“Is This The Party To Whom I Am Speaking…?”

Those who grew up watching Lily Tomlin do her “Ernestine” character — the loopy-yet-imperious telephone operator — will remember her signature line, delivered when she patches into a phone line and she attempts to confirm that she’s connected to the correct person: “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” The comedy lies in that — whomever answers the call — most definitely*is* the party to whom she’s speaking.

A solid stab a due diligence — just a little too open-ended.

Nowadays, corporations are all too sensitive to the fact that astute measures must be taken to ascertain that the person on the line really *is* the person who should be listening to their automated message or outbound IVR — especially when it comes to sensitive, confidential matters such as debt collection, medical issues, school district issues, insurance companies and legal firm matters – areas in which consumers have the expectation of certain measures of privacy.

I’ve discussed in past blogs how I’ve had to take on the sometimes somber, somewhat onerous task of voicing automated notices which dial people and let them know that they’ve fallen behind in their credit card payments, mortgage, etc. My whole “character” in my mind — which I try to project during the call — is one of a helpful friend who tries to persuade the recipient that this is just going to get worse….unless they take matters in hand now.

As to the content, the general rules of debt collection — as it relates to privacy – prohibits the message from actually mentioning a debt — the topic is almost always along the lines of a “serious matter which needs to be discussed further.” The company must identify themselves (but are not required to mention they’re a debt collector), and the name of the collection agency need only be revealed until asked, during a subsequent live call. They can only contact the party once, unless they feel information about the debtor has changed, and they can’t leave information about a debt on a third-party’s answering machine or voice mail.

But this raises the question — and gets back to Ms. Ernestine’s dizzy attempt to made sure she’s talking to the right person: how do you know *who* has answered the phone? What measures should be taken to make sure that the cleaning lady hasn’t picked up the phone to find out that the owner of the house needs to call the caller back right away due to an “important matter”? Or that you’ve picked up the phone of the person you’ve just started dating only to learn via automated message that he/she has some high-spectrum farm-animal-grade Fungicide to pick up at the pharmacy?

I voiced an automated survey system which follows up on patients with chronic COPD and how they are tolerating their treatment.  There was a certain measure taken to establish that: “This is a call for (XXX)….are you (XXX)? if so, press 1. If not, press 2. ” If 2 is pressed, I will come back on and say something along the lines of: “If (XXX) is available to come to the phone and take the survey, press 1. If (XXX) is unavailable to take the survey, press 2.” If 1 is pressed, 60 go by to wait for (XXX) to make it to the phone. If that doesn’t happen, the survey attempt is aborted and re-tried at another time.

It seems to be a reasonable effort made to try to make sure the message doesn’t fall on the wrong ears — but, of course, is at the mercy of people’s honesty and integrity. In the context of medical issues, HIPPA regulations in the US are very stringent and detailed about the storage and dissemination of medical information. Banks will ask you to say or input a pin number to check your balance over telephone banking — would introducing a pin number to verify identities in other realms ensure greater confidentiality? Or just introduce a whole other level of complication, especially when we’re talking about seniors — same might go for voice fingerprint software, which has a high fail rate among seniors, due to volume issues, changes in voice, or general limitations in patience.

The implications — legal and moral — are vast, if reasonable measures aren’t taken to restrict the information of an automated call to the intended recipient — imagine your spouse receiving a call about an MRI which has been scheduled for you — and you would rather not reveal that information to him/her until the results were known to be anything of concern. Your information is and should be just that – *your* information, and the dissemination of same is one which needs to be handled with delicacy and security, even at the expense of the ease and speed with which information can be gathered/dispersed.

This next week marks the one year “Bloggiversary” of the Voicegal blog — for an entire year, I’ve been writing about issues of telephony, automation, and my general experiences as a professional telephone voice — with me branching most recently in topics of interest to voice-over professionals at large. As well as being incredibly therapeutic for me, the exercise of writing on a regimented schedule has been incredibly rewarding for me — thanks to all who read it regularly, and for as long as the topics continue to flow freely, I’ll be happy to write about them!

Thanks sincerely for reading!

Next week: I’ll explore the implications — positive and negative — of “The Diva”!

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