At Bank United, agents handling 70,000 live calls a month have a seemingly unending stream of customer information available to them when they service and sell to customers.

But if these same agents need to update simple information such as a mailing address or start a loan application, they run into a technological wall. Because of security concerns-and, some sources contend, territorial issues-many of Bank United's systems are designed to prevent agents from automatically updating existing files or electronically dispatching new loan originations.

The result, in spite of the institution's desire to deliver higher quality customer service: a blizzard of paperwork which creates costly busy work and, more importantly, raises the potential for error on sales- and other vital customer-related information. "What irritates the customer most are things like a misspelled name and address," says Terri Peterson, director of Houston-based Bank United's call center. "You can screw up their interest calculation and they aren't as bothered by that."

The answer at Bank United has been to make this technology wall invisible to customers. Now, agents print out updates to existing files and applications, turning them over to a newly formed group that re-enters the information into a system designed to capture, for example, new address information for DDA accounts. And the company is upgrading its call center to a new Alltel workstation, which will bridge the technology gap and eliminate duplication of work. The upgrade and links between front- and back-end systems can occur seamlessly because Alltel also has the source code. This enables reps to update selected records, which wasn't possible previously.

Peterson expects the upgrade to save money by eliminating two to three full-time positions now dedicated to re-entering data at the 60-seat call center. In addition, the upgrade should also greatly reduce the potential for errors, which is embarrassing to company employees when providing service to customers.

Experts say the problem is common in call centers. The challenge lies in integrating the call center with the institution's back office and proprietary systems spanning many lines of business. "This is a problem which is predominantly overlooked," says Alltel director Robert Chandler. "People often don't think about the integration between the front and back ends."

Traditionally, call centers have taken a band-aid approach to the integration dilemma, using techniques such as "screen scraping" to bypass the problem. Some have ignored a more comprehensive, permanent solution because it is costly and requires the help of the technology solution provider which created the company's legacy system. "None of us who have (built) legacy back ends will allow access to source code," Chandler says.

long-term benefits

The upshot for financial institutions is that the creator of the legacy system must either be paid to fix the problem, or be paid a licensing fee to allow a third party to do so. For Bank United, the decision was simplified because Alltel is both the developer of the bank's original system and the vendor for its growing call center operations.

Experts estimate that such call center projects could take three to six months and cost between $50,000 and $250,000, depending on the scope, to fix. While that may be steep, the trade-off for institutions is improved customer service and sales. "It can mean a better response to a customer," Chandler says. "It can mean an improved wait time of seconds per call. That all adds up."

-J.Racine

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