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It's good to talk - when the PC does the dialling

Surveycraft, Bellview and Quancept QTS, November 1995

Tim Macer on the technocrats' quest for the CATI system that will give interviews no let-up

When giving courses on CATI systems, a frequent question I am asked, when we get to the part dealing with telephone numbers, is "can't we get the computer to dial the number - isn't there something we can plug in?". To a new user, this seems simple and obvious. Automated solutions do exist, but the cost can be staggering, for the solution is not so simple.

There are two different methods you can use: autodialling and predictive dialling (PD). There are also different ways of implementing them - distributed to each workstation, or centralised, which involves transferring the call to the interviewer and requires a telephone switch (or PABX) behind all the interviewers lines. This adds somewhat to the cost over ranks of simple direct lines.

Autodialling waits until an interviewer is free. It then dials a number and hands it on to the interviewer. Predictive dialling monitors the pattern of calls, successful or otherwise and the lengths of interviews, then establishes a pattern of "overdialling". Put crudely, if the dialler finds it is taking three calls to get through to someone, and four interviewers come free every minute, it will place three calls every 15 seconds, in anticipation that someone will be able to handle the call. It screens out all the bad numbers, engaged lines, fax machines etc., and only hands over people saying "hello" to the waiting interviewer. If it gets it wrong, it has to hang up on the hapless respondent without as much as a "sorry" - those are the rules! Not surprisingly, we call these "nuisance calls". Predictive systems learn as they go, constantly changing their strategy to keep nuisance calls to an absolute minimum.

Marc van Grinsven, Call Centre Manager of Interview Group in the Netherlands has used several CATI systems incorporating auto- and predictive dialling. They have recently standardised on Surveycraft from SPSS, and are currently working on linking this to their dialler. "The objective is to make each interviewer have 60 productive minutes in every hour. With manual dialling you will be lucky to achieve 30-35 minutes per hour. You can lift this by about 25% by using autodialling, which gives you 40-42 minutes. But with PD you can get close to around 50 productive minutes in each hour." He added that controlling the nuisance calls is an important factor. "We say that 2-5% is not acceptable, 0.5% is tolerable. I think only close to zero is acceptable. But the EIS dialler is sophisticated because it lets you set this. It lets you focus on the individual agent's strike rate."

Surveycraft does not, strictly speaking, support PD at present. However, it is unusual among the CATI systems for providing autodialling as a standard feature of the software using an inexpensive hardware solution. Tony Hartley, Infocorp's Sales Director, told me "If you are doing a quick and dirty poll, predictive dialling will send productivity through the roof. But with a 30 minute interview, there is very little improvement over autodialling. Autodialling can be performed at a fraction of the cost and should be seen as a viable option in its own right".

Both Julie Clifton (Telephone Services Director) and Suzanne Fox (DP Director) at Taylor Nelson AGB, were enthusiastic about the benefits of their EIS dialler connected to Bellview. Julie Clifton said "We have seen an enormous improvement in the number of interviews we can achieve". Suzanne Fox warned me "We had huge implementation problems, but now we have the bugs ironed out we are very positive about the effects of using the dialler." They told me that, given a choice, their interviewers prefer to work on surveys that use to the dialler, as they feel more productive and generally less stressed at the end of the shift.

Last month saw the launch of Quantime's (now SPSS') new Quantime Telephony System. QTS promises to deliver more interviews per hour to anyone using Quantime's CATI system Quancept than before. I wondered if I had missed something, since Quantime already offered a connection to the highly respected EIS dialler. Quantime's Sales Director, Norman Greenbaum quickly and affably put me right on this point. "Many of our clients found the cost of the EIS dialler too high. The EIS interface has proved successful, but the dialler was principally designed for telesales". So they have developed their own, based on a PC which functions as a dialler, controlled by their own software and connected directly to blocks of telephone lines. The slight catch here is that these must be ISDN trunks. At present, these are expensive in the UK, though less so elsewhere. ISDN offers several advantages such as clear lines, very rapid connections, and an attractive price structure for bulk users. By taking control of the telephony, Quantime is able to bundle in other features too, such as being able to pipe recorded sound bites down the phone to the respondent, and to do full voice capture of open ended texts. Quantime have their own CATI centre staffed with interviewers using the new QTS system who seemed very happy with its operation. Both the predictive dialling and the voice capture of open-ends were considered much better for the interviewer than the old manual alternatives. Less hesitant interviews are better for the respondent too.

Pulse Train, too, is offering a new software solution as an alternative to Bellview's existing links with the ubiquitous EIS dialler. Initially offered as an autodial system, Pulse Train's Deputy Chairman Iain MacKay tells me they are currently developing a PD add-on. "It makes use of a 'fuzzy logic' method which will focus on minimising nuisance calls". He said their aim is for it to be "parameter free" so that it will learn for itself without any need for complex setup or external supervision.

Interestingly, most researchers I spoke to remain deeply sceptial about the benefits of PD, citing the damage nuisance calls will do to already fragile response rates, and the fear of the interviewer treadmill. Early adopters have demonstrated these fears seem to be unfounded. Autodialling is not a problem and PD is certainly not the bogeyman it is made out to be. Now, new software solutions are bringing some interesting second generation improvements and savings over hardware solutions. It is probably safe to predict that interviewers will be dialling less and talking more in the future.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, November 1995, Issue number 354.

© Copyright Market Research Society/Tim Macer 1997. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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