How banks prepared call center reps to handle surge in volume — from home

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Discover was in the middle of transitioning its 8,000 contact center agents to working at home when a magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck March 18 outside Salt Lake City, the home of its largest contact center and its statement-processing center.

“That was a little bit of a wrinkle,” said Dennis Michel, senior vice president of customer service and engagement at Discover.

Michel was referring to the fact that at the same time Discover, like many other financial institution, was migrating staff from contact centers to home to protect them from the coronvirus outbreak. Banks have had to answer a swell of phone calls from customers seeking help as the pandemic starts to hurt them financially. Depending on the bank, solutions include rerouting requests to digital channels, addressing customer concerns through other means, leveraging employee goodwill and more.

Dealing with more calls

Call center traffic started increasing as news about coronavirus emerged, perhaps as customers became more reluctant to bank in person or at an ATM. Neustar, an information services and technology company that works with several hundred banking clients, noticed a minor 3.8% increase in call volume on average across all asset classes when the first U.S. infection was announced on Jan. 21 and minor warnings were sounded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the first death occurred in the U.S. and governments started issuing sterner warnings in late February, Neustar saw a 21.5% increase in call volumes across all banks.

Dennis Michel, senior vice president of customer service and engagement at Discover
Discover put together work-at-home kits for call center employees that included lightweight computers and "literally took monitors off of their workstations, equipped them with a stand and wrapped them in bubble wrap for agents to take home,” says Dennis Michel, senior vice president of customer service and engagement.

Overall, between Jan. 21 and March 8, Neustar reports a 36.2% increase in call volumes across all tiers; there was a 43.3% spike for large banks alone.

Unsurprisingly, wait times have increased as well. Robert McKay, senior vice president of customer identity and risk solutions at Neustar, has heard reports that some waits stretch as long as three and a half hours, but the average is between 40 minutes and an hour and a half.

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That is not normally the case at Ally Bank, which posts call wait times on its website and has frequently estimated them to be as low as one or two minutes in recent days. The online bank says it eliminated one source of calls when it waived certain fees through July 18 — including overdraft charges and excessive transaction fees from savings and money market accounts. Plus, the transparency about wait times can help callers plan ahead if they want to reach a live agent.

The company also credits the flexible remote-work model it put in place in mid-March, and the strength of its self-service options such as remote check deposit and peer-to-peer payment services, as ways it has stayed on top of customer calls.

USAA, which operates a handful of financial centers around the United States, reports that calls about financial assistance are rising.

To free up space on the line for those inquiries, the institution encourages members to turn to its digital channels, including its website and app, for routine requests. For example, members will hear a recorded message to this effect when they call in, and have received emails highlighting the company’s digital capabilities.

Nearly 100% of USAA’s workforce now operates from home, and managers are asked to spend extra time working with team members. Managers are advised to conduct thorough check-ins to ensure that employees' personal needs, as well as customers' needs, are being met and to pay employees overtime if necessary in order to complete these one-on-one sessions.

Discover's approach

Discover, meanwhile, has taken a variety of steps to manage its phone lines while keeping customers satisfied. Call volume started picking up the week of March 16, and on March 20 it was about 7% higher than expected.

Still, the company reports that as of March 26, 91% of calls reached an agent within five minutes, with the average speed of answers for all calls at 74 seconds.

First, it had to enable customer service representatives to securely access confidential customer data from home. Discover already had a portion of thin-client computers — small, lightweight computers that do little actual computing but rely on a remote server to which they have a secured data connection — on hand for a planned upgrade later this year. They expedited shipments of even more units. About 23% of agents already worked from home.

“We were putting together kits that include the thin client and a headset, along with the cabling, power strip, all of that,” Michel said. “Most of our call center people are not equipped with laptops, so we literally took monitors off of their workstations, equipped them with a stand and wrapped them in bubble wrap for agents to take home.”

Although Michel wondered if more agents would take unplanned days off once at home, perhaps being concerned about their personal health or others under their care, he found the opposite. So far, agents have been willing to work overtime and on their off days to tackle the wave of calls.

“We’ve got great people,” Michel said. “We are 100% U.S.-based, so they are all our people, and they’re willing to jump in and help.” On March 20, Discover CEO Roger Hochschild sent a letter to employees assuring them the company had no plans for layoffs.

Discover has also seen some traffic divert to its other communication channels, including the messaging service through its mobile app, where volume doubled in March compared with February. The company programmed the natural language understanding component of its interactive voice response system so the artificial intelligence could understand the word “coronavirus” and direct callers to the appropriate agent.

Finally, the company erected a banner at the top of Discover’s home page that links to a list of frequently asked questions, informed by customer feedback, that have helped cut down on coronavirus-related inquiries.

As for the earthquake, the team acted fast to divert calls to its other three contact centers in Arizona, Delaware and Ohio, and enlisted an earthquake structural engineer to certify their buildings were stable. A slew of employees, including managers and vice presidents, pitched in to clean up downed ceiling tiles and knocked-over chairs.

About 16 hours after disaster struck, Discover’s Salt Lake City contact center was up and running in time for the 11 p.m. shift.

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