'Will you pay your bills today?' the telephone asks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The phone rings. "Hello, is this Harold Franklin?" "Yes."

"My name is Sarah. I have an important pre-recorded message for you. May I connect you?"

"Uh, sure." click.

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The next voice he hears is a bill collector from his local bank, reminding him that his MasterCard payment is overdue.

"Will you be sending your check today or tomorrow?" asks the recording. If he's too flustered to answer, it prompts: "Would you please repeat your response -- I didn't hear you."

After a gentle reminder to pay your bills on time, the pleasant voice says "thank you" and "goodbye."

You may never get this kind of phone call. But you may hear the taped voice of your governor, asking you to re-elect him. Or the manager of a public radio station, asking you to chip in. Or a pollster, asking what kind of peanut butter you prefer.

All this and more is made possible by a handful of computerized collection systems now on the market which can dial thousands of homes a day, play reminders or sales pitches, and record the listener's response.

While overdue notices in the mailbox can wind up lining trash cans and languishing in desk drawers, a phone call is hard to ignore. Students at the University of Maryland were stunned by calls asking them to pay up on their student loans.

In 3,000 calls, th university collected $750,000 in delinquent loans. The "Teletone" system (Teletone Broadcasting Systems, Rockville, Maryland) got a 70 percent response rate, "much better than any mailing we'd done," says bursar Steve Wilson.

Telephone calls from a live collector often incense credit card customers whose payment is only ten days overdue, and many wind up canceling the account.

On tape, however, customers have a chance to explain billing problems or complaints without getting into an argument with the bill collector. Banks and stores, anxious not to offend these "light delinquency" cases, are turning to this impersonal debt collection with success.

"It downgrades [customers'] defensiveness," says Teletone president E. Brannon Anderson. "We get very little resistance."

Politicians, as well as companies, have jumped on the "mass communication" bandwagon. During last fall's presidential campaign, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young's taped voice chatted with thousands of voters, calling for support of President Carter.

During his presidential bid, Senator Edward Kennedy used Telephone Broadcasting Systems International in Dallas (TBS) for an East Coast fund-raising drive.

In order to buy television time to broadcast a program entitled "Attack on the Family," the James Robinson Evangelistic Association of Fort Worth, Texas, is currently soliciting contributions via TBS.

In a recent test group of 745 people who had not respondent to the organization's previous fund-raisers, an "unbelievable" 65 percent agreed to send a donation, according to Douglas Dillard, a consultant to religious, non-profit organizations. Some 45 percent of that group agreed to send an immediate, specific amount of money.

In order to be legal, a live operator must first make contact with the person on the other end to verify his identity and give him the opportunity to decline the call.

Since "smaller" firms with 100 to 2,500 accounts per month may be reluctant to part with $150,000 for the outfit. TBS also operates eight service bureaus in the US. Companies provide a taped message and a list of names and phone numbers which TBS programs into the system. When the calls are completed, TBS provides the firms with a transcription of the responses and a list of the unreachable numbers. The TBS 9000 system can also be programmed to send letters to customers, depending on their responses.

Teletone, which operates only as a service bureau, charges $7 per call compared to about $20 apiece for live -operator collection services. While the credit collection industry is concerned the machines will mean the loss of jobs. Anderson says collection agencies could best use the computerized method on "light delinquency" accounts, freeing overworked collectors to work on "hard core" 60- to 90-day delinquents.

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