Customers consistently cite convenience as the No. 1 reason that they bank at a particular institution.

Convenience is not only a matter of location, but a matter of access - to information and funds during hours that meet customers' needs.

One of the most effective ways to provide this kind of convenience is by establishing a call center.

Each center must have agents who can assist with any aspect of the customer relationship quickly and accurately and who have the authority to make on-the-spot decisions.

They must have in-depth knowledge of the institution and its products, policies, and procedures as well as an understanding of any subsidiaries.

In smaller institutions, all agents should be generalists who can address most, if not all, of the customers' needs. As the size and sophistication of the center grows, it may become necessary to allocate 10% to 15% of the positions to specialists on products such as Internet or PC Banking.

There is a vast array of technology available to increase the productivity of call centers. Here are five types of systems that should be considered.

Automated call distribution systems. These systems route the call to the most appropriate agent, monitor calls and productivity in real time, and provide interactive dialogue with agents and customers during calls from a supervisor's work station.

Interactive voice response. This allows customers access to account information 24 hours a day. Costs can be driven down dramatically by encouraging customers to use the delivery system more frequently.

Internet and intranet electronic mail systems. Customer inquiries can be directed to the call center from the customers' personal computer at their convenience, and a response from the call center may come as an e- mail reply or by telephone. Corporate intranets are growing rapidly in financial institutions, providing closed e-mail systems to customers through PC banking systems secured by passwords and user names.

Contact management systems. Contact management systems provide the ability to record and track customer interaction, schedule follow-up contacts, share information with other agents and relationship managers, and to provide standard responses to customers.

Computer-telephone integration. This is an integration between the institution's telephone system and the data processing system. Generally only larger, more sophisticated call centers have made use of this due to costs.

It is essential for financial institutions to establish and track call center performance. Criteria that should be benchmarked and measured are: abandonment rates (should be less than 2%), calls handled by each agent (200 per day or 25 per hour), average wait times (20 seconds), and average length of each call (two minutes per agent).

Though these goals should be closely monitored, it should be stressed that the quality of customer service is much more important.

Customer feedback should be collected on an ongoing basis through statement stuffers and service surveys. The responses should also be monitored and reported back to agents and senior management.

Call centers that consistently cross-sell can quickly become profit centers, not cost centers. Agents should probe for a cross-sell each time they successfully resolve a customer issue. The call center is one of the most productive and cost-effective means of selling services and should be used whenever possible. Mr. Floyd is owner of John M. Floyd & Associates, a banking consulting firm in Houston.

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