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Contact Centers

Now that financial institutions' contact centers have evolved from facilities that answer customer questions to true profit centers, it's critical for banks to have well-trained contact center personnel and to implement the latest self-service and voice technologies.

Now that financial institutions' contact centers have evolved from facilities that answer customer questions to true profit centers, it's critical for banks to have well-trained contact center personnel and to implement the latest self-service and voice technologies.

Renee Lum, Assistant VP/Manager, Customer Service Center, American Savings Bank (Honolulu)

Elio Evangelista, Senior Analyst, Cutting Edge Information (Durham, N.C.)

Robin Goad, Senior Analyst, Contact Centers, Datamonitor(London)

George Platt, SVP and General Manager, Enterprise Business Unit, Intervoice (Dallas)

Q. How is the role of the bank contact center evolving? What are its key functions today, and how are they different from in the past?

Elio Evangelista, Cutting Edge Information: The best financial services call centers are strategically positioned to grow profits for banks. Rather than providing solely customer service, which will always remain an integral part of call center operations, customer issues should be swiftly addressed and call center reps should be trained to recognize where other services might be more appropriate for the customer.

By far, the most effective call center activities to focus on are ongoing training and career path development. Call centers will only improve as their personnel gains experience. Turnover is one of the top issues facing any call center. With proper career paths in place, call center reps gain a sense of direction for their careers, staying on board longer and learning how best to serve customers.

George Platt, Intervoice: Bank contact centers are now providing a wider range of services to customers than ever before, encompassing financial and retirement planning, investment counsel and more. Busy customers no longer wish to visit a branch to inquire about their accounts or sit with a bank representative to discuss financial options; most would rather call the bank and spend as little time managing their accounts as possible.

To meet this change in behavior, banks have extended the services of their contact centers beyond the basic services traditionally provided. And they are using new technologies to make access to these services more convenient for customers and cost-effective for the banks. One such technology is voice automation. These voice-enabled systems can resolve the majority of basic inquiries and transactions without human intervention, allowing bank personnel to focus on more strategic, revenue-generating functions.

Renee Lum, American Savings Bank: The role of the contact center is evolving through promoting use of self-service vehicles including ATM, IVR [interactive voice response] and online banking. The contact center continues to focus on service and sales. Its key functions and activities are assisting customers with general customer service inquiries and questions regarding deposit accounts, loans, mortgage, ATM/debit cards, online banking, bill payment, IVR, products, services, policies and procedures.

Robin Goad, Datamonitor: The main difference is the shift from the contact center being thought of as a cost center to it becoming a revenue or profit center. Banks now realize that just answering calls as quickly as possible isn't the right approach. By improving the quality of the technology and employees in the contact center, a bank will improve its customer satisfaction levels. This will enable it to increase customer retention and improve up- and cross-sell rates.

Q. How are current data-privacy regulations affecting bank contact centers?

Platt, Intervoice: The privacy and information-sharing regulations that are now being enforced have made it necessary for banks to provide an extra level of security in order to ensure that information is given only to those who are authorized to receive it. In order to achieve this higher level of security, banks are using a number of systems: some rely on passwords or PIN numbers; others pose a series of personal questions for proof of identity. Some banks have even implemented voice verification technology, which provides an automatic validation of a person's identity based on the characteristics of their voice.

Goad, Datamonitor: New regulations are forcing banks to be smarter about how they use customer data. The Do Not Call regulations, in particular, are forcing banks to focus more closely on their existing customer bases and use outbound calling and telemarketing to improve customer relationships rather than cold calling to win new customers. If handled sensitively, outbound calling still has a place in banking.

Q. What emerging technologies could impact bank contact center performance? What are the opportunities for these technologies?

Evangelista, Cutting Edge Information: The greatest impact technology will have is that it will more easily solve customer issues on the first call. Financial services customers quickly grow concerned the longer their issues go unsolved. The sooner a call center can identify a customer problem and fix it, the more comfortable the customer will feel dealing with the bank or brokerage house in the future. Technology, such as voice-response systems and computerized call routing systems, are a tremendous step in the right direction.

Goad, Datamonitor: Most banks are looking to move away from a rigid contact center infrastructure to a more distributed and flexible environment. This means linking branch, back-office and home workers into the contact center infrastructure and enabling them to serve customers, both as a cost-saving measure and as a way of improving service. VoIP is the main technology driver for this trend, but the biggest challenge is cultural. Encouraging more employees to become customer-facing is a big leap, but the benefits in terms of cost reduction and improved customer satisfaction are significant.

Platt, Intervoice: Many banks have implemented voice automated systems across their contact centers, but with new advancements in the self-service technologies, as well as improvements in the overall usability of the systems, acceptance is growing rapidly among banking customers as their preferred choice for bank interactions. Research shows that because automated systems are fast and convenient, many prefer voice-based access for basic transfers and payments. As a result, customers are moving beyond simple functions like routine account information and balance inquiries through voice automated technologies to more complex transactions such as updates on mortgage balances, stock price information, current interest rates, special services and even the location of ATMs based on their calling location. Banks are able to reduce costs and open promising new market opportunities while giving customers faster, more convenient access to a wide range of information.

Lum, American Savings Bank: Our bank converted to VoIP in April 2003 and our call center converted to VoIP in December 2003. There was significant cost to implement this. System training and supervisor reporting must be re-learned. Since reporting is new, performance monitoring has been challenging until we can get used to the new reports. We implemented speech recognition IVR in May 2004. To date, customer usage has not been high and we need to advertise and promote this service since customers are still using the touch tone system.

Q. Will the trend of outsourcing bank contact centers continue? What are the pros and cons of an outsourced or offshore contact center?

Evangelista, Cutting Edge Information: The trend should continue for basic call center operations. Until the costs and turnover rates for U.S.-based employees decrease, companies will turn to other countries, where customer service jobs are more highly regarded. For high-priority accounts, however, financial services companies will continue operating primarily from their headquarters.

Lum, American Savings Bank: We do not outsource to offshore contact centers. We have found that our customers like dealing with the local bank. Pronouncing Hawaiian names, streets and branch locations may be challenging if services are outsourced. Our goal is to closely monitor call center costs to avoid the need for outsourcing.

Goad, Datamonitor: Once all of the costs have been taken into account, the actual savings from moving to India or Mexico are about 50 percent. With banks still under pressure to reduce costs, the benefits of moving offshore will seem irresistible to many. However, moving offshore is not the only way to reduce costs. Banks will increasingly offer self-service channels - primarily the Web and speech recognition systems - in combination with both onshore and offshore agents as a way of controlling costs.

Peggy Bresnick Kendler has been a writer for 30 years. She has worked as an editor, publicist and school district technology coordinator. During the past decade, Bresnick Kendler has worked for UBM TechWeb on special financialservices technology-centered ... View Full Bio

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