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June 2002

Rich Tehrani
Rising To The Challenge At The Merrill Lynch Contact Center

By Rich Tehrani
Group Editor-In-Chief, Technology Marketing Corporation

As smoke rolled over lower Manhattan on September 11th and the scale of the tragedy began to take hold, hundreds of thousands of people were scattered, dazed and unsure of what would follow. Less than 90 miles away in the Merrill Lynch call center in New Jersey, the phone lines started spiking, with clients, employees and family calling concerned about the safety of many Merrill Lynch employees. Suddenly the call center staff had to assume many new roles, and they met the challenge. Within hours, the phone traffic of many brokers was redirected and the New Jersey contact center had become the sole point for employees and clients to call for information and services for those displaced by the unforeseen tragedy. Intrigued at how one call center could accomplish so much in so short a period of time, I went for a visit.

Rising from the suburbs of Central New Jersey is an impressive complex of Merrill Lynch offices where I met Judy Nelson, first vice president of the Private Client Relationship Services Group/Merrill Lynch U.S. Private Client Services. A 20-year veteran with Merrill Lynch, Ms. Nelson is responsible for managing all of Merrill Lynchs Client Direct channels through a multisite service strategy. Apart from handling emergencies, on a day-to-day basis Nelson guides her team in providing services to Merrill Lynch clients for various products that are serviced through ML Private Client Offices. Nelson and her staff are also constantly focused on quality as well as methods to provide value-added information and services in the pursuit of delivering world-class services to Merrill Lynch clients.

In its contact centers, Merrill Lynchs Web and telephony portals support over 50 million client contacts annually. Nelsons Private Client Relationship Services Group provides client and direct field support for all Private Client domestic retail and corporate-sponsored products and supports statistical reporting metrics and resource allocation strategies for the contact center. Specifically, she manages client service provided for retail product support and internal product support delivered through field services. To manage the customer interactions that result from this broad range of product offerings, Merrill Lynch has established contact centers with more than 900 employees located in Hopewell, New Jersey and Jacksonville, Florida.

Nelson told me agents at Merrill Lynch go through an extensive initial training period consisting of a six- to eight-week regimen of computer-based and classroom training, which at the Hopewell facility takes place in the new, on-site Center of Excellence. Agents attain the registration necessary for handling financial transactions, Series Seven and 63 certification. For the first 90 days of client experience, agents work with a mentor, a fellow agent to show them the ropes and guide them through product knowledge before they are able to handle call support on their own. Agents are tested and certified as they gain experience and work their way to higher levels of capabilities in a three- to four-year progression through handling the various levels of client support. Agents are monitored by supervisors, as well as with third parties, for technical and service attributes through specific metrics for performance agent compensation is based on performance results. Merrill Lynch also encourages clients to monitor agents for quality and follows-up with surveys clients can use to provide feedback and gauge agent quality and technical expertise. The procedures for quality are working for both clients and agents, as Nelson reported clients highly satisfied to the rate in the low 90 percent range among the client base and that agent turnover is less than 10 percent.

In 2001, Merrill Lynchs Hopewell center received some 18 million calls (between the total centers, around 50 million calls were handled in 2001). According to Kevin Mason, director, Financial Relationship Services, they are able to handle 89 percent of calls through the front-end IVR. Mason said clients use the speech recognition IVR for account information, market updates and real-time indexes. Presently they are using a Genesys system for call routing, and Nuance and Periphonics for speech, but are transitioning to a speech recognition system by TellMe. Mason stressed that the IVR interface has three levels of security for accessing ones account, so it is a very secure method for the clients to quickly gain valuable account information. For quality and compliance, the Hopewell facility has a real-time call recording system from NICE Systems.

Agents are provided with a screen pop that allows them to manage client relationships efficiently by clicking their way through client-specific data and transactions quite easily. Account information is transferred with the call and using Merrill Lynchs in-house software integrated with Siebel, the Web and mainframes, agents can access any application they need to check balances, make trades, call up historical records, set reminders for pending items for clients, and more, quite rapidly.

Merrill Lynch also keeps an active Web presence, handling Web transactions and more than 250,000 e-mail messages a year. Mason said they respond to 85 percent of all e-mail within an hour. He said they found it more effective to have a dedicated team of agents handling e-mail than having the agents switch between phone and e-mail. Also in place is a review-and-release system the traders use for complicated trades that allows them to approve or reject, if need be, as well as route the orders among agents similar to routing calls. The call center team at Merrill Lynch keeps an eye on customer satisfaction on the Web as well, conducting monthly reviews of client issues and suggestions, after which they implement changes in efforts to improve service.

Joeseph Mrozek, director, department manager, Plan Participant Services, told me about the activities of his department, which has a staff of 180 in New Jersey to handle 401K clients. The Plan Participant Services department segments business based on assets: National Businesses segment clients have assets of $1 billion plus, Institutional Business clients have assets from $100 million to $1 billion and Corporate clients have assets that range from $3 to $100 million. Mrozek explained that Plan Participant Services also provides payroll and benefits services to their clients. Mrozek explained that the average tenure for agents is now around two years recently additional agents were hired, which has reduced the agent turnover overall. He said they train constantly, for example, they trained extensively to ensure agents were fluent on the new tax laws that recently came into effect. Their training came in handy in January, as Mrozek said call volume doubled that month with clients calling in to see if all of their 401K was solely in company stock. As an example of the level of quality services provided in his group, Mrozek mentioned an instance of how a client who was going to switch to a competitor was retained at Merrill Lynch as a result of receiving critical information in a timely manner. It was that same quick response and thorough training that had helped them react to the events of September 11th and keep the day-to-day business flowing without interruption for the firm.


Rich Tehrani
Group Publisher,
Group Editor-in-Chief

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