The pursuit of perfect call center technology – a system that would properly queue up bank customers, direct them to the right agent and provide the answers they need in the shortest amount of time – is still ongoing. But several community banks in the Greater Boston area have found alternatives to spending exorbitant sums on the latest in software.

Middlesex Savings Bank, a mutual bank in Natick with $2.5 billion in assets, is one of them. Instead of an automated system, customers are put through to a live agent almost immediately. While it costs more to maintain the 16 agents necessary to accomplish that mission, Paula Spindler, director of the bank’s information center says, that’s part of the cost of the commitment the bank has made to best serve its customers. The system, she said, provides benefits that include higher retention rates and customer satisfaction.

Middlesex Savings’ alternative to high-tech, highly automated phone systems is just one example of the ways in which local banks have dealt with the increasing popularity of call centers.

At the biggest banks in the country, call centers have evolved into overall custoner contact centers, according to Pieter Boelhouwer, director of contact center services at Waltham-based Empirix, which provides Web, voice and network application monitoring.

“The evolution of contact centers means that, in addition to handling phone calls, the agents that used to just pick up the phone are now actually also handling things like e-mail, chat and online transactions,” he said.

That translates into more training for call center agents and higher costs per call. For that reason, banks that use automated systems are striving for technology that will properly screen callers and quickly connect them with the people or information they are seeking, before they get impatient and push zero to transfer to a live agent or hang up and call again.

“For a large portion of the banks, over 70 percent of the calls in the contact center are handled without ever talking to an agent,” said Boelhouwer. The costs associated when a call goes from a simple 30-second balance inquiry to a four- or five-minute call increase astronomically. Cost per contact with a self-service line is generally around 35 cents but once the call goes through to an agent, that figure bulges to $5.50, he said.

Empirix conducted a survey of call centers at the nation’s largest banks and found that banking generally does a good job of handling calls. “With only a 2.8 percent transaction failure rate, that is actually much better than the other industries we indexed,” Boelhouwer said. But in his experience, today’s customers expect better, faster service.

“Speed is a large element of customer satisfaction … after seven to 10 seconds of silence or waiting, people get frustrated and they’ll zero out to talk to an agent,” he said.

What this means for smaller banks is the need for more technology, he said. “They have even more of a need to automate these transactions. A large bank, because of the economies of scale, can afford to keep a number of agents on call and rely on the breadth of their product line to be able to absorb the capacity or cost of someone sitting there,” he said.

But for the local financial institutions contacted by Banker & Tradesman, the latest technology isn’t as important as giving the customer whatever he or she wants, including keeping enough staff members available to answer questions and conduct business.

“We make it really easy for you to talk to somebody,” said Middlesex Bank’s Spindler, who has a background managing call centers for large banks. Customers call the bank’s switchboard, get one automated message then are connected with the appropriate agent in the call center.

“It’s definitely more costly. It’s a commitment to our customers and the service levels we want to provide them,” she said.

The call center was put in place three years ago. “By putting the majority of calls into the call center we are able to offer our customers more services over the phone than we were able to do in the past,” Spindler said.

For the live call center, Spindler said a major challenge is finding the right staffing ratios based on forecasted call volume. The goal of the call center is to answer calls within as little as half a minute. The bank’s answer rate within that time period is in the high 90 percent range, she said.

Another challenge is retention of employees. The average tenure at Middlesex Savings’ call center is two to three years, which is about a year longer than the national average.

Spindler attributes that success to making the environment fun and challenging as well as rewarding. Giving employees more responsibility and the ability to make exceptions or finding solutions for customers without having to wait for approval from a superior is the key to making the system work.

Call center employees are authorized to approve transactions such as a service charge rebates that might normally “be outside of the guidelines,” Spindler said. “They can listen to a customer and go ahead and make that rebate. They can reorder debit cards for the customer.” Additionally, Spindler encourages her employees to suggest new services for the future, “Although the policy is certainly there as a guideline, [employees] can go ahead and question it or suggest another way to do it,” she said.

