When Bank of Boston merged with BayBanks last July, it gained a retail banking operation but also had to rebuild its call center, which pre-merger had been service-, not sales-oriented.

Luckily for BankBoston, BayBanks had a good, sales-oriented call center, and a dedicated call center professional in Larry Mariasis, now executive director, telebanking, in the consumer and small banking division.

Mariasis understands how important call centers are to a modern banking operation. "The computer system and the phone system are really your heart and lungs," he says, "and if either are not functioning for any period of time, you're sacrificing on what you can deliver to your customers."

Mariasis's challenge: how to marry the system he'd spent 15 years with to the system at his new shop. And after a year's worth of weekends spent in the office, Mariasis presides over a fully integrated call center, located in two suburban Boston locations, that handles some 40 million calls per year.

Following a review, Mariasis and his team decided to stick with BankBoston's Northern Telecom Meridian digital telephone system, and its home-built account information system. To that they added BayBanks's call center sales software, which had been custom-written by Travis Datatrak Co. of Watertown, MA.

The BayBanks system allows callers to open retail accounts and delivers detailed product, rate, ATM and branch location information to the telephone reps' desktops. The BankBoston account information system, as re-configured, allows information from old accounts to populate the fields in new accounts opened by the same customers.

The main challenge was to migrate the BayBanks calls over to the BankBoston lines smoothly. This involved the local phone company, AT&T, and a 30-member, inter-departmental team at the bank. The migration required about a half-dozen tests, conducted as each section of the new installation was in place. Each section represented about 25,000 square feet of space. The effort included-and required-moving new representatives into place from the BayBanks location, before the migration, to provide seamless service. "Our goal was to not lose one call and to make this as transparent to our customer base as conceivably possible," says Mariasis. "As far as our customers were concerned, we wanted to make sure they didn't have a clue as to what was going on."

To accomplish this, the new installation went live, section by section, between 1 and 3 a.m. "The third shift is obviously when you have the fewest customers calling, and if anything were to happen, any impact on the customer would be minimized," says Mariasis. This also meant paying the technicians time-and-a-half or double-time.

Also necessary: building out the space to accommodate a maximum of 700 telephone reps, PCs, and a local area network connected to 30 servers, and relocating the BankBoston employees ensconced there. New centers went into buildings that the bank owned, to cheaply accommodate what Mariasis estimates is "15 to 25 percent annual growth."

The physical challenges, though, were nothing compared to the technical ones. Beginning in 1994, BankBoston had been building its own call center, an effort that took until the merger. The advantage this system had was that the desktop presentation is, according to Mariasis, a "simple and intuitive" Windows-like screen. But it was a customer service system, not a sales system; so the computer screens-and the up-to-date service system they represented-had to be merged with the BayBanks sales system. "We had to build the bridges that connected them together. Not only that, we also took the opportunity to enhance both systems, based on a review of both systems, given that we were working on the code anyway," says Mariasis. That effort involved a second, 35-member, in-house, inter- departmental development team, working for a year. Meanwhile, the old systems were kept in place in case anything went wrong.

To some, this sort of project would have seemed maddening at times. But Mariasis says he remained unfazed."You can always run a madhouse quite well if you have the right managers and you have the right tools in place," he says.

-reinbach tfn.com

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