QUALITY ASSURANCE is an integral element of every financial institution's operations and new-technology decisions. It serves as a measuring tool for evaluating performance and as a diagnostic guide, defining goals and objectives for reengineering efforts. Building quality into every aspect of your bank's automation upgrade or system conversion helps ensure that your goals will be met.

Most executives at financial institutions agree about the need for quality and an assurance that systems and processes meet certain standards of performance. However, not all bankers actually include quality assurance as an integral part of their overall technology strategies, and fewer still can agree on a common definition.

Quality is management's chief responsibility; top executives must assure that quality iscentral to every decision and process within an institution. And quality assurance is the common characteristic of every successful management team. As shown in this article-,quality assurance can be built into processes, conversions, and upgrades, and, most important, into strategies and decisions.

Differing views on quality assurance at a northeastern regional bank led to a classic example of how a bank can improve its operations by factoring in quality at the front end of a technology decision.

The bank sought to improve operations at its customer service telephone center.

The first step: defining goals for the project to increase the number of calls handled, improve response times, and more. But equally important, the bank also included in its goals a definition for quality, defining it from an operator and customer standpoint. A traditional analysis of the operation found that simply training operators to handle the most frequent inquiries and routing more complex questions to other departments would meet most objectives.

However, from a customer standpoint this solution proved an inconvenience. It required callers to repeatedly explain situations and questions to several operators before receiving accurate assistance. The solution was a melding of both perspectives. The bank set up an automated recording with touchtone menu options directing customers to frequently requested information with an option for live operator assistance.

Many financial institutions tend to minimize the importance of building in quality assurance as part of new technology upgrades or reengineering projects. Quality assurance encourages better decisions on what type of technology provides the best solutions. It also produces a consistent criteria for meeting objectives while providing a measuring device for gauging the success of any upgrade or improvement.

Most mistakes occur when an institution seeks to implement quality measurement programs after a new system or process is installed. As the case study illustrated, omitting quality assurance concerns from the front end of any reengineering decision creates system breakdowns after installation. Imagine the results if the bank in the example had gone only with its first solution for improving operations. Chances are it would be fielding calls from more than a few unhappy customers.

While it is generally agreed that it's best to approach a project from the quality assurance perspective, it's not always the first element considered. It should be.

The critical phase in any project is defining expections and goals. Expectations should focus on issues such as reducing cost, increasing productivity, and measuring efficiency more accurately. Without clearly defined goals, it is impossible to measure the success of any reengineering project.

Once a bank has defined its objectives, it can now incorporate quality assurance as part of its implementation.

To illustrate the point, let's return to the example. A bank may have a goal for its customer service operator to handle 30 calls per hour. The technology solution is an automated switchboard and menu-driven recording. The built-in quality factor is a tightly worded telephone script, outlining frequently asked questions and techniques for handling a variety of scenarios in a minimum of time. The quality assurance is a daily count of calls handled, highlighting operator performance.

While most examples are never this cut and dried, it is a good primer on incorporating quality assurance into daily operations.

A second example involves branch automation. It illustrates the growing industry trend towards platform automation and client-server solutions for integrated marketing and cross-selling campaigns.

Although many banks have implemented such systems, they are failing to meet projected results. In most cases, these institutions have left out quality assurance in the decision process.

Most institutions' lofty goals for platform automation usually involve improving sales. Though that is an admirable objective, it tends to be less than specific. A quality assurance perspective seeks to identify the total goal, which is improving the institution's sales cycle. That's the entire process by which a customer is sold -- from the time he walks into an institution to when the ink is dry on the contract for a new product or service.

A quality solution is identifying cross-selling opportunities and marketing additional products and services to qualified customers. This means the information necessary to market products and services to a customer must be available in a single source. The technology that delivers an improved sales cycle is platform automation.

Building quality assurance into the technology solution means centralizing the information necessary to market services into the hands of the customer service representative. This is achieved with a system that streamlines the cycle at the point of sale, providing the customer service representative information from the institution's lending data base, accounting ledger, and credit scoring policies.

By streamlining the sales cycle from several information sources to a single server, an institution improves customer service while increasing loan volume and product sales.

Platform automation meets sales cycle goals by integrating systems and departments into a single server. The goal is met when information and power lies in the hands of the customer service representative at the point of sale.

To improve the sales cycle and enhance quality at the point of sale, platform automation must be configured with the needs of two equally important types of individual in mind -- the consumer seeking a loan or other bank product, and the customer service representative serving that consumer.

Quality is fully built into the system only when the needs of both parties are met. The customer is seeking a one-stop service provider for information on loan products, mutual funds, and demand-deposit, individual retirement, and other accounts. The customer service representative requires quick access to information on customer financials, loan rates, and product terms.

The goal remains improving customer service while increasing loan volume and product sales. This is achieved with a system that streamlines the point of sale, providing the customer service representative information from the institution's lending data base, accounting ledger, and credit scoring policies. By empowering the platform user, a bank is able to meet the quality expectations of its customers.

By assessing the quality issues for customers in relation to the project's overall objectives, an institution can ensure its platform automation solution will meet those goals.

Quality assurance also serves as a benchmark for improving systems and reengineering operations. The beauty of monitoring a process' performance quality are results that highlight inefficiencies as well as areas exceeding expectations.

Quality is management's primary focus. And it's an unending pursuit. Without a management committed to quality assurance, an institution's systems and processes -- no matter how advanced -- will ultimately be stripped of effectiveness and never be fully implemented to maximum potential. The bottom line is that quality assurance must be viewed as more than a catch-all phrase for sales brochures and presentations. Rather, it's a cornerstone upon which a successful bank is built.

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