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Calling All Customers.

Today's high-technology bank call center has evolved into a hub of Internet as well as telephone communications.

Here's what every marketer needs to know about state-of-the-art customer contact.

Bank call centers used to be nothing more than an extension of the back office--a group of people with fancy telephones whose job was to answer customer questions, provide basic service and leave the "real" work to the branches. Things have changed, making it difficult for banks today to compete using only this kind of service center.

Successful call centers at financial institutions are taking a different approach to managing customer contact. Using the latest technology and robust electronic and telephone-based customer interaction, these companies are redefining the customer experience. These same companies are raising the bar and elevating the expectations of your customers. Today, the two factors most influencing the world of the call center are evolving technology and changing lifestyles.

Customer service and call center staff have long had the ability to provide basic customer and account information, and perform simple transactions. Today, call center representatives are no longer limited merely to displaying information. Representatives can cross-sell, open new accounts and assess the customer's needs for additional products and services.

Customers' lives are busier than ever. One sign of this trend is the fact that the volume of customer telephone contact has grown dramatically in recent years. Additionally, customers are interacting with financial institutions via more channels. They are using branches, telephone, mail, the Web and e-mail frequently and interchangeably. With these usage changes come higher expectations for consistent information and service across all channels.

World-class service organizations have embraced the concept that the call center has become an extension of the front office. The center is not just a way to provide service, but it has become a true interactive sales and service contact center capable of generating real revenue and profit, as well as increased customer satisfaction. This new type of center requires more than just the latest technology: It requires a commitment to hiring and training the right people, changing reporting structure and compensation programs, and doing things differently.

For example, one of the most visible characteristics of today's successful call center is "empowerment." The employees who have direct contact with customers now have authority to decide and act to solve customer issues, within certain limitations. Using technology to provide all the information needed to make good decisions allows these organizations to put decision-making as close as possible to their customers. The result? Not just an increase in customer satisfaction but satisfied customers who are now better sales prospects.

The best way to utilize a cull center

How should you use your call center? This question is most easily answered when you have a strong business plan. Matching your call center's approach and operation to a well thought-out business plan provides the answers to the following tactical questions:

* Will we sell in our center?

* Will we open new accounts?

* Will we handle only inbound calls, or will we call our customers?

* Will the same agents handle branch customers and Internet customers?

* What are our customers' expectations for daily access? Eight hours, 16 hours or 24 hours?

* Will we conduct customer surveys?

The 'S' word: selling

To sell or not to sell? This always seems to be a question. The fact that you are reading this article suggests that you believe that call centers can play an important role in your marketing plan. CRM tools and products available today have put the power of sophisticated marketing analysis in the hands of those who have daily contact with your customers. For years, database marketers and data warehouse analyzers have told us interesting things about our customers--now we have the ability to actually do something with that knowledge. We can:

* Suggest the next appropriate product to a customer based upon transaction history, profitability and life-stage.

* Share information from all channels to ensure a consistent sales message from phone to ATM to Web to branch.

* Identify key customers and provide preferred service and appropriate offers.

* Capture information about new or changing product/service needs.

* Intelligently follow up direct marketing efforts when providing service.

Selling new products and services over the phone to both new and existing customers is often described as the "Holy Grail" of direct banking. It is a way to create new customer relationships and deepen existing relationships without incurring the huge overhead costs of a brick and mortar facility and face-to-face selling. Selling new products and services to your customers who call you for service produces the most tangible return on your call-center investment. New sales made in the call center can be easily measured and often have higher profit margins than sales made face-to-face.

How to get started

The most important commitment you can make to the success of a call-center project is to provide a consistent strategic direction. Translate what you know about your institution's primary business goals into guiding principles for how you will construct, staff and operate this vital new arm of your service and sales infrastructure, Then, communicate that message to everyone involved in your project and incorporate those goals into the objectives of everyone from the call-center management down to individual agents taking calls.

The biggest choice facing anyone building a call center is whether to build the center in-house or outsource it. While outsourcing allows you to let someone else manage the center's day-to-day operations, it can be expensive and you are still ultimately responsible for providing business direction and goals to their agents.

Making staffing and strategy choices

Whether you or an outsourcing company builds your call center, you need to start with the same basic information:

* How many customer service calls do you currently receive on a daily and/or monthly basis?

* What hours do you want to provide service?

* What capabilities will you provide to each customer service agent?

