What are the major challenges in managing a call center today? What are the hot button issues?
When BAI Banking Strategies posed those questions in a roundtable discussion with two call center managers and a consultant who studies call centers, answers came back that would be familiar to any branch manager. It's hiring the right people, training them appropriately, and then using incentives to motivate them to produce the right result - in terms of both sales and service. It also means selecting the optimal blend of technology to keep employees as productive as possible.
"It's getting the right people and technology working together so the agents can interact with the customers," says Marsha K. Calfee, director, CRM Delivery, Alpharetta, Ga.-based NetBank Inc.
Call center managers face some special issues. Turnover is a greater problem in the call center than the branch because of the often tedious nature of the work - interacting only via the phone with customers who can be disgruntled or rude. Managers need to respond with continual morale-building exercises such as contests and special incentives.
New technology applications on the horizon - including PC co-browsing, customer profiling and voice recognition software - have the potential to change some aspects of the job. Jerry Silva, research director, retail banking and delivery channels, with Needham, Mass.-based TowerGroup Inc., cites the industry's growing interest in Internet Protocol (IP) technology. IP could lower telecommunications costs and also change the traditional call center model of centralized operations by enabling reps to work from home.
But ultimately, call center management is largely about the core people issues. "It's staffing, turnover and training," says Mary Ann Barker, call center manager for Ft. Pierce-based Riverside National Bank.
One bright spot: Call centers seem to be getting more respect these days, no longer viewed by bank executives as a kind of back-office utility - out of sight and out of mind. At Riverside National and NetBank, at least, the call centers are closely integrated with the overall retail organization. And Silva notes, in a recent report, that call center transaction volume is second only to that of the online banking channel in annual growth.
Q What are the major issues affecting call centers?
BARKER: For me, it's staffing, turnover and training.
CALFEE: My focus is more on the technology side of the operation. I think it's getting the right people and technology working together so the agents can interact with the customers. It's an issue of matching up your resources in terms of IT and budget and prioritizing the next piece of technology that you implement.
Q Why is turnover such a problem at call centers?
BARKER: It’s a very stressful job. When I interview people, I tell them, it’s basically you, your phone and your computer. That gets real stressful for people who don’t enjoy what I call “the constant bombardment.”
And I think customers tend to be more nasty and aggressive on the phone than they are face-to-face. It’s a very anonymous interaction for a lot of people.
Q How do you address that, make it an interesting job?
CALFEE: In our call center, we try to find ways to make sure employees have the necessary skills. It’s just like any other job, in certain respects, in that when people enjoy their work and feel like they have the necessary tools, they do well. It’s a matter of taking an interest in employees and making sure that they are taken care of.
And there are always fun contests going on that you might not see in other areas of the bank.
BARKER: We have fun days, dress-down days, where we try to make it a little less stressful and get people’s minds off what they’re doing. We have different contests and incentives, which gives them something to look forward to.
Q Are you implementing any new technology right now?
BARKER: We’re right in the middle of a project to enhance our basic call center equipment to get better reporting and make the agent job a little bit easier, where the agents can navigate a little more quickly through the screen. This should make the transactions quicker and smoother for the customer.
CALFEE: We’re focused on getting a 360-degree view of our customers to ensure that when somebody calls in, our agents know whom they’re talking to and understand the customer’s profile.
We’re also looking at things like co-browsing. We have that technology, but we’re looking at some more advanced applications, so that when somebody calls in and they’re online, the agent can actually co-browse with them and see what they’re seeing on their PC screen.
We’re also focused on fully integrating our systems with marketing so the call reps know what promotions have gone out, what offers we’ve made to that particular customer.
Not that we’ve made any commitments, but we’re also exploring technology in terms of voice recognition software, trying to understand whether certain speech patterns indicate the customer is moving towards leaving the bank. There’s a lot of really interesting technology out there. Being an Internet bank, we do want to take advantage of it and be on the leading edge, if at all possible.
Q Do you do much in terms of prioritizing calls, i.e., sending your best customers to the most experienced agents?
CALFEE: We’re just starting to go down that path. We went through a project in 2004 with what we call our “customer value index,” which is a scoring of our customers based on a lot of different factors. We’re exploring how we’re going to implement that. We’ve definitely used that information in our marketing efforts to determine what kind of segments we’ve got and what types of offers we’re going to present to them. But we’re still trying to decide how we’re going to extend that out to other parts of the bank.
There have been discussions about escalating calls for our best customers, or having a dedicated customer service agent or team member responsible for interacting with them. It would be similar to our small business segment, where we do have dedicated customer relationship managers. So we’re kind of exploring moving that over into the retail segment.
