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A Customer Service Catch 22

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just do what your customers expect of you, and if you did, you’d be rewarded with high customer satisfaction scores and kudos from your boss (and maybe even a bonus)? When it comes to customer communications, it is just not that easy.

A recent survey of 1,000 American consumers commissioned by Varolii found that if you do what the customer expects, you will make the vast majority of them happy, but as we head into 2014 is that enough? The research also shows a disparity between what consumers believe companies can do and regulations restricting companies’ outreach to consumers.

More than 75 percent of consumers said they find automated messages from companies are extremely helpful and welcome. Beyond just welcome, a majority of respondents (70 percent) also believe these communications could have helped them avoid issues in the past, such as bank account overdrafts, late payment fees or forgetting to take a medication.

And, while the study found that nearly eight out of 10 respondents trust the judgment of the companies they do business with to know how and when to contact them, federal and state regulations may disagree. For example, the survey found that more than 80 percent of your customers think that if they’ve given you their mobile phone number, they’ve consented to getting communications from you at that number. Unfortunately, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991, thinks otherwise.

If you are going to using any form of assistive technology (like a predictive dialer, interactive voice message or system-generated SMS text message) to reach customers on their mobile, the TCPA requires you to have either the customer’s prior express consent for informational communications or their prior written consent for marketing communications. Running afoul of either of these can cost you – consumers can sue you under the TCPA for $500 to $1500 per violation, and if one customer sues, the class action lawyers will try to find many more so they can make a federal case out of it.

The meaning of prior written consent seems pretty obvious, and just in case there is any confusion, the FCC, who enforces the TCPA, spelled it out when they modified the rules last year, effective October 16, 2013:

“The term prior express written consent means an agreement, in writing, bearing the signature of the person called that clearly authorizes the seller to deliver or cause to be delivered to the person called advertisements or telemarketing messages using an automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice, and the telephone number to which the signatory authorizes such advertisements or telemarketing messages to be delivered.”

It’s less certain what is meant by prior express consent. The FCC tried to clarify it in 2008 when they declared that “…autodialed and prerecorded message calls to wireless numbers that are provided by the called party to a creditor in connection with an existing debt are permissible as calls made with the ‘prior express consent’ of the called party.”

That’s great if you are a creditor, and your calling about the customer’s debt. But what about airlines, retailers, healthcare providers and a host of other industries who want to communicate about something other than a past due bill? And, what happens when more than half of their customers have given companies a mobile phone as their only point of contact?

It’s clear that consumers want and see value in communications from the organizations with which they do business. However, federal and state regulations add a layer of complication to hitting send on a message.

This doesn’t mean we should stop reaching out to customers or ignore the regulations. It just means that balancing compliance and customer satisfaction is a little more challenging. Companies must find the right blend of customer outreach that gets the right information to customers at the right time while still adhering to various rules.

So, where do you start? Companies should ask for consent at the beginning of a new customer relationship – this honeymoon period will make it easier to get a response. Also, don’t get consent once and forget about it. Companies should verify numbers and consent periodically when customers call them and maintain a clear record of consent. With a smart approach to gaining consent, companies can make their customers happy and stay within the bounds of compliance.