Opinion by Bart Perkins

Have you aggravated a telemarketer today?

Roger Anderson’s Jolly Roger Telephone Co. offers sweet revenge against all those annoying callers

Opinion by Bart Perkins

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Would you rather have a root canal or talk to yet another irritating telemarketer? Do you think that Rachel from Cardholder Services should be on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List? Has a telemarketer ever caused you to say *#$@! in front of your children?

Auto-dialers, robo-callers and telemarketers are becoming more annoying and aggressive in their efforts to invade your privacy and separate you from your money. In fiscal year 2015, this national problem resulted in more than 175,000 complaints about robo-calls per month to the FTC. Telemarketing is often illegal as well as irritating; a large percentage of telemarketers violate various U.S. laws, including ignoring the national Do Not Call Registry.

Enough, already! I rarely support specific companies in this column, but anyone who can help win the battle against the telemarketing scourge deserves some time in the limelight. The Jolly Roger Telephone Co. (JRTC) is one of the leaders in this ever-expanding fight.

Roger Anderson, JRTC’s CEO, was being bombarded daily by multiple telemarketers. During one call, he handed the telephone to his young son, wondering how much of the telemarketer’s time the boy could waste. When the telemarketer hung up, his son looked very unhappy and complained that the man had called him a name and used a bad word.

Anderson, who happens to be a consultant who works on phone systems, realized that call-blocking services are only partially effective because telemarketers frequently display a false number (including the victim’s number) as the Caller ID. Anderson created a front end to his telephone that required a human caller to perform a simple task that is difficult for auto-dialers. Although this did not eliminate human telemarketers, it significantly reduced the number of calls that rang through to his phone. Unfortunately, when an auto-dialed call is not answered, it is redialed sometime later. Anderson’s personal irritation was reduced, but the larger problem was not solved.

Next, he created JRTC to waste telemarketers’ time. When telemarketers talk without making a sale, two goals are accomplished: The telemarketer is not making money, and other people are not being pestered.

The JRTC allows anyone to use a bot that engages a telemarketer in a pleasant but somewhat nonsensical conversation, with the goal of extending the call length. The bot combines serious-sounding questions, distracting observations and repeated requests to start over. One cable company’s telemarketer believed he was making a great sale when the bot agreed to sign up for virtually every service offered. When the call was transferred to account verification to collect credit card information, the bot convinced the supervisor to start over. That call established JRTC’s current record of 22 minutes. Hooray for the good guys! (When using the service, mute your phone after transferring the call to the JRTC bot, or you may burst out laughing and give the game away!)

JRTC plans to expand its offerings, starting with an enhanced voicemail service that will take messages from selected auto-dialed calls (your child’s school, your pharmacy, etc.) Other auto-dialers will be transferred to the friendly JRTC bot. Calls from real people will be passed through to your phone. Subscribers will be provided regular reports on things such as the number of auto-dialed calls blocked, the amount of telemarketer time wasted and the length of the longest call.

As a startup, JRTC needs assistance from businesses and individuals. You can help in several ways:

  • Suggest new conversation scripts. Current bot scripts are effective but limited. The JRTC bot relies on robust noise/silence detection to trigger the next phase of the conversation. Until the JRTC can afford an AI engine to direct the conversation, the bot is limited to predefined scripts. New engaging dialogues will make the bot more effective.
  • Provide diverse voices for scripts. Currently, the JRTC bot has a relatively undistinguished American male voice. A variety of male and female voices with accents from different parts of the world (including non-native speakers) would make the bot more believable.
  • Improve the JRTC website. Anderson has a lot of programming expertise but little Web design experience. The website is functional but needs improvements, including a better layout and a mobile-friendly version. Organic site traffic could be increased by additional humorous content; JRTC wants help animating previously recorded conversations. Finally, the website needs higher search engine rankings.
  • Optimize cellphone capabilities. Cellphones present different challenges than landlines. Anderson is evaluating several approaches, but all require changes to iOS or Android. Apple and Google don’t allow an app to control the speaker and microphone during an active phone call, so it’s not possible to let the bot (or any app) take over a current conversation, without supporting a “no hold conference button.” Other technical solutions would be appreciated.
  • Spread the word. Publicize JRTC. Share the best bot conversations with everyone you know. When JRTC’s leader board is unveiled, check to see how many minutes of telemarketer time are wasted by specific conversations.
  • Provide feedback as JRTC services evolve. All new systems require improvements. As JRTC becomes more mature, users’ suggestions will be critical to improving the bot’s success.

JRTC provides a valuable service that helps protect those who are overly trusting, uninformed or terminally busy. It is providing technology tools to level the playing field in the battle between telemarketers and their victims. Provide support for this worthy effort in any way you can. Help from some heavy hitters could really accelerate rollout:

  • Microsoft – Allocate resources to JRTC’s bot development. Protect your customers from fake “Windows Support” representatives attempting to take over customers’ computers for nefarious purposes.
  • MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, etc. – Create student projects to help supply the AI expertise that JRTC needs.
  • Hollywood and Broadway – Help write a wide variety of scripts, and encourage actors to lend their talents.

Technology has made telemarketing both easy and profitable. Now it’s time for the IT community to help protect people who are duped by these predators. Take a stand against Rachel from Cardholder Services and her irritating compatriots. Join the battle to fight these detested bandits! If we band together, we can aggravate the telemarketers as much or more than they aggravate us!

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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