selling such a service too. We’ve seen some of our competitors offer this service to solve the call-blocking problem and while having an updated, current Caller-ID is always a good idea, we don’t believe it will help solve this problem.
Educate your constituents. Make sure anyone you normally call and who has expressed an interest in receiving your calls in the past—whether members, patients, customers, or constituents—knows that the apps on their phones they intended to use to block illegitimate calls may also be preventing legitimate calls. Consumers who use phone apps like Nomorobo, Robokiller and TrueCaller may not be aware that many of these services are caller-agnostic and are blocking calls they want as well as calls they don’t want. We’ve all become used to checking spam folders for emails that you actually wanted to receive. Sadly, consumers now need to
check their phone’s spam folder as well.
Rumor has it that the FCC is collaborating with phone companies to establish a particular tri-tone signal that will tell callers the call they are making has been blocked by the terminating carrier. This will enable legitimate callers to better detect if the numbers they are calling are being blocked or if there is some other issue. We believe establishing a tri-tone specifically for blocked calls, while not solving the problem, will at least allow callers to know when it’s happening.
PacificEast has spoken to many of our customers in the non-profit and healthcare sectors and heard the frustration about this problem. We join in their frustration that they are paying the price when the intended victims were supposed to be true robocallers—organizations that use illegal autodialing and pre- recorded messages in an attempt to defraud or trick consumers. As is frequently the case, federal regulators are late to the game and in their rush build rules that are not very effective in curbing bad behavior while also harming legitimate organizations trying to play by the rules. The good news is that resources for legitimate callers are catching up. We believe there is light at the end of the call-blocking tunnel—but you’ll need to bring your shovel and work hard to clear out the last yards of dirt still in the way.
Follow these links and instructions to whitelist your outbound calling numbers.
• HIYA: Select the option: Change or Remove the Caller-ID or Spam rating of a number.
• TNSI: Select the options: “My Business or Enterprise Phone Number”, then “My business make legitimate calls…”, and hit <Next>.
• Nomorobo: Note that you must have a Nomorobo account to be able to unblock a number
• Free Caller Registry
Here are the Top 3 Monitoring Services we have found.
TrustCall from Call Compliance Center – Provides monitoring services via a portal but also provides API access. While TrustCall doesn’t cover all the call blocking services, it covers the most common services that support the largest terminating carriers and appears to be the most affordable service of the three options. Call Compliance Center has been in operation for many years assisting with other call compliance challenges like TCPA compliance with Do Not Call lists. This company offers professional service engagements to provide guidance and advice especially early in the process and is our recommendation for enterprise callers because of their pricing and API access.
Caller ID Reputation – A newcomer specifically built to monitor outbound dialing numbers. During our last review of this service we found it was focused on helping callers monitor the on-device call-blocking services but didn’t provide the same level of monitoring for the services used primarily by the phone companies. It does provide an API for some services but doesn’t appear to provide a professional service option to help coach you through the initial setup phase.
Number Sentry – Another fairly new company built specifically to monitor outbound dialing numbers. NumberSentry monitors the widest range of call-blocking services but appears to have less flexibility on pricing for larger call centers nor does it offer any API access. It offers some limited professional services to help you get setup.
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