Sunday, June 19, 2005

This column may be recorded for quality-assurance purposes

Every week, I enjoy William Safire's column, On Language, from the New York Times. This week, he discusses the term "quality assurance-purposes", as it is used in the little "on hold" messages to tell you your call will be recorded.

Qualassurepurp - New York Times:

"Your perusal of this column ''may be monitored for quality-assurance purposes.''

That's from the recorded announcement we hear over the phone more often than any other. The frequency of the transmission of those bland-sounding words is greater than the ever-maddening ''please hold'' or the plaintive message from college, ''Send money.'' Who coined this oleaginous and misleading monitoring message, and when?

According to Brad Cleveland, boss of Incoming Calls Management Institute, ''The first use of for quality-assurance purposes was likely AT&T ('Ma Bell') in the early 1980's.'' He adds, ''There are 75,000 to 100,000 call centers in the U.S., handling around 32 billion calls annually, so these announcements are getting a lot of air time.''

Eran Gorev, president of NICE Systems, which claims to be the leading supplier of computer systems for call monitoring, agrees that what he calls ''quality recording'' began about 20 years ago. He says it was a response to the needs of business ''to be responsive with customer service,'' but he's frank about an underlying purpose: ''From a legal standpoint, if you accept the disclaimer by staying on the line, you are forfeiting your privacy rights. The recorded conversation then becomes the property of the service provider.''

But just what is a quality-assurance purpose? That omnipresent phrase has a happy, upbeat ring, as if the recorded disclaimer is protecting the caller from snarling employees or static on the line. Who could object to an assurance of quality? In reality, I think it means ''We're spying on our workers so we can have legal grounds to fire them if they make any wild promises'' or ''We're recording your call to use your words against you in court if you dare to sue us, claiming you said 'buy' instead of 'sell.' ''..."

In Canada, under PIPEDA, you actually have to be more specific than that. One of the hallmarks of this law is that you have to clearly indentify the purposes for which information is being collected. Many companies in Canada are how reciting "this call may be monitored and recorded for record-keeping, training and quality-assurance purposes."


Anonymous said...


Any idea how often companies record the calls; whether they generally record a fixed %, whether they record all if the customer is calling to complain; start recording once a customer starts complaining; etc. - that kind of thing?

I suspect there is likely a lot of variation in practice.

It occurs to me that even "record keeping purposes" leaves a lot to the imagination ....

An interesting issue.

privacylawyer said...

Thanks for the comment, Rob.

In my experience, recording practices depend upon the nature of the call. There is monitoring just to check up on the customer service rep, but when financial information is involved, I have heard of recording every call and having each call re-played to confirm the CSR's data entry. I can recall one of the Commissioner's findings in which the calls were being made to activate a credit card. The bank first said it was for quality control purposes, but the real reason was to have a record of the call in case the customer denied having made the call.

Ultimately, I think you are right. There is a lot of variation. Under PIPEDA, every CSR should be able to tell you exactly why the call is being recorded and what will be done with the recording.

The Privacy Commissioner actualy has a fact sheet on best practices for recording customer service calls. It's at



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