BARKER: We’re at the same point, looking at that, but we haven’t really made any decisions. This is one of the things our new equipment will enable us to do.
Q Jerry, from your perspective as a consultant observing events from outside the industry, what do you see in terms of new technology moving into call centers?
SILVA: The underlying basic technology is going to be Internet protocol (IP), because that affects so many other things the call center could do. You can have virtual agents, who work at home, which some banks say are more productive than those working out of a centralized building.
I used to think that having mortgage specialists, brokers and insurance agents in a centralized location was a smart move, because you can’t put these people in branches. But now, with IP, you can create a virtual call center where a person calls in and IP routes that call to wherever it needs to go.
There’s also been an integration of online banking and call centers. Harris Bank in Chicago has an icon on its Web site that says, “Push to talk.” When you hit the button, you get a voiceover IP session with an agent.
This is tremendous because customers, up to now, have loved to do research online, for lending applications for example, but tended to abandon the online session when they had a question that needed answering. This technology lets you answer that question immediately so customers can continue with the online process.
Add to that co-browsing, which enables the agent to assume control over the client’s PC to guide them through the application process. Underlying all this is IP and having the customer being able to contact the call center while they’re doing online banking.
Q Are “virtual” call center employees a good idea? Or, would you feel more comfortable managing employees from a central location?
BARKER: I don’t think it would bother me that people are not in one place, as long as all the security issues are addressed. That’s the biggest hitch.
CALFEE: Security is always the main issue. We have some employees working from home, although not in the call center, and there are a lot of regulations around the computer, the VPN access. When you’re dealing with customer information, you’ve got to be really careful. You even have to be careful about how your paperwork is disposed of or stored in someone’s office.
SILVA: You don’t want to explain to a customer that their ac-count number has been siphoned off from a residential address.
CALFEE: Exactly. It’s not just the IP technology that’s the issue, it’s how you implement what you choose to do with it. For example, we’re moving to a new headquarters in Georgia, which will include the call center and use an IP system. But as to using that technology to have reps in a virtual location, that’s a different matter.
Q How soon before the IP technology becomes widespread in the banking industry?
SILVA: A couple of institutions have already implemented it. Phoenix-based Arizona State Savings & Credit Union, for example, is completely IP everywhere — their branches, ATMs and call center.
There are really two benefits to IP. One is routing; you can be location-independent with IP. The other is cost. IP is just so much cheaper.
Q From your perspective at TowerGroup, what other changes do you see coming with call centers?
SILVA: The other big thing we’re seeing is around staff effectiveness. There’s been a pendulum swing between sales and efficiency. It used to be that call centers wanted agents to spend as little time on the phone as possible with each customer and they watched call times, queue lengths, etc. We’ve actually seen cases where agents would just hang up on people because they were incented not to keep customers on the phone past a certain number of seconds.
Then the pendulum swung in the other direction to, whoever sells the most credit cards this month goes to Bermuda. Agents were then hanging up on customers if they didn’t buy.
Now it’s back in the middle, where call centers focus on spending the right amount of time with the right people selling the right products. And the first thing you need to do is give the agents enough customer information to make those decisions.
Also, call centers are adding quality monitoring to existing workflow management software, which tells you how to staff during certain days of the week. The monitoring systems enable you to see how well agents are doing in their jobs. They enable a call center supervisor or manager to find out what kind of calls agents do or don’t handle well, and refer that person to appropriate training.
The whole focus is how to make the staff better, how to keep people longer and how to incent them.
Q We’ll turn to the managers here: how do you incent your people?
BARKER: We incent on both service and sales. We incent on service by making sure the agents are available. I don’t penalize them for taking time with the customer; I just want them to be available. I don’t want them logged out doing something else when calls are queuing up.
And then we run sales contests on different products, like CDs.
CALFEE: At NetBank, we’re definitely moving into a combination of service and sales. We have incentive programs on both.
Q Is there any tension between the two goals?
CALFEE: They are different. One of the areas where we’ve had a lot of success is creating a dedicated group of agents that deal with outbound calling when you onboard new customers. Those agents pick up the phone and call those customers; it’s a combination service/sales call.
If you focus strictly on service, you’re never really going to achieve your cross-sell goals. But it really needs to be a blend.
Q Do you do much outbound calling at Riverside?
BARKER: No, we don’t do any outbound at this time.
SILVA: It’s a sensitive subject these days ...
