Banks are beginning to realize that their call centers have to relinquish traditional staffing practices and reach for more mature, qualified and better paid employees with a future in the bank. This is particularly important now that bank management is set on turning these cost centers into profit centers, where customer service reps make sales calls, marketing sophisticated financial products.

But fundamental, structural issues specific to call center operations could make that tricky considering call centers were established as a by-product of electronic banking, staffed with people who were hired to answer calls about account balances.

The result? A marketing problem surrounded by a legal minefield. Banks have traditionally safeguarded institutions by giving call center reps scripts. But scripts cannot cover the dialog necessary to do sales. Enthusiastically repeating a sales pitch as many as 40 times an houroa typical productivity targetoburns people out, meaning vast turnover and uninformed employees the bank can ill afford when questions go from "What's this fee?" to "Should I buy my granddaughter an annuity or make her my life insurance beneficiary?"

But there is help. "What a lot of large banks are trying to do is route calls that can either be handled by technology alone or to a lower-paid agent," says Hobart J. Harris, principal at Ernst & Young LLP. "The thinking is those filtering techniques will leave you with only those calls that need a highly paid and highly trained professional."

The problem is that a "highly-paid" call center professional makes no more than $25,000 a yearopeanuts to the educated, informed, licensed financial sales professional the job calls for. Says Steven Boehm, svp and head of First Union Direct, "The methods you use to select people, the career path you put them on potentially and ultimately should lead into a full-blown sales career in the bank." --reinbach tfn.com

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