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Opportunity Calling

Banks finally are realizing the contact center's potential as a relationship-building resource and profit center.

People Make the Contact Center

Ultimately, success comes down to the people who are responding to customers' inquiries. With the role of contact centers shifting inexorably toward selling and relationship building, it will take a different breed of customer service representative to deal with things, along with a different attitude toward training and benchmarking on behalf of the banks that employ them.

Call centers have one of the highest employee attrition rates of any industry, second only to fast food, according to Knowlagent's McConnell. Therefore, metrics is just one area in need of an overhaul -- the other is the manner in which people are hired and trained.

Contact center agents come from diverse backgrounds, from students working to pay their tuitions to mothers seeking part-time jobs. It is up to the financial institution to train them properly. "The important thing to remember is it's all in the training," Sovereign's Bourassa says. "It can't just be four weeks of training when they first come on board."

If people feel they are being invested in, then it follows that they will feel more valued in the workplace and that they are contributing to the overall success of the business. This, in theory, should improve employee retention, suggests Bourassa. But, "There's still some stigma against the call center," he continues. "It's a tough job."

George Tubin, a senior analyst with Needham, Mass.-based TowerGroup, says banks simply cannot just throw money into technology thinking this will solve staff issues. Rather, they must consider agent performance optimization, he asserts. "The performance optimization area looks at the people side -- it raises the bar for everybody and helps make agents do better with the tools they have."

Improved training and assessment methods allow banks to segment their agents according to the skills they have. Skill-set mismatches are prevalent in call centers, and they are brought to the fore more so as customers make contact through other channels, according to Benchmark's Yaeger. After all, just because an agent is capable on the phone does not mean he or she can communicate well in writing when responding to a customer's e-mail.

Another ingredient to contact center success is scheduling. Once agents' skills are known, managers can divide their hours so that they work at the times those skills are most likely to be needed. "You want people with particular subject matter expertise to answer calls," explains Mellon's Madonna. "You look for an optimal number of agents who know about different service lines. But you don't want too few or too many specialists at one time."

All this investment by banks in people to man contact centers suggests that skilled service reps may be a core competency that drives competitive differentiation and runs contrary to the trend of outsourcing contact centers. The transformation of the contact center from a question-answering and complaint-handling site to part of a larger, customer-centric, multichannel strategy may make some financial institutions think twice before sourcing these operations out.

Answering questions is one thing; up-selling is quite another. Privacy regulations aside, banks will want to control these relationships more than ever before, according to TowerGroup's Tubin, who stresses that banks should consider carefully the consequences of releasing such valuable customer data to outsiders. "People keep looking at outsourcing, but the customer is your bank's pot of gold, and you wouldn't want to give that away," he says.

There always will be room for outsourcing, opines Mellon's Madonna. However, it has to fit into a bank's overall strategy. That aside, "The biggest threat to outsourcing is self-service," he relates. "Do I want my agent on the phone with someone who has a routine question? That customer is not just a candidate for outsourcing; he's a candidate for self-service, too." *

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