BARKER: Yeah, I think customer perception of it is not good at this point. Most of our outbound campaigning in the past has been for warm and fuzzy types of things, where we just thank customers for banking with us. Customers are more receptive to that than they are to a call about a CD special. We haven’t had good success with the latter in the past.
SILVA: I think the whole do-not-call movement is just killing outbound marketing. Combine that with phishing, which has hurt the e-mail channel, and banks are really challenged to do outbound marketing.
CALFEE: But one of the ways you overcome a lot of that resistance to e-mail marketing is relevancy, making offers that have meaning to the customer. For example, if a customer has a new child, you might offer them a savings account to save for college. Generic e-mail blasts are not relevant.
If e-mail communication is relevant to the customer, both in terms of content and timing, they’re not going to put a negative spin on it. It’s the same way with a phone call.
BARKER: We’ve had great success with customers that call in with loan payoffs. Cross-selling them another loan right at that moment is very successful, as opposed to calling them three or four days later.
CALFEE: That really gets back to the skill level of those agents. It’s understanding who the customers are and what their particular needs are and then combining it with, how do I solve the customers’ problems and service them and build the relationship with them? You shouldn’t be perceived as always selling, which is why that sales/service blend is critical.
BARKER: We have a tagline: The sale is in the service.
Q Looking at things from a macro level, is the industry investing more money now in call centers or is spending flat?
SILVA: Spending in the delivery channels has been kind of cyclic. Right now, theoretically, the call center is in a kind of lull in terms of spending. The agent application is being driven more by what’s happening in the branch, which has seen a tremendous increase in the amount of focus that channel is getting from the bank.
Internal Voice Response (IVR) systems haven’t really changed significantly. Speech recognition is kind of tepid in terms of its adoption. The only big spending we’re seeing is around staff performance optimization, but the numbers are a small component of the overall call center area.
If you look at technology versus staffing and communications cost, technology is only a third of what it costs to do the staffing and communication.
So I guess right now you could say call centers are doing micro spending to get macro benefit. When you compare it to branch spending, it’s pretty small stuff.
BARKER: There’s technology overkill. I know, because I’ve been shopping for just a few new things and it’s just unbelievable what’s out there that you could spend money on. As an institution, you have to make a decision: is it really effective, is it really going to pay for itself? That’s the hardest decision to make because there’s just so much out there.
Q How do you juggle that? How do you decide what’s worthwhile and what’s not?
BARKER: We had a few consultants come in to help us make good decisions. We’re upgrading our IVR system because it’s ineffective, but we haven’t really bought into a lot of the things that are out there because, at this point, I just don’t think they’d be cost effective.
CALFEE: NetBank has a defined process we go through. We have our long-term, eight-year strategy, and then we have our goals for next year. For any project we implement, especially on the technology side, we determine ROI and how the project is tied to strategic benefits. There’s a prioritization process in all areas, but most especially when the project is using IT resources.
Q Do you think call centers sometimes get the short shrift in banking vis-a-vis branches and online?
CALFEE: I know at NetBank the call center is integral. It’s under the sales organization so it’s really in the forefront of what we’re trying to do.
BARKER: We report to the director of retail banking so we’re actually part of that retail banking team.
We are invisible in that a lot of time when customers call in, they think they’re talking to the branch. And that’s a perception we want them to have. We don’t want them to feel they’re being handled in any way differently than if they called their branch.
SILVA: I do feel sorry for the call centers from two perspectives. One, e-mail and online chat were tossed into the call center almost without a second thought. There’s no strategic thinking behind that except: who’s going to answer e-mail? Well, the call center will. From that perspective, I think they’ve been mistreated.
Secondly, there’s this constant tension in most institutions between the call centers and the branches because the customer will go online or phone the call center to get some information, and then they’ll walk into the branch to sign up. And it’s really unfair because the branch winds up with “credit” for the sale.
A lot of institutions have gotten around that by making the call center not P&L-oriented, but a service structure. So the emphasis is on different metrics.
BARKER: That’s the way we’ve handled it. We are a service group and we’re not incented on sales, other than the contests we might have. We do take account applications over the phone. But when we make a sale, that account actually goes to the branch because the customer has to come in at that point. The branch gets the credit, but I also track what we’ve done. That helps to eliminate a lot of that animosity, because everybody’s getting credit for it.
CALFEE: Obviously it’s not an issue at NetBank because we don’t have branches.
But we have had a shift from a full service to a sales and service model. Years ago, we used to refer customers back to the Web site to get all their questions answered. That’s changed completely. Now we make sure the call center agents are equipped with the information that they need so they can do their jobs.
Mr. Cline is senior editor with BAI Banking Strategies.
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