Call Centers Lead The Wave Of Banking's Future
BY DINA VANCE, FTR, INC.
Bank call centers are poised on the brink of adulthood. Having stumbled through some
awkward adolescent growth spurts, they are coming face-to-face with the quintessential
question: What am I going to be when I grow up?
Financial service industry professionals constantly ask me whether a bank call center
can be a profit center. I can confidently report that best practices instituted by
industry leaders are pointing to a resounding "yes." The long-term strategy and
value-added procedures each bank chooses to put into place will determine the success of
its bank call center operation.
What began as a way to have someone take service calls so personal bankers could sell
without being interrupted has evolved into a microcosm where sales opportunities are
recognized as a by-product of each service call. Customer relations can be strengthened
with every phone contact and call center pros are well-schooled in the knowledge that
Charm + Value = Opportunities.
A survey FTR, Inc. conducted jointly with the American Banking Association of its
members with assets of over $250 million showed that more than 90 percent of the
responding banks had, or soon planned to have, a call center. As call centers stake a
claim to an ever larger share of the banking industry's profile, three trends are
- Call center as a science,
- Call center as a profit center,
- Call center as an electronic hub.
The Call Center As A Science
From a purely scientific point of view, the bank call center is a perfect laboratory. It
is a delivery channel that can be quantified to the nth degree. The call center can drive
its outcome, measuring anything it might like to measure in its controlled environment,
although two components are considered key: productivity and quality. Industry leaders are
zeroing in on customer satisfaction with an increasing emphasis on quality over quantity
Productivity quotas drove the early call centers with a goal of 80 percent of calls
being answered in 20 seconds. Today's focus on customer service has seen a shift to a
60-40 split on quality versus productivity. Call center monitoring standards for both
quality and productivity are established and published and employees are clear on what
points are being evaluated.
In the FTR/ABA study, Bill Durr, senior manager of field marketing for Rockwell
International Corporation, noted, "The point of quality monitoring is to develop a
numerical score for quality that can be used along with any of the available productivity
metrics. The combination of productivity and quality scores permits us to identify agents
in greatest need of scarce coaching and retraining resources.
"More and more agents are aware of what is being measured and what is not,"
Durr added. "The call center represents a very invisible world. As managers, we
perceive what is happening through indirect means * electronic data. That is why real-time
and historical data rich in depth, content and abundance are so important."
The Call Center As A Profit Center
Call centers will evolve into profit centers as the sophistication level of their customer
interaction increases along with the customer comfort level in dealing with the technology
that drives the call center. There will always be a return on the initial investment of
setting up the call center because it is a win-win situation for a bank: A call center is
easy to set up and beats bricks and mortar on recovery costs. The larger goal of evolving
into a profit center is realized when employees know which customers to target, which
services to sell and how to match the two.
As a case in point, "customer-focused direct banking," as it is known at
Canada Trust, won swift acceptance from its customers, Brian Hornung, vice president of
Direct Banking, observed in the FTR/ABA report.
"They're comfortable with the 'technology' of the telephone. The megatrend will be
connection through the network world via the Internet and Intranets," he said.
"Companies will build their capabilities in these areas so that they can open up
their product suites to their customers. It's like pulling back the curtains of their
internal systems so customers can self-select the conversations they want to have with you
and the products and services they want most."
The Call Center As An Electronic Hub
Concurrently, today's lifestyles are driving the call center to become an electronic hub.
The formula for success is to offer quicker, easier consumer access that reflects our
global economy and the pace at which people conduct business. Our sophisticated consumers
routinely conduct business over the phone, PC and Internet. Their comfort level is
reinforced by the volume of other business being conducted in a similar manner.
All delivery channels flow through the call center, and future alternative delivery
channels are waiting in the wings to be tapped by the imaginations and demands of bank
consumers. The challenge for a call center will be to manage the skills you need to
satisfy customers at different levels of technological sophistication.
"Customers will choose how they want to communicate with us -- via telephone,
Internet, video -- and we will have to offer customers these choices if we want to keep
and expand their business," Mark Coble, call center director, First Citizens Bank and
Trust Company, noted in the FTR/ABA study.
"I believe the biggest challenge we'll face as we move toward becoming customer
contact centers will be effectively integrating people and technology together. Call
center employees will not be able to help the bank leverage its technology investment
unless they know how to use it. Clearly, training will play a pivotal role. Even with all
the advances in technology, when it comes right down to it, it's the caliber of your
employees that will determine your center's success. Some things will never change,"
The Critical Link: People
Which brings us to the critical link between the customer and the technological tools that
channel them into the call center: people. Hiring, training, managing, motivating,
retaining and promoting employees, along with creating a talented pool of experienced
managers, cannot be achieved by flipping a switch. Banks need to realize they set the
stage for success or failure with the people they hire, retain and promote.
