Chase Manhattan Corp.'s merger with Chemical Banking Corp. has given rise to one of the nation's largest call centers.

The call center, in Jericho, N.Y., is a virtual banking village, employing 1,200. It is expected to handle 70 million calls next year.

"Our vision of the call center is to be a world-class direct bank," said Edmund T. Valenski, the Chase senior vice president who oversees the facility. "Other banks view them as a separate unit."

Chase handles nearly all consumer telephone inquiries in-house. Outsourcing is kept to a minimum.

The merger has afforded some economies of scale but simultaneously gave birth to this operation - and its scope makes it difficult to compare with those of other banks.

Cheryl O'Donohue, a consultant at Financial Training Resources Inc. of Lombard, Ill., who recently compiled a survey of bank call centers for the American Bankers Association, likens a call center with 1,200 workers to "a branch with 10,000 employees."

The cavernous facility is filled with workstations and is dotted with Good Humor stands, for morale, and overhead electronic bulletin boards, to boost productivity.

The center offers around-the-clock access to Chase's growing line of products and support for its widening array of delivery channels.

"Anything you can do face-to-face in a branch, you can pretty much do in our center," Mr. Valenski said. "We're sort of the crossroads of the organization."

About 80% of incoming calls are handled exclusively by the bank's voice response unit, but the remaining 20% keep the staff busy. A growing volume of outgoing sales calls add to the hum.

"People do call at two or three in the morning," Mr. Valenski notes.

The "new" Chase call center is really the old Chemical call center - with added capacity.

After the merger, Mercer Consulting Group Inc. of New York was hired to study combining the banks' three call centers. Chemical's operation was in Jericho, while Chase operated units in Rochester and Garden City, N.Y.

Mr. Valenski said the consultants concluded that "the old Chemical call center was world-class in a way that was not duplicable in the Chase call centers.

"It became obvious that the right decision was to consolidate all our activities in the center that had that infrastructure."

Chase's Rochester call center was closed in May. About 25 workers there moved to Jericho, while the others were absorbed in local Chase operations.

The Garden City staff will be moving to Jericho in November, when that facility will gradually close.

The net staffing gain at the Jericho facility will amount to only 200. Chase executives anticipate that technology and training improvements will enable the streamlined operation to cope with the combined call volume.

"We're very efficient," Mr. Valenski asserted. "It comes back to scale. You're able to absorb the increase in client inquiries without a proportional increase in staff."

"That's one of the upsides of the merger," he added. "There are real benefits to our clients as well as to investors."

Another advantage of the consolidation is cost savings; Mr. Valenski said the unit's costs are projected to decrease 20%. "Our expectation is it will be more than that," he said.

The Chase call center is a case study in how banks and their customers have come to rely on touch-tone technology.

In 1989 the Chemical call center handled only four million calls. Six years later, calls had risen to 60 million. Of those calls, 45.3 million were dispatched by the voice response unit, while 14.4 million were served by representatives. .

Record volumes are expected this year and next.

"It's a testament to people's willingness to use the phone and a tribute to our functionality and the quality of the way people are treated," Mr. Valenski said.

Chase's call center can handle customer inquiries in 17 languages, including Turkish, Chinese, and Greek.

Each representative receives four weeks of classroom training covering the computer system, telephone skills, and Chase's "brand promise." That's followed by three weeks in a training bay with one-to-one supervision and coaching by a manager.

Representatives also receive constant "uptraining" - they are apprised through their computer s of new Chase products and policies.

Representatives are expected to answer 22 calls per hour, and about 5,000 calls a week are monitored - the equivalent of about five calls per representative per week.

Unit managers often listen in more frequently to make sure a representative is using the client's name often enough and spending the proper amount of time with each one.

On top of his merger responsibilities, Mr. Valenski is looking to improve performance in outbound sales. A former director of quality for Chemical's consumer bank, he took over the call center in December with an eye toward pleasing the customer.

"A lot of banks don't do outbound sales, but we do," he said. "And in point of fact, clients do like to hear from their banks."

Representatives who make sales calls are instructed to know their customers and talk the language of a financial consultant - but not to "hawk" products.

Data base mining techniques are used to target customers. A person who calls frequently to check balances might receive a call from a representative alerting him to a service called ChaseFax, which automatically faxes current balances to customers every morning by 7.

Training for call center representatives is done in on-site classrooms. The support staff for Chase's PC banking program receive as much as six months of training.

Trainees are initially groomed into customer service representatives. But they are viewed as entry-level employees who may one day transfer to branches or other parts of the bank. Sixty percent are college graduates.

Kevin Tirrell, who oversees the training program, started as a call- taker and now is helping to redesign the call center's software, so that it will be easier to manipulate.

"We're doing everything more point-and-click," he said. "The hardest thing to learn is what information is stored on what screen." Since 40% of customer inquiries are about current balances and transactions, that information is being made more readily available.

Because representatives must spend seven and a half hours a day in front of a computer talking to people who aren't always in the best of spirits, an "easygoing personality" is the trait Mr. Tirrell identifies as crucial.

In the high-stress hive of the call center, the ability to handle complaints gracefully is easily as important as deftness with a computer mouse.

"What am I surprised we don't get more of?" Mr. Valenski said. "I'm surprised we don't have more reps explode."

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