The scenario is a familiar one: A very large super-regional bank operating multiple call centers-at least one for each product business and several for basic customer service-is facing transaction volumes that have been increasing at least 30 percent per year, prompting each of its call centers to submit a budget request for significant expansion and improvement. The combined budget request was much bigger than expected, particularly since the original justification for call centers was cost reduction through more efficient service.

developing strategy

As the executive team considered the request, several basic questions surfaced:

Should call centers deliver customer service only, or also field proactive business development? If the bank engages in direct telemarketing, how will customers react?

Was it better to retain line of business-specific expertise in separate call centers, or to integrate them so that at least routine questions can be answered on first contact? Did customers really want a single 800 number through which to do bank business?

These questions are asked by most bankers as they work to migrate transactions and other customer service interactions to lower cost channels. These issues are particularly troublesome given that most Doubting Thomases in senior bank management have only personal experience on which to base their viewpoints. In addition, issues surrounding fundamental business re-positioning-becoming customer-centric-are being talked about industry-wide.

Most customer-centric business transformation initiatives, however, are focused on service delivery cost reduction and/or near-term revenue-related performance enhancement. Rarely do we see the establishment of on-going processes determining what customers really value.

This regional bank recognized that they needed a market data-specific basis for establishing what customers said they valued and liked. With IBM Consulting's assistance, hypotheses were developed to make sure that management's questions would be answered, such as whether customers hate to be called at home by their bank. Several key findings emerged from research.

Most surprising to our clients was that their customers feel that their bank almost never calls, and they would like them to call. This, however, was not a blanket endorsement of telesales; customers definitely were not interested in receiving what they perceived as product-push sales pitches from someone "trying to make quota." Receiving what we came to refer categorically as a "caring" call-those that customers see as added value from the bank-was almost universally perceived to be good.

Letting a customer know that he or she has been pre-approved for a new auto loan or an increased credit line, for example, is considered a positive event. Others included letting the customer know that his or her social security check was safely deposited, or that the customer had an overdraft which, if handled quickly, would not result in a returned check. Even letting the customer know that a new account product that seems to fit his or her needs, based upon balance information, is considered a caring call, even though the intent is clearly to sell the product.

Customers indicated that they need financial management assistance and considered the bank to be their best source of quality, unbiased financial advice. Reinforcing this perception via caring calls became an unexpected requirement of the bank's next-generation, customer-centric business architecture.

Another key design attribute of service delivery that customers highly value is customer controlled interactions. From the customer's perspective, a sales pitch that begins during an inbound call before the customer's request has been fulfilled is unacceptable; by contrast, customers had no objection to being presented a new product or service after his or her reasons for the call have been satisfactorily completed. Telemarketers who try to sell them something before their need has been concluded make customers feel that their needs aren't important, distracting them from listening to the sales message.

On the other hand, customers say that the best time to sell them something is after they have received excellent service. Product/customer acquisition costs are thus kept down and penetration rates are high.

To effectively offer proactive advice and to economically benefit from such customer interactions, though, a bank needs to have a customer contact infrastructure that makes it easy to capture and store customer goals and preferences, and to allow front line employees to access this knowledge to formulate proactive advice and relate customer-specific benefits of products being sold. Banks also need to have a process and capability to periodically analyze information, and to prompt front-line employees to ask clarifying questions and to link multiple contacts to offer proactive advice at the next contact.

In sum, it needs an ongoing process to listen to customers, prioritize and take action on those listenings.

Here's a test to see how far along the path to information-empowered, customer-centric retailing your bank is:

Are customers' e-mail addresses captured and used for transaction confirmations and correspondence?

Can customers request a service or purchase transaction on one channel and have it fulfilled through another?

Does resource allocation for budgeting purposes stem from articulated customer values identified in a continuous listening process?

Can customers access the bank through a single 800 number and get their request handled without transfer 85 percent of the time?

Do key customer information records provide the same answer regardless of where the request is made?

Has accessing the bank been simplified (e.g. a single customer ID number for all accounts)?

upping propensity to buy

Our regional bank customer understood that its journey to the future required more than just asking customers what they want. Successful use of this input requires a segregation between basic expectations and capabilities or service delivery attributes which have the potential to materially affect the quality of current customer loyalty and propensity to buy, as well as attract new customers to the institution.

The next step is in creating the bridge between what customers value and the capabilities and supporting retail infrastructure required to deliver those enhancements to the customer. This is where the payoff for investment lies.

IBM Consulting's Betsy Sleight, senior consultant, and David M. Partridge, managing principal, can be contacted at 914.332.3000.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.