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Telecom Technology Factors Into Banks’ Competitive Strategies

With accelerating advances in telecom technology, banks increasingly are looking at their telecom strategies as a means to create competitive advantage.

Within the call center, IP telephony is helping to automate collections, according to John Joseph, vice president, corporate marketing, with Envox Worldwide, a voice solutions provider in Westborough, Mass., who contends that automated calls tend to generate better results than do live collections representatives. Further, "A bank with these kinds of solutions gives customers 24/7 access to certain functions," Joseph adds. "In the call center, wait times to get an agent are shorter, and they'll have information required to know why you're calling."

Another attractive feature of VOIP to banks, says Kutty, is in the area of provisioning. "When people move around, with the old PBX [private branch exchange] phone systems, you had to get the telecom technicians involved to move a phone line," he explains. "With VOIP, you can drag and click to move numbers around and provide service easily to other environments. Banks are becoming more self-sufficient with VOIP."

According to Richard Smith, assistant vice president, network services manager, at St. Louis-based Heartland Bank ($800 million in assets), VOIP has played a role in the institution's expansion plans. "VOIP allowed us to converge our independent phone systems into a single system," he says. "It hasn't brought too much to the table in terms of cost savings, but when we build a new branch, we're able to use our existing data infrastructure. This is definitely one of the selling points of VOIP."

SunTrust also is leveraging VOIP in its expansion efforts. "VOIP is being utilized as we build new sites or refresh assets in the older ones," relates SunTrust's Banks. "While it's not yet cost effective to do a wholesale rip and replace of the older TDM [time division multiplexing switching] technology for VOIP, it is cost effective when buying new to go ahead and utilize the newer technology."

Banks definitely are coming around to the benefits of VOIP, confirms Forrester Research (Cambridge, Mass.) analyst Chris Silva. Figures from the firm indicate that 73 percent of financial institutions are looking to complete a VOIP migration this year. "Next, they'll look at session initiation protocol [SIP], where you take the functions of PBX and push them to soft, mobile devices," Silva says. "This is a great way to extend VOIP to the mobile realm."

Mobile and Wireless: The One Phone Concept

Of course, mobile and wireless technologies themselves hold enormous potential for banks. Experts agree that the wireless enterprise -- in which employees are able to connect to the network and interact with colleagues and clients from anywhere inside or outside the office -- definitely is something toward which banks should aspire.

"The 'one phone' concept has tremendous possibility going forward," says Wachovia's Mattox, adding that the bank is engaged in several wireless-related projects. "Right now, we're focused on a single phone device and the possibility of eliminating desktop units in the future. We'll even be able to carry this concept further with the additional processing capability found in smart phones. The ability to be in continual touch and to respond very quickly in the moment has great value, decreases turnaround time and frees up resources. It's a great productivity tool for the Wachovia team."

For SunTrust's Banks, wireless is about serving the customer better. "We have to deliver access to our systems to meet the lifestyles and demands of our customers," he states. "For example, Gen X and Y will probably prefer to transfer money between accounts using a mobile device. Perhaps it expands the capability of the selling process, too. Consider that many banks have branches in grocery stores. With this technology, a banking representative could approach someone doing their shopping to demo and feed information about products while they are standing in line to check out."

But wireless technologies do present security risks, and some banks, including Heartland Bank, have a "no Wi-Fi" policy. That is not to say, however, that Heartland can ignore wireless. "Technology is moving toward Wi-Fi whether or not an institution has a Wi-Fi policy," says the bank's Smith. "We have a 'no Wi-Fi' policy because of the inherent risk in the technology. But we have to have an intrusion-prevention and detection system because of all the Wi-Fi end devices being brought into the office by our staff."

According to Smith, Heartland Bank deployed wireless security technology from Mountain View, Calif.-based AirTight Networks. "We'll be ready to deploy Wi-Fi in a more secure environment down the road," he notes. "The technology is getting better. But there are still risks to using it."

"Banks are recognizing that wireless is inevitable," says David King, chairman and CEO of AirTight Networks. "Clients and employees expect wireless. It has benefits to the customers and to productivity," but security is paramount, he adds.

To deal with the complexities of mobile technologies, Forrester's Silva expects within the next three to five years to see groups emerge inside banks' IT organizations dedicated solely to mobile operations. "This group will own mobile security, specs for PDAs and laptops, procedures for dealing with devices internally and externally," he contends. "All these initiatives will be tied together so there is one point of decision making and control to make sure the mobile policy is consistently applied across devices."

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