* How will you integrate the call center into our other business processes (i.e. credit checks, research, marketing/campaign management, data entry and so forth,)?

The answers to these key questions will help you determine your staffing and training needs--the single largest ongoing cost of your call center.

Making technology choices

Technology provides the second largest cost component of your call center. These are the basic technologies that should be considered as you build your call center: automated call distribution systems (AGDs), interactive voice response units (IVRs or VRUs) and contact management systems. Here's some more information about each of these systems.

Automated call distribution systems. ACDs are your call center's "nervous system"--the traffic cops that direct calls based on information you have programmed about your customers or the volume and type of incoming calls. ACDs allow your center to balance call loads among your staff, and they keep detailed information for efficiency reporting. The ACD provides you many of the key statistics used to measure call center productivity, such as:

* Speed to answer.

* Talk time.

* Wrap-up time.

* Calls abandoned.

* Time before abandoning.

* Time in queue.

Interactive voice response units. IVRs have been around the financial industry for years. Their ability to provide detailed account information and perform many transactions has been a key factor in reducing the number of call center agents needed to take live calls. Recent enhancements in speech recognition are making these systems much more user friendly by recognizing plain speech commands such as, "I want to get the balance from my checking account."

Contact management systems. Sophisticated software systems attempt to integrate as many common functions together as possible to make it easy for call-center agents to perform their service and sales tasks. Common features of these systems include:

* Integration to host accounting systems for customer account information and transactions.

* Customer contact history.

* Integration of marketing and demographic data.

* Workflow tools to assign and track follow-up tasks.

* Document production capability to generate letters and forms.

* Scripting capabilities to provide assistance to the agents in selling products or answering questions.

Technologies for upgrading your call center

Technologies that provide enhanced sophistication to your call center are becoming more and more affordable. As your call center grows, you will most likely be looking to install: computer-telephony integration (CTI), Internet and Intranet electronic mail systems and Web-based customer support.

Computer-telephony integration. Simply put, CTI ties together your ACD, IVR and contact management systems so that customer information flows together beginning with the phone call through your systems and your call center. This is the technology that allows you to populate contact management screens (screen pops) with customer information before the call reaches the agent.

Electronic mail handling systems. With the tremendous growth of Internet activity, more and more e-mails arrive carrying customer requests. Along with these e-mails come lofty expectations about responsiveness--that are sadly often missed. New tools can receive e-mails and route them into your call center just as if they were phone calls. Some of the more sophisticated tools can read the content of the messages and provide automated responses.

Web-based customer support. The latest technology allows your call center agents to provide customer service and assistance directly to your customers on your website. Agents can engage in text-chat sessions with customers and send information directly to customer's Web browsers (escorted or follow me browsing). As the speed of customer Internet connections continues to increase, you will see more institutions sending voice or video data across these same connections to customers PCs via the Internet (VOIP or voice/video over Internet protocol).

Efficiency improvements for your call center

As mentioned earlier, most of the technology for call centers (especially ACDs and CTI) provides a wealth of information about the efficiency and performance of your operation. The industry has built a tremendous wealth of benchmarking statistics that you can measure your call center against. However one word of caution: As we continue to increase the importance of sales and marketing follow-up in our call centers, efficiency statistics suffer. This shouldn't be seen as a bad thing, but you must prepare for the fact that it just takes longer to conduct a sales session on the phone than it does to tell someone his or her balance and to have a nice day. So if you are measuring the standard call-center efficiency statistics (and you should), you should also be measuring the success of selling initiatives and the profitability of those programs. Properly managed, the increases in revenue and profit can help fund the additional technology or staff required to maintain high customer satisfaction levels when giving sales objectives to your contact agents.

It's hard to imagine a sizable financial institution without some type of call center to handle the influx of daily phone traffic. As you add or enhance this capability for your institution, remember to compare your customers' experience with the best of your competition--financial institutions and nonfinancial companies alike--and invest in the training and technology needed to make doing business with you on the phone just as easy as doing business with you in person.

Bob Gdovic is the vice president of product marketing for Fiserv Customer Contact Solutions, Pittsburgh. Fiserv provides financial institutions with a range of customer sales and service contact management tools.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Bank Marketing Assn.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:setting up an effective call center
Comment:Calling All Customers.(setting up an effective call center)
Author:Gdovic, Bob
Publication:ABA Bank Marketing
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
Previous Article:PR: The Credibility Enhancer.
Next Article:Managing the Merger Aftermath.

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