For decades the call center was considered a cost center, and the most important performance measurement was how fast you could get the customer off the phone. Times have changed. Now virtually all banks are trying to turn call centers into profit centers.

Several factors are driving this change. First is the need to compensate for declining revenue at branches and elsewhere. Second, better technology is available, equipping banks to cross-sell and up-sell. Third, customers are more difficult to reach through conventional marketing, which means banks must take advantage when customers call in. And, finally, banks see excellent customer service at the call center as a competitive differentiator.

Bob Meara, a senior analyst at Celent, says he's "bullish on the idea of looking at call centers as important customer touch points and a place to increase customer service and sales efforts."

Meara says call centers are critical to overall revenue goals given declining traffic and revenue at branches. "Banks have got to figure out how to make branches more effective, and also how to make other channels more effective. Banks can't meet sales goals by relying on branches." Banks such as USAA and Ally Bank have very effective call center operations, he says.

Sandip Sen, president, Americas, and global chief marketing officer at the Aegis Communications Group, argues that call centers are becoming a substitute for branch banking. Banks are turning more to call centers in a time of tighter regulations and lower profits, since brick-and-mortar branches are expensive and phone reps can do the cross selling. Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase and are among Aegis's clients.

This revenue potential would not be possible without recent technology advancements. For instance, real-time decisioning allows banks to cross-sell on the fly when customers call in.

Portrait Software, a provider of customer interaction optimization software, recently commissioned a survey by Loudhouse Research which found that 75 percent of businesses with advanced decisioning tools believe they are "good at identifying customers who can be persuaded to consider new offers." This compares to just 35 percent of organizations that don't have this type of technology, says Jeff Nicholson, vice president of product marketing.

Kevin Reilly, global managing director for financial services at Avaya, says "call centers are a revenue-generating gold mine."

Avaya's interactive voice-response solution can tap into a customer database, view all a customer's products and services with the bank and flag the top two sales opportunities. The system then routes the call to the rep best able to handle a targeted cross sell.

Avaya's financial services clients can point to a solid return on their investments: one firm determined that a call center upgrade would pay for itself in less than a year. Another saw a 50 percent jump in cross-sell revenue at its call center after upgrading.

Also on the technology front, Angel Inc. just released a new call-center application called Angel Mobile in which call center supervisors can walk the floor or remotely manage clients, look at which customers are in the queue, monitor phone calls, and coach agents. It hopes to launch the service in the first quarter.

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