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New communications technology always wins the business.

When we launched our new investment services business in January 1989, we learned communications technology has to be a priority when considering new business opportunities. It can be the difference between success and failure--especially in a customer service environment heavily dependent on inbound call receipt.

At Northern Trust's call center in Chicago, service agents handle about 50,000 calls a month from corporate clients' employees and retirees. Our job is to manage the corporate money market accounts for these customers.

The calls generally involve processing transactions, maintaining account balances, and issuing statements.

When we entered the business in 1988, we immediately took responsibility for handling transactions for more than 75,000 accounts. In anticipation of high calling volumes, we hired 12 customer service agents and one manager to staff a new inbound call receipt center.

While we had enough personnel to handle the calling volume, it quickly became apparent the telecomm system we had in place was inadequate for the job. We knew we could build a system to effectively handle the business, but we didn't consider the difficulties in tracking the calls and measuring our performance. We didn't fully understand that efficient call handling is the lifeblood of this service.

With the system we had, we couldn't track call volume to specific agents, the number of abandoned calls, or calls lost in queue. All of our statistics were an aggregate of all calls being handled.

At the end of the day, I'd get a report that simply told me the total number of calls received and abandoned. As a result, we had no idea of how well we were serving our customer. About the only solid bit of information we had was the call abandon rate and that rate was unacceptable--running between seven and 10 percent.

By June 1989, it was clear we needed a communications system that better fit our new business.

We started by making a list of priorities. Above all else, we wanted a system that would allow us to handle calls more quickly--and efficiently. And we wanted to be able to measure performance. We needed better, more in-depth statistical reports.

After determining our needs, we met with Northern Trust's telecomm department and compiled a detailed proposal outlining our needs, technical requirements and price parameters. We invited three vendors to bid on the project.

We accepted the AT&T proposal that included AT&T's Definitely Generic 1 Communications System with Automatic Call Distribution software, an AT&T computer-based Call Management System and AT&T Megacom 800 service.

The AT&T proposal offered us more of what we wanted at a reasonable price. We installed the system in January 1990, and immediately saw an upswing in our service levels.

With the Definity system, we have more control over our own system, sophisticated reporting capabilities, plenty of room for growth, and compatibility with emerging technologies such as ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network).

With the new system, a customer calls our 800 number and is given the choice of speaking to a customer service agent or accessing the computerized voice response system.

If using a touch-tone phone, the customer keys in account and personal identification numbers and gets a series of options such as account balances, reports on deposits, cleared checks, interest, and tax withholding.

The voice response unit instructs the caller to press a number corresponding to the desired option.

If the customer chooses to talk with a service agent, the system's automatic call distribution feature will route the call to the first available agent.

The reporting capabilities are phenomenal. When we drafted our proposal, we listed the reports we wanted. Then AT&T told us what the system could produce.

It turns out that we were limiting ourselves with our original list. We now have reporting capabilities we never even considered.

With the information, we can monitor calling volume, track customer service and adjust our work force to handle peak calling periods. We also are able to measure our service performance.

We have 25 measurements looking at statistics such as average hold time, length of call, and number of abandoned calls.

We have three performance goals:

* Keep the average hold time to 25 seconds or less;

* Answer 80 percent of all calls within 25 seconds;

* Keep out call abandon rate to less than two percent.

Since we've installed the system, we've met and exceeded those goals. Our average hold time is 23 seconds; about 53 percent of our calls are answered within 10 seconds and our call abandon rate is less than one percent.

That's quality service, and it means greater productivity and customer satisfaction. It also can lead to new business.

We won another very large corporate customer shortly after installing the system. We were selected because of the sophistication of the technology and the quality of our service.

We now have more than 190,000 accounts and expect the business to continue to grow. We've increased our business by 67 percent and yet have maintained the same staff levels as when we started. Not only that, but the quality of our service keeps improving, and we expect that to continue as we add more sophistication to the system.

One of the features we plan to add by the end of the year is AT&T's ISDN capability. With ISDN, the caller's billing telephone number is received by the PBX.

Through an ISDN Gateway interface, the caller's number is passed from the Definity system to our host computer for a database search to find the customer account file that matches the caller's phone number.

In milliseconds, the caller's account data pops up on the service agent's terminal screen just as the agent is answering the call.

We estimate that once ISDN is fully implemented, we will have about 11 seconds per call. That may not sound significant, but in this business, seconds count. We should realize a 15 to 20 percent gain in productivity and a corresponding increase in business.

We also have purchased imaging technology we plan to merge with ISDN capability. Once in place, our service agents will never have to touch a piece of paper. Every document we receive is digitally scanned, reproduced, and stored in our host computer.

When a customer calls, the agent will hear a beep and the customer's data will pop up on the screen. If asked to refer to a particularly document, the agent can retrieve it from the host and display it on the terminal screen. We will not place customers on hold anymore while we spend time pulling paper files.

This is not science fiction. It's technology that's available now, and we feel it gives us a strategic advantage by allowing us to offer customers quicker and more efficient service.

We don't want to keep our customers on hold. Hold time is directly correlated to abandoned calls--which means lost business.

That's why selecting the right communications system is so important. In our case, we've been able to use advanced technology to enhance a new business opportunity and attract customers.

We have yet to show a prospective customer our center without winning the business. That's a powerful endorsement for technology.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Call Center; Northern Trust Communications Co. uses AT&T's communications equipment
Author:Sistachs, Juan
Publication:Communications News
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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