Call centers conjure up old-tech images of phone operators in many people’s heads, but they are taking on a more sophisticated role with the rise of mobile banking.

Once primarily the handlers of everyday questions and routine transactions, call center representatives are now tackling the more difficult problems of consumers who have already done the easy work themselves on their smartphones.

“We’re answering more of the ‘How do I … ?’ questions,” said Jason Furer, site manager for customer care centers at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh. “We’ve seen an increase in the complexity of what folks are expecting us to do.”

As a result, some banks have made major investments in call-center software or raised the professional requirements for staffers who work there.

Close-up image of two workers, wearing headsets, at a call center.
New job description
“We’re changing the experience level that we look at in hiring” for call centers, says Jason Furer, PNC's site manager for customer care centers. "We’re the problem-solver, and we’re staffing our call centers to be the problem-solvers.” Adobe Stock

To be sure, bank call centers are not popping up like mushrooms as data centers have on the suburban and rural landscapes. Industrywide numbers are hard to come by, but total call center staffing levels have remained about the same, or even declined in some areas, said Steve Morgan, managing director at Intelenet Global Services, which provides outsourced call-center services to banks.

But the mission of the existing facilities and the mix of talent at them are changing, he said. Less experienced workers are being replaced by those with more professional experience, usually across multiple tasks.

“It’s a shifting of resources,” Morgan said.

PNC and the $5.3 billion-asset Seacoast Banking Corp. of Florida say they have transferred experienced loan officers and managers out of branches and into call centers.

“We’re changing the experience level that we look at in hiring” for call centers, PNC’s Furer said. “People are looking at call centers as a new career path. ... We’re the problem-solver, and we’re staffing our call centers to be the problem-solvers.”

Recasting the call center helps banks accomplish several goals.

It saves money because paid staff are devoting less time to process mundane tasks like check deposits. In its third-quarter earnings presentation, Bank of America touted that total call volume at call centers has declined 13% over the past three years.

Moreover, banks want to create opportunities for cross-selling — if call-center agents have the right training. And advanced data analytical tools installed on call center agents’ desktop computers can give bank executives better insight into the quality of conversations between employees and customers.

Seacoast’s efforts to improve its call center is said to have helped the Stuart, Fla., bank make more loans. Consumer and small-business loan originations through either Seacoast’s call center or digital channels grew 25% from the first quarter to the second quarter this year, according to company officials.

“We’ve added the ability to handle more complex issues through the call center, and one is being able to actually fulfill and approve loans,” Chairman and CEO Dennis Hudson said. “It’s been an incredibly important part of our growth.”

Because of its centralized nature, the call center has allowed Seacoast to adopt software tools to help executives analyze agents’ discussions with customers.

“We need to be able to have the right message at the right time when people call in,” Hudson said.

The $3.6 billion-asset Cambridge Savings Bank has enhanced its call center both to cut costs and to sell more products. The Massachusetts bank contracted with the Irish firm Econiq for software that helps guide call-center agents’ chats with customers.

The partnership has helped Cambridge Savings track in monthly reports — and reduce — the number of missteps, such as having customers spend too long on hold. And it vastly increased the number of monthly product referrals at Cambridge, said Jim Callan, CEO of Econiq.

The Econiq software provides a color-coded system for helping guide call-center employees’ conversations with customers. Econiq uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze the dialog between customer and employee. A call-center agent’s screen will light up green when the discussion reaches a point where there’s a sales opportunity. Or it will turn red if the employee talks about something that may violate regulations.

With branch traffic on the decline and call centers being used for more important tasks, banks must improve how their call center agents talk to consumers, Callan said.

“Any brand organization, this is where they are going to compete in the future,” he said.

At the $1.4 billion-asset Extraco Banks in Temple, Texas, the work cycle has changed for its call center employees. Instead of quickly answering calls and hanging up, or processing account transfers, now they engage in lengthier conversations, said James Geeslin, the bank’s vice chairman and chief sales officer.

Back in 2010, Extraco customers spent an average of about 4 minutes and 55 seconds per call with an agent. This year, that average has climbed to 5 minutes and 37 seconds.

“They spend more time on the phone now than they used to,” Geeslin said.

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Andy Peters

Andy Peters

Andy Peters writes about regional banks, consumer finance and debt collections for American Banker.