Good ideas seldom translate quickly into sound business practices. Take, for example, the "Call center as profit center" mantra bouncing around the industry these days. We've all heard the line before, but what does it really take for a financial institution to achieve such an objective?

The truth is, while everybody's talking about call centers as the "heart" of profitability, few financial institutions are truly embarking on a strategic plan to create multi-media, sales- and service-oriented call centers that seamlessly tie all channels of an institution together.

Some aggressive financial institutions are finding out the hard way that being first to integrate call centers with multiple distribution channels isn't easy. Positioning call centers as the central integration point of all electronic banking channels-ATMs, kiosks, telephone, and PC and Internet banking-makes perfect sense in theory; practically speaking, getting there can be a nightmare.

While all call center integration projects are complex, monumental undertakings, the smartest financial institutions have a clear understanding of what it is they want to achieve from a business perspective. Only after that can an institution set out to create a plan that outlines what needs to be handled and developed internally, and what aspects of the project can be provided by outside experts.

Every financial institution has its own expectations of what its call centers will achieve in terms of profitability and productivity. The ensuing technology infrastructure of the call center-multi-channel integration should support these clearly defined business goals.

The most ambitious plan to date is NationsBank's multi-phase, multi- channel integration project, which includes its call centers. Ambitious, yes; the average bank's undertaking it is not. Working with Andersen Consulting, NationsBank has decided that a large portion of the technology infrastructure integrating and supporting the bank's multiple channels will be developed internally, at a hefty cost to the Charlotte-based institution.

Not everyone has chairman Hugh McColl's spending appetite-or his information technology (IT) budget. But even McColl knows a good deal when he sees one. The bank recognizes that, as more innovative call center solutions come out of the technology world, it makes sense to deploy this technology where possible. One such provider that NationsBank is working with in its massive channel integration project: Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, Inc., a San Francisco-based computer telephony integration (CTI) software company whose meteoric rise is not without merit.

With an impressive and growing list of financial services companies under its belt (count Charles Schwab & Co. among Genesys's believers, too), the technology company is a global provider of open, scalable CTI framework and applications. Genesys has a suite of inbound, outbound, blended, network- and Internet-based call center products that enable a financial institution to attack the sales and customer service challenge without blowing the roof off its IT budget.

What a novel idea for banks looking to control call center costs and maximize profitability. - HOLLY SRAEEL

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