Bank call centers are getting better at establishing a rapport with customers and closing calls politely, but they are getting worse at identifying customers' needs and cross-selling, according to a semiannual survey released Nov. 9 by O'Connor & Associates.

Call centers at 15 of the country's largest banking companies, which were evaluated 100 times in August for the twice-yearly survey, got a combined score of 74% for customer rapport, a four-percentage-point increase from March. This score was based on attributes such as using customers' names and otherwise welcoming them. The centers' ability to leave a positive final impression on customers and to offer future help increased eight percentage points, to 60%.

But in identifying customers' needs, which included such attributes as asking probing questions, the banks' score declined 11 points, to 56%.

On cross-selling, where O'Connor checked whether call center employees mentioned another product or service and offered additional information or literature, the score fell two points, to 14%. Since March 1998 the industry's score in that category has fallen 17 points.

Anthony Viggiano, vice president of sales and marketing at O'Connor in Stewartsville, N.J., said banks' ability to cross-sell is "the one area that seems to be declining on a continual basis."

One reason may be the "increasing pressure many call centers put on agents to answer additional calls each day," he said. "It's possible the agent concentrates on dispensing the pertinent information asked for and then moves on to the next call."

The centers continued to get consistently high scores for customer reception (84%), professionalism (95%), and product knowledge (82%).

When greeting customers, an attribute measured under customer reception, most call center employees used a clear greeting, introduced themselves, and offered to assist the customer. However, fewer than 50% asked for the customer's name, and even fewer used customers' names when communicating with them, though they used a professional tone of voice and seemed eager to help.

To find out why a customer was calling, an attribute measured under identification of needs, about 60% of the call center staffers asked a probing question, but fewer than 50% summarized or clarified what a customer needed.

In talking about specific bank products, call center employees were good at mentioning products by name and discussing their features or benefits but did not always relate the products to the customers' needs.

Call center representatives did not perform well when it came to mentioning another product or service that the bank offered, and fewer than 10% offered additional information or literature.

When closing a call, 90% thanked the customer for calling, but fewer than 40% said they would be available to talk in the future.

Since 1996, O'Connor has monitored the performance of Chase Manhattan Corp., Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Bank of America Corp., Bank One Corp., Wachovia Corp., FleetBoston Financial Corp., PNC Financial Services Group Inc., KeyCorp, and First Union Corp. The most recent survey also included SunTrust Banks Inc., Columbus Bank and Trust (a division of Synovus Financial Corp.), U.S. Bancorp, BB&T Corp., and Mellon Financial Corp.

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