Incentives and Recognition

For Compass Bank for Savings, a New Bedford-based institution with $2.7 billion in assets, the answer was a combination of live and automated service. Customers can use either of two toll-free numbers. One is automated with the option of zeroing out to a live agent and the other connects directly to the call center, pausing briefly for a “this call may be monitored” announcement before routing customers to a live agent.

Compass measures the success of the call center through mystery shopping programs, surveys and success rates at meeting goals.

“Our target rate of answer is 45 seconds,” said Jennifer Lafrance, call center manager at the bank. The bank manages to answer 85 percent of its calls within the 45-second goal, she said.

The two biggest challenges Compass Bank faces in its call center are similar to challenges experienced by other institutions: technology and retention of employees. The goal is to not necessarily keep up with the latest technology but to develop the ability for agents to know that two hours ago a customer called another agent and for the newer agent to pick up the thread where the first one left off.

“That is driven somewhat from our core data processor and getting the appropriate call center software to integrate with that core processing system,” said James R. Rice, senior vice president at the bank.

As for employee retention, Lafrance said Compass offers incentives and various recognition programs as well as allowing agents to handle more complex calls their skill levels progress.

For credit unions, the advantages of having a call center to handle loans and credit card services is ideal but beyond the financial reach of many of those institutions, which tend to be smaller than banks.

In 1997, the Massachusetts Credit Union League followed the lead of other state leagues, such as one in Oregon, and developed a call center of its own to handle over-the-phone loan applications.

“Like so many things with credit unions, it was our response to our credit union members’ needs,” said Bonnie L. Doolin, senior vice president of business development and lending strategies at the MCUL.

“The league had [researched] what the cost of a loan was being originated at the credit union and what it would cost us at the league and found that we could be both cost-effective and carry that credit union message out to its members and save them some work at the back-office level,” she said.

The MCUL call center is staffed around the clock and 23 credit unions in the state use it. The turnaround time for a loan is as quick as three minutes and up to 15 minutes if there’s a problem. If the loan application is unsuitable for a quick transaction, it goes back to the credit union for a final decision.

Unified Federal Credit Union in Peabody, with assets of $125 million, was one of the early adopters of the service. “Initially, it was an issue of resources and they [MCUL] had a model ready to go,” said Thomas Weikle, vice president in charge of marketing at Unified Federal. Times are changing and Unified’s 17,000 members want faster response times than paper applications are able to provide. Additionally, members are geographically farther apart, which often makes travel to the branch office inconvenient.

“They [MCUL] have specific loan guidelines that we give them and if they [applicants] fit within these guidelines they are approved,” he said. “The strength of this particular call center is that the folks on the other end really understand our philosophy.” About 50 percent of Unified’s loan volume is now handled through the call center.

But like other centers, Doolin said retention of employees was soon a problem, especially because agents were literally answering the same few questions required of a loan applicant hundreds of times a day. Employees were bored.

“Necessity being the mother of invention, we said, ‘How can we make the job broader and therefore more interesting,'” she said. About two years ago, the league decided to blend its credit card help center into the loan call center. As a result, 11 agents answer questions from consumers for credit unions and those agents that are more highly trained answer credit union questions regarding the league-sponsored credit and debit card programs.

“Those nine-to-five full-timers have that opportunity to cross-train and it’s much more exciting for them, so we have noticed our turnover has gone down. We’re really excited about that,” she said. Operators are trained first on repetitive tasks, freeing the more experienced agents to provide help on complicated card issues. “It takes six months to three years to master the whole credit card, debit card product line. There’s a long learning curve but the basics can be mastered one at a time,” she said.

No matter how the call center is run, the importance of a call center is not lost on any institution. Spindler summed it up by saying the average sales person on the floor of a department store may speak with 20 people per day while a call center agent may talk to well over 100 people. “Then you multiply that by how many customer service representatives and look at how many customers you’ve touched in a given day,” she said.

Local Institutions Get Creative at Call Centers

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 7 min