Last year, the average American received 178 robocalls. With tech and government regulations coming into place, Jeff Lawson, CEO of cloud communications company Twilio, thinks robocalls have reached an inflection point.
Lawson’s company, which connects companies like Uber and Netflix to their customers via text messages, push notifications or phone calls, has a business interest in reining in robocalls. The San Francisco company wants consumers to trust their phones, so that when a company reaches out to its customers, the customers respond.
“There is an instinct right now for people to say, ‘If the caller isn’t in my address book, just forget about it,’ ” Lawson said. “I think, in retrospect, we will look back and say 2019 was the peak of the surge of robocalls, and that in the next 18 to 24 months, that this will be largely a solved problem.”
Twilio released its inaugural State of Customer Engagement report Tuesday, pinpointing the proliferation of robocalls as a key trend in communications. It cites data from Irvine, California, robocall-blocker and voicemail software YouMail, which tallied 58.5 billion robocalls in the United States last year, nearly doubling the number of such calls placed in 2017.
Technology and legislation are starting to catch up. The Traced Act, signed into law in December, mandates that all telecom carriers add an authentication system to ensure an incoming call is real. Phone companies are implementing protocols that force a caller to prove they are the initiator of a call, rather than spoofing the identity of a person or company. The industry is experiencing a “sea change” of increasing collaboration across the public sector and normally rival phone companies, says Jonathan Spalter, CEO of USTelecom, a trade group representing telecommunications companies such as Verizon and AT&T.
For its part, Twilio is implementing the same protocols as phone companies so that its customers can prove they are not spam callers when using Twilio’s platform to call its users. Step two is establishing a reputation for a phone number. Lawson envisions a future for phone calls where the name of the caller will display on the screen—Twilio introduced preliminary software to achieve this last August—and if the caller has a low reputation score, their phone will automatically silence the call.
“We’ve been here before,” says Lawson. He notes that junk emails were curbed in much the same way.
YouMail CEO Alex Quilici is less bullish about the imminent downfall of robocalls that Lawson predicted. “There's not a lot of things that will put a lot of downward pressure right away,” he said. Companies are slow to implement authentication protocols, he notes, and the Federal Communications Commission can take years to enforce actions against a robocalling culprit. Meanwhile, the new measures to curb robocalls could motivate illegal callers to ramp up the volume of calls. Quilici, whose company helps consumers block unwanted calls, thinks the numbers of robocalls will at least stay flat in 2020—a decline of 5% to 10% is, he says, an unlikely best-case scenario.
Twilio’s stock dipped last week as strong quarterly revenue performance was tempered by projections of continued net loss in 2020. But Lawson isn’t worried about robocalls making a dent—he told investors on a previous earnings call that the illegal calls are a modest risk for his business. His obsession with robocalls, he says, comes rather in smoothing the communication gap felt by consumers. “What we really need to do is to make sure that every channel that businesses and people use to communicate is having a high signal-to-noise ratio, and right now it feels like calls have gone the opposite way.”
Image via Twilio's Instagram page.