Bank investments in call centers are not paying off as anticipated, according to a study commissioned by the American Bankers Association.

Of 122 institutions surveyed, 47% said call centers had helped increase market penetration-but 72% said they had expected it to do so.

Similarly, 89% said the phone-based services had improved customer satisfaction-short of the 96% that had thought it would.

Banks have "put the technology in place, and it is still not creating the right results," said Dina Vance, vice president of FTR Inc., the Lombard, Ill.-based company that conducted the survey for the ABA.

Bank spending on call center technology has been on the rise. According to Mentis Corp., a Durham, N.C.-based research company, banks laid out $575 million in 1997-nearly twice as much as in 1995.

But because technology alone cannot ensure bottom-line improvements, many banks have diverted resources to staffing and training.

According to the ABA survey, banks last year devoted about 25% of call center budgets to technology and about 8% to employee training. This year they plan to slightly reduce technology spending and increase training's share to 12%.

"You have to invest in technology to get in the game," said Charles Hoffman, ABA products division director. "Once you do that, it's how you manage the people that determines if you win or lose."

The 1996 ABA study indicated bankers were intent on making call centers generate profits. But because call center personnel generally were not furnished with information that would let them sell new products effectively, relatively few banks have seen dramatic profit improvements from the phone operations, experts said.

The sales shortcomings are not limited to the call center; banks also have had trouble creating sales cultures in branches. But with an increasing number of customers using call centers as their primary point of contact with bank personnel, many view the phone as the most important sales channel of the future.

For this reason, an increasing number are connecting phone representatives with data warehouses that can supply information about the products and services customers might need.

Ms. Vance said that as banks continue to increase call center spending- Mentis predicts a 10% rise over the next year-they must establish where the paybacks will come from. Right now, few are doing so.

"Managers said it's very easy to get caught up in the glitz of spending on technology," she said. "They are missing the right process and the right people."

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