Angela Blackburn, manager of Sanwa Bank California's direct bank, has discovered that selling loans through a call center is not much different from selling T-shirts.

Ms. Blackburn, who used to manage retailer Eddie Bauer's call center, said she applied many of the principles she picked up in retailing to running Sanwa BankDirect over the past two years.

"What retailers do extraordinarily well is execute quickly," Ms. Blackburn said during a speech at the Retail Delivery '98 conference this month. "Keeping things simple is crucial in the ability to execute."

Sanwa's 52-agent call center, in Monterey Park, near Los Angeles, handles calls for the bank's retail, small-business, and cash management divisions.

One of Ms. Blackburn's first tasks when she arrived at $8 billion-asset Sanwa was to "redesign how the call center should work," she said. She took three front-line employees off the phones to involve them in rebuilding the system with the vendor.

Her strategy included equal attention to people, processes, and technology, she said. "You can have great technology and marvelous products, but if employees can't articulate to customers, you won't sell a lot," Ms. Blackburn.

"Our goal is to have more than 80% of our customers using the fully automated service and not press '0' for a customer service representative."

The call center's interactive voice response unit now handles 300,000 calls a month. Agents handle 25,000 to 30,000 inbound calls; outbound calls include a limited number for various marketing campaigns and just to thank customers for their business.

For some direct marketing campaigns, Ms. Blackburn said, outbound calls are not a good fit. They were, though, for one in which Sanwa BankDirect agents called some of the 6,000 customers who had signed on to bank through Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft's Money software.

Roughly half of those customers had never logged on, Ms. Blackburn said. "We called them, and now 80% are using it."

Sanwa hopes to improve service on inbound calls. Already the staff answers 90% of those it handles within 20 seconds, "which we believe is industry-leading," Ms. Blackburn said. Also, she said, the average call lasts only three and a half minutes.

However, "first-call resolution is not very high right now," she said. "We're trying to increase resolution by analyzing exactly what the problem is and what is triggering the phone call."

Ms. Blackburn said her "bubble was burst" when she realized that call- center employees lacked real-time access to information about the customers they were talking to. To provide that access the bank intends to set up a centralized data warehouse, she said.

The Sanwa official said anyone starting a call center from scratch should "build a solid two- to three-year business plan" consistent with the bank's overall plans.

"Position the call center as a strategic weapon, remain highly visible, and communicate results," Ms. Blackburn said.

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