You're in a jam, the phones are ringing, and you need help. Whom do you call?
The Swiss Army.
At least at Charles Schwab & Co., that's the code term for the legions of employees who are drafted to answer phones when the stock market is under siege.
They're "hidden-you don't see them and then they're there," said Glen Mathison, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based discount brokerage. "We call them the Swiss Army," he said, "and other brokerages have the same thing."
Like Swiss soldiers, these employees are versatile and well trained, with Series 7 licenses and additional company training. Hundreds of workers-in areas as diverse as advertising, marketing, and finance-can handle customer calls at a moment's notice, Mr. Mathison said.
Demand "mirrors the market," Mr. Mathison said. "On days with large volume, they're likely to be used."
That phone representatives at a discount brokerage have that much training may surprise investors.
"The customer may not have any understanding of that," said Geoffrey H. Bobroff, an industry consultant in East Greenwich, R.I. "The Series 7 is a reasonably good watermark for a knowledge base .... It prepares you for all types of securities trading-Treasuries, stocks, and bonds."
The Series 7 license requires taking a six-hour, multiple-choice examination developed by the New York Stock Exchange and administered by the National Association of Securities Dealers.
At San Diego-based Jack White & Co., up to 200 Series 7-licensed employees answer phones on days of active trading, about 80 more than usual, said Barry Boyte, vice president of marketing.
The added workers are culled from customer service, new accounts, mutual funds relations, and adviser services departments.
At Quick & Reilly Inc., a New York discount brokerage, similar emergency teams of Series 7 licensees can be lifted from human resources and branch management departments.
Quick & Reilly even has a "disaster recovery area," a workspace separate from its downtown Manhattan offices. In addition to providing extra room for customer service representatives, the recovery area is on different phone and utility grids-offering a defense against brownouts or power failures, said spokesman Charles Salmans.
Barring power failure, brokerages are finding voice-activated customer service lines and on-line trading programs serve as antidotes for many nervous investors.
Schwab estimated that half of investor questions and trades are taken care of by Telebroker, Voicebroker, Servicebroker, and computer linkups.
At Jack White, about 25% of caller volume is handled by automated phone systems or Web sites; likewise, Quick & Reilly's calling load is "significantly" reduced by computer and voice-activated systems.
Despite the markets' recent rocky performance, phone volume is well below that of the 1987 stock market crash, in part because of the automated systems, brokerages reported.
"Caller volume is down as we've installed these other systems. That's done a lot to relieve pressure," said Quick & Reilly's Mr. Salmans. "In 1987, those options were not available."