When Sovereign Bank of Wyomissing, Pa., goes through big changes - as it has been doing lately - senior executives join the front lines to help customers cope.
This time around, the job has been solving the problems of new customers who arrived with the purchase of 278 branches from FleetBoston Financial Corp.
For two years Sovereign has intermittently operated Solutions Centers, with top personnel on board, to field customer problems that branch and call-center employees could not handle.
These employees log questions into a database. Solutions Centers personnel - there are sometimes 200, not all of them senior executives - take on those problems as their own.
The senior execs "have the resources and the authority to make decisions," said vice president Melissa A. Gettler, director of the Solutions Centers and associate director of creative services at the $35 billion-asset bank.
The centers are activated when a rash of inquiries threatens - over the Y2K issue, for example, or branch conversions. Typically they receive about 100 inquiries a week and stay open for about two weeks.
Solutions Center respondents field questions on anything from direct-deposit dates to on-line banking software to cash management services - and try to get answers to the customers by sundown that very day.
"It is important for our customers and team leaders to know that questions can be resolved the same day," Ms. Gettler said.
The centers have the same hours as the branches, 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
They were