Predictive Dialer - definition jointly authored by Sytel and Harry Newton as used in Newton's Telecoms Dictionary 25th edition, 2009.

Predictive Dialer: An automated, computerized way (hardware and software) of making many outbound calls without people dialing the calls and then, once the called person has answered, passing the calls to a live operator.

Here's the story: Imagine a bunch of operators having to call a bunch of people. Those calls may be for collections. They may be for employee callups to work. They may be for alumnae fund raising. When it's done manually, here's how it works: Before each call, operators spend time reviewing paper records or computer terminal screens, selecting the person to be called, finding the phone number, dialing the number, listening to rings, listening to phone company intercepts, busy signals and answering machines.

Operators also spend time updating the records after each call. Predictive dialing automates this process, with the computer choosing the person to be called and the computer dialing the number and only passing the call to an operator when a real live human being answers. In a well run manual setup, with just one trunk per agent, then with luck you might reach 25 minutes talk time in the hour, rarely beyond this. And with progressive dialing (again one trunk per agent but cutting out setup time) you might reach as many as 35 minutes in the hour, occasionally beyond that.

Productivity gains with predictive dialers come in two ways. First is the bit that commonly is labelled "call progress detection". The computerized predictive dialer does its best to intercept and screen out all calls other than live ones i.e. answering machines, busy signals, network busy signals, non-completed calls, operator intercepts etc. But it's not a perfect process and some non-live calls will creep through to be dispatched by the agent. Second, the major benefit in predictive dialing comes from the actual pace of dialing, or the numbers of calls dialed relative to waiting agents. In the days before the Feds cracked down on predictive dialing in the US, it was common to talk about dialers achieving up to 50-55 minutes talk time in the hour. But no more, except under quite exceptional circumstances.

Even with the best dialers, finely-tuned to cope with the new compliance rules, getting much more than 40-45 minutes in the hour is exceptional, and most outbound shops will be under 40 minutes in the hour, if they are working under compliance. The US compliance rules for dialers according to the "Final Amended Telemarketing Sales Rule" (that also established the "Do Not Call" register) effective October 1, 2003, specify that predictive dialers may not abandon more than 3% of calls (measured per-day, per campaign).

Also, telemarketers (including people using predictive dialers) have two seconds to connect you to a live person once you pick up the phone and have finished your greeting, i.e. saying `hello'. And they must let the phone ring for at least 15 seconds before hanging up, if there is no reply.

In some activities, mainly market research and collections where you often see predictive employed when actually, if you just ran in progressive mode you would get at least 35 mins, and sometimes a lot more, because of long talk times. But in telemarketing, 35 mins for progressive would normally be the maximum, under compliance.

Since 2003, other countries have woken up to the need to restrict bad dialer behavior. The UK brought in similar rules in 2006 and regulatory authorities in other countries including mainland Europe and Australia are also planning action.

True predictive dialing should not be confused with automatic dialing. A properly-designed dialer uses complex mathematical algorithms that consider, in real time, the number of available telephone lines, the number of available operators, the probabilities of getting different kinds of call outcome, e.g. no answers, answering machines and live calls, and the distributions for the times that agents spend talking and wrapping up calls.

Some readers of this dictionary accustomed to years of dialer hype will be wondering why the judgment on dialing performance is so bleak, compared with the highs that the industry had been used to. The answer lies in the fact that historically, dialers have used a range of devices in order to improve performance such as putting live calls into hold queues. And nuisance call rates were often much greater than folks admitted to.

The key to good predictive dialers is good design. And that's complicated. It is not enough to monitor all agent and telephony events and run a high speed simulation to calculate whatever. You need to get the design fundamentals right. Unfortunately, even today, many vendors don't go there. And if they do, it is an enormously difficult task given the very limited resources available - i.e. just 3 abandoned calls per 100 live calls. If the live call rate is say 20% (1 call in 5 is answered) then your ration of abandoned calls is 6 per 1000 calls dialed. Use that up too quickly and you back to progressive dialing.

Some people don't like the term "predictive dialing", since they know it's had a "bad rap" in Washington, DC by being associated with junk phone calls, which is what it often is. As a result some people would prefer to call it Computer Aided Dialing. See also Preview Dialing.

Published with kind permission from Harry Newton, author of Newton's Telecoms Dictionary - the bible for everything that moves in call center and telephony worlds.