Using Robocalling Responsibly in Your Auto Dealership and Service Center

Automated outbound calls that use a recorded voice (“robocalls”) are part of everyday life today. As we all know, there are “good” robocalls and “bad” robocalls. The good ones remind us of appointments, inform us of school closings and let us know when to pick up our prescriptions. These are the calls we generally “opt in” to receive. The bad ones are well known to everyone with a phone: “Rachel from Cardholder Services,” IRS and bank scams and home security services sales are generally illegal (and certainly annoying).

Illegal robocalls are those that don’t seek “opt in” permission from call recipients, and they indiscriminately call both landlines and cell phones (the latter is against the law without the express written permission of the customer). They’re hard to shut down, however: technology allows the perpetrators, who are often located offshore, to “spoof” legitimate telephone numbers and move on quickly when detected. Enforcement is a bit like playing “whack-a-mole.”

What IS an Auto-Dialer?

Automated telephone dialing systems (“ATDS”) are defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as “equipment which has the capacity to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and to dial such numbers” and “the capacity to dial numbers without human intervention.”

It’s important to make a distinction here: auto-dialers may be used by human agents (who come onto the line when a customer picks up the call) or employed to play recordings. The latter is the definition of “robocalling.”

What Are the Rules?

The use of an auto-dialer system is governed by a variety of rules and regulations, most notably the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). In some cases, there are state and local rules that may be more restrictive than federal rules, so it’s important to check your state and local laws. All use of an autodialer must be done in conjunction with a “list scrubbing” process that removes any numbers that have been put on federal or state “do not call” registries. In addition, the calls must clearly identify their source and must contain contact information for recipients to “opt out.”

How Can It Help My Dealership?

The ability to make automated outbound calls is a valuable business asset provided you abide by the rules, including the golden rule to not annoy customers. Robocalls are a great idea to remind customers of already-schedule service appointments or remind them to make a service appointment when their vehicle is due. (The technology should NOT be used to blast marketing to customers who haven’t opted in to receive those calls.) By reminding customers of appointments a day or two in advance – and having them confirm the appointment by pressing a key on their phones – you can cut down on no-show appointments that cost you money.

How Does It Work?
Once upon a time, automated dialers were physical machines a company had to purchase and integrate with the telephone system (or hire a third party to do it). Nowadays, auto-dialers for automated outbound messaging come in the form of software that can be used as an Internet service, so there is no physical equipment necessary on your premises, and you can pay for only the service you use. If you’re using a CRM or BDC suite at your dealership, it may already have the ability to make robocalls from your existing database. You simply choose the voice and the script, connect it to a database of telephone numbers, set times for the calls to be made, and let it do its thing.

Who Can I Call?

According to the rules of the FCC and FTC, and most states, you can robocall customers with whom you have an “existing business relationship” (though, there is a timeframe for it in most cases, usually 18 months) even if they’re listed on “do not call” registries. You’re also free to call any customers who “opt in” to receive service or sales calls, so you may need to add a box on your paperwork or a digital signature process at the time of sale to allow customers to officially confirm they’ve elected to receive the calls.

Who Can’t I Call?

Automated outbound calls cannot be made to mobile customers who haven’t opted in and who you don’t have a recent business relationship with. You also can’t call any numbers, including landlines, that have been put on federal or state do-not-call registries unless you’ve done business with them recently or the customers have given you permission. If a customer gives you permission to make automated calls and then asks you to stop making them, you must immediately take that number off the list. It’s also important to note that the Federal Trade Commission is cracking down severely on robocalls that warn people their auto warranties are expiring.

Even If I Can Call, Should I?

Unfortunately, robocalling is now a popular technique with scammers, so consumers are becoming wary of the technology and employing blocking software and black lists. Consider using automated outbound calls for specific appointments only: to remind a customer that he has an appointment to bring his vehicle in tomorrow at 8:00 am, for example. Using them to blast sales events at everyone who has ever crossed the threshold of your dealerships is not a good idea and will probably cause far more trouble than it’s worth. The FTC has the power to impose $40,000 fees per violation on companies found to have been making illegal robocalls.

What Are My Responsibilities?

Too many businesses engage third-party marketers to conduct auto-dialing and robocalling for them, and believe they won’t be responsible if calls are made to non-customers or those who haven’t opted in. This isn’t necessarily true. The FCC has ruled that sellers that engage third party companies to make calls on their behalf may be held “vicariously liable” and subject to damages for third-party TCPA violations “if federal common law principles of agency apply.” What this means is that if you use a robocalling service, you need to ensure your service provider is reputable, operating legally and experienced in proper list scrubbing and compliance.

Automated outbound calling is a specialty tool that can help immensely in a narrow set of business circumstances. It should never be used in an indiscriminate manner or a way that annoys customers. If you think robocalling can help put your service appointments on track, reach out to your CRM or BDC platform provider to understand your options.