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Jennifer O'Herron, CallCenter
Jennifer O'Herron, CallCenter
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Answering the Call

Financial institutions continue to adapt cutting-edge call center technology to the needs of their very fussy customers. Here's a look inside some of the changing call centers they run.

NMAC: Workforce Management

As high-ticket purchases that involve complex financing arrangements for individuals, cars represent an important point of contact between financial services firms and consumers. For auto companies, owning (or working closely with) an affiliated financial company gives them a way to control the relationship between the buyer and the brand long past the initial purchase.

For example, the Nissan Motors affiliate Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp. (NMAC) functions as the "captive financial services for Nissan-Infiniti," according to Sean Hicks, NMAC's senior manager of consumer communications.

NMAC's primary mode of communication with both customers and dealers is through a 400-agent call center in Irving, Texas. Open since 1987, the call center was using early-generation call center techniques and tools to deal with a customer base that had 21st century call center expectations.

NMAC's contact centers had grown to resemble a manufacturing unit that was typical of an automotive company. They were diligently focused on tasks and productivity, exclusively relied on standard fixed eight-hour shifts and had no exposure to workforce planning.

At the same time, the company as a whole was beginning to look to the call center as the place where customer loyalty could be controlled and enhanced. The best way to improve the effectiveness of the call center (and get the biggest bang for their technology dollar) was to implement a workforce optimization program.

NMAC selected Blue Pumpkin (Sunnyvale, Calif.) to automate the workforce planning in its contact center. Within the first five months of using Blue Pumpkin's solution in early 2003, NMAC could project a first-year return on investment of nearly 400 percent and realized gains in many areas.

Tanya Messmer-Himes, workforce management specialist at NMAC, says that the center started with fixed labor shifts that covered the span from 7 am to 7 pm, Monday through Friday. That's not the most flexible arrangement, as it makes no allowance for call volume surges or peaks and valleys in the customer flow.

"Once we implemented the Blue Pumpkin system," she says, "we prepared for it about a month, then started floating lunches and breaks first. That made a big difference." NMAC used the flexibility of a workforce management system to incrementally loosen the controls over agents' time.

Next, it introduced a voluntary shift of ten hours a day, for four days a week, and added a starting variance for shifts of half an hour. Finally, NMAC unveiled what it calls "progressive shifts": a 12-hour shift on Monday, dropping to ten hours on Tuesday, eight on Wednesday and six on Thursday. Having a staff front-loaded in the week helps the center deal with a known surge in calls that come in on Mondays and Tuesdays.

And it lets the center manage resources better - instead of being behind the eight ball in a "chronically understaffed" environment, it can use the same number of people to handle the appropriate call volume and save money on it because it's no longer forced to pay overtime to keep up with spikes. The reactive need for unplanned overtime hours was reduced by 39 percent. Over a period when call volume rose by 10 percent, labor hours only increased by 6 percent, saving about 390 labor hours per month.

The results have been dramatic, and not just for the agents. "The people who interact with customers are the front lines of our brand - they directly represent our company," says Hicks. "Faster response times, happier customer service reps, delivering the right answers to inquiries the first time and other benefits from workforce optimization not only save us a lot of money, but they also help build our brand equity and customer loyalty."

Call-abandonment rates were cut by 66 percent, to just 2 to 5 percent. Managerial administrative hours fell by 58 percent. And NMAC has become a more agile, nimble operation. It responds to customer and dealer inquiries faster, improving the average speed of answer by 66 percent, to less than 50 seconds. And agents' adherence to their schedules improved from approximately 70 percent to an outstanding 95 percent.

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