Customer Service Reps Need Power to Resolve Complaints

For consumers, the idea of talking to a banker at 2 a.m. has become almost ho-hum. Dozens of banks across the nation now offer 24-hour customer service telephone lines.

What worries bank managers is that employees manning the phones in the middle of the night may also be finding the idea ho-hum. And on top of any morale problems brought on by late hours and angry customers, managers must also contend with staffing and scheduling problems and a lack of adequate supervision.

But banks are finding ways to keep round-the-clock workers on the ball. Special incentive pay packages provide the motivation, and ongoing training keeps employees alert and chipper.

"My job is to provide legendary customer service at a minimal cost," said George Palamara, vice president and manager of Chase Manhattan Bank's customer service division.

Employees Young and Old

The New York-based bank staffs its 24-hour telephone banking service with current employees, retired branch personnel, and college students.

"It's a great advantage to get a former branch employee who already knows the products. [They] are ready pools of phone reps," said Mr. Palamara.

To get those employees to offer the best service possible, Chase reconfigured the customer service department. "Instead of being at desks slammed up against each other," service reps now have sound-absorbing cubicles that help them "focus on a customer," said Mr. Palamara.

Chase also purchased new personal computers and system software that allows service representatives to access all the customer's different accounts at once. Thus the representative has more information at his fingertips and the authority to make a decision to refund money.

Heightened Responsibility

The customer service representatives "own the issue, start to finish," said Patrick J. Swanick, senior vice president of customer service operations for First Fidelity Bancorp., which also offers 24-hour customer service.

This employee empowerment is a powerful management tool, as well as a retail tool. Workers who are given responsibility for their actions become more responsible and dedicated.

When customers call, they don't want to be left on hold, and they want a knowledgeable and friendly person to talk to, said Mr. Swanick.

To that end, First Fidelity's customer service representatives are extensively trained on the computerized telephone system, bank products, telephone technique, and other things like voice modulation, stress management, and anger diffusion.

The two latter items are major issues for people handling hostile customers.

"Only about 5% of the calls are problems that need to be resolved," said Mr. Swanick. "But some days you may feel like you got every one of them."

Resolving Complaints

Fidelity's reps are encouraged to take customer complaint resolution seriously. A representative's name goes on the written documentation of a problem, and if another department is involved, it is the representative's responsibility to bird-dog his colleagues until the customer is satisfied.

To determine performance, bank management randomly monitors calls and meets with individual representatives frequently to discuss performance.

A regular theme at these meetings is the balancing act between handling calls quickly and giving each customer adequate attention. Fidelity's benchmark for a rep is to handle at least 100 calls a day. If a rep handles 200, "We say that's great, but what's he doing, hanging up on each one?" asked Mr. Swanick.

Fidelity has developed a detailed evaluation and cash incentive system for reps in Philadelphia. The incentive program will be expanded companywide once all the customer service functions are centralized.

The incentive plan includes four measures: the results of phone monitoring by department supervisors, a mystery caller program using customers and employees, a survey of branch personnel who call customer service reps to get statements and answer questions for customers, and a survey of every customer helped by a phone rep.

Representatives are evaluated on such things as:

* Identifying themselves when they answer.

* Allowing the caller to vent his annoyance about the problem.

* Showing concern.

* Apologizing without taking blame.

* Taking control of the conversation.

* Telling the customer what will happen next.

* Saying thank-you.

* Giving the impressing of being knowledgeable and reasonable.

Each rep is judged individually and as a part of a team - a means of making sure "someone just doesn't work for himself and not help newer employees, said Mr. Swanick. A representative can earn a bonus of between $100 and $500 each quarter, depending on his scores.

At Chase, night reps get a higher salary for working the odd hours. They can dress more casually than their daytime colleagues and they can eat at their desk so they don't have to leave the phone lines. No food is the rule during the day.

Chase monitors its night shift with an automated phone system that tells managers how often a rep leaves his desk, since they must sign on and off the phone. A senior rep is assigned as supervisor to keep employees on their toes.

Management also makes sure to communicate with all shifts as they change, to make sure the night shift feels part of the customer service effort and is up to date on any operating changes. "We touch base with them daily," said Monte Jiran, second vice president of technical support and development.

Ms. Libbey is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque.

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