The financial services industry didn't fare so well in Forrester Research's latest ranking of the nation's most customer-friendly companies. Only three financial firms were ranked in the top 20, and overall, banks and credit-card companies were among the lowest-rated of the 133 firms Forrester ranked in its annual Customer Experience Index.

We all know this is a critical time for the industry, and financial firms need to take a good look at the policies, processes and technology they put in place to do more with less, but at the same time remember who is keeping them in business - customers. It is possible to improve efficiency without dropping the ball on service.

So how can banks avoid pulling up the rear in Forrester's index next year? Here are some things to keep in mind.

First impressions matter. Despite the rise of online banking and other channels, the branch is still often the first - and most influential - customer touch point. Long lines due to improper staffing or personnel ill-equipped to answer questions can cause frustration and defection. Banks that are doing it right are taking a strategic approach to forecasting and scheduling staff - one that looks at capacity planning and employee skills to make sure the right people are in the right place at the right time.

Listen to the customer. And I mean really listen. This may seem like a no-brainer, but after the bank branch, one of the next most influential service points is the customer hotline. Forward-thinking banks are literally listening to the voice of the customer using technology that has been proven in contact centers for years. One such example is speech analytics, which helps identify rising trends and the "root causes" behind why customers call, enabling organizations to quickly pinpoint and address customer issues before they escalate.

Connect the dots. Branch administration still often works independently from the contact center, which works independently from the back office. With all this disconnected information about the customer living in disparate systems, it's no wonder organizations find connecting the dots a challenge. Technology platforms such as workforce optimization, customer relationship management and voice over Internet protocol are opening the door to change when it comes to sharing and managing information, as well as coordination and collaboration.

Smart technology investments that put customer needs first will not only drive cost savings and improve the bottom line, it will foster more loyal customers.

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