With a 39 percent turnover rate in the industry, 95 percent of bank call center
managers say their number-one concern is holding onto their best employees. Careful
selection of workers who understand the expectations of their jobs, proper training with
opportunities for growth and skillful management are keys to keeping people satisfied on
Roger DuBois, senior vice president of National Financial Services Center, PNC Bank,
reported the key to his call center success: "Communication, communication,
communication. You can't communicate to people enough," he said.
In the FTR/ABA study, DuBois reported meeting weekly with first-line supervisors, every
two months with all call center employees and sending an internal newsletter in the months
that formal meetings were not scheduled. In addition, he relies on e-mail to communicate
with employees every day.
Communication extends to training issues as well. "Let's say we're rolling out a
new version of our technology. We communicate the necessary training to our 80 first-line
supervisors, who in turn educate the consultants. It's the "train the trainer"
approach and it is very effective for us," DuBois said.
Product information must be taught and updated on a regular basis, and customer
database knowledge is essential. Keeping in mind that the call center is a great science
laboratory, it is easy to pinpoint call behavior problem areas because they can be
identified through monitoring and managed with constructive feedback. If necessary,
additional training can be recommended.
Continuing Education Helps Hold The Edge
Continuing education is critical to staff development and for holding the edge when it
comes to delivering customer services. It also increases the likelihood of retaining
employees because they have advancement goals for which to aim. Banks now hire more staff
with prior work experience and college degrees. There is also a trend toward providing
some staff with commissions.
One efficacy tool coming into greater use is skills-based routing, which creates banks
of people who are product/question-specific versus generalists. Questions are routed to
the specialists via initial choices made by customers when they call in and first
encounter the VRU (voice response unit) system.
For those employees who elect a call center career path, certification levels are being
established by many industry leaders. The use of multimedia tutorials to foster continuing
education has risen in popularity. These tutorials are self-directed and can be mastered
in "down times," which saves the costs of replacing personnel during longer
training sessions. Individuals using these tools must "test out" of levels to
move on. Banks have found these particularly useful when introducing new products.
The nurturing of management candidates is one area that continues to present a
challenge. When it comes to being a successful call center manager, the ability to
communicate feedback -- basic, regular and frequent -- to employees is one of the most
critical skills. Unfortunately, this is the one area in which the managers are least
schooled. They often have no idea how to sit down with people and go over the results of
monitored calls with corrections and suggestions for improvements. There is a
"discomfort" level among managers when providing feedback because so many of
them have been drawn right from the pool themselves and find it difficult to review their
Managers face additional challenges in the form of short-term distractions that can
blind them to the big picture. They are often forced to focus on issues such as employee
stress, being short-handed and unfamiliarity with new equipment or insufficient product
knowledge. And of course this is all played out before a backdrop of telephones that never
Last, but not least, experts believe the call center must have support from senior
management to fully realize its possibilities. "Make sure you and the call center are
sponsored by a very high-ranking executive in the bank," PNC's DuBois advises.
"I wouldn't want to run a call center that wasn't supported by the chairman of the
board. You need top management support or the initiative will fail. Without top management
support, the call center may not be viewed as a strategic distribution channel integral to
the bank's success."
Senior management would best serve itself by taking a cue from customers when it comes
to the untapped potential of call centers. Brian Hornung summed up the growth to come when
he observed, "In five to ten years, it is quite conceivable that fully half of the
profits of a company like Canada Trust could come from relationships developed through
direct banking or another alternative distribution channel that is anything but
traditional bricks and mortar. What will drive the change more than anything else will be
Dina Vance is one of the financial service industry's leading experts in call
center operations and implementation at all levels of banking, from on-site call center
training and marketing to in-house calling and outsourcing. She is a frequent speaker on
the topic and has authored numerous articles published in periodicals such as Consumer
Lending Review, Cross-Sales Report and Microbanker.
Observations and statistics referred to in this article are drawn from a joint
study published by FTR and the American Banking Association entitled, A Focus On
Management Strategies And Best Practices, The Evolution of Bank Call Centers.
Questions about the research report should be referred to Cheryl O'Donoghue, FTR's vice
president of business development and strategic marketing.
Founded in 1962, FTR provides the financial community with innovative sales and
sales leadership training, consulting and resources to integrate technology into sales and
customer service processes. With a global client base, its expertise covers the areas of
retail banking, business banking, call centers, investments, trust and private banking,
sales automation and sales technology support. For more information, call 630-620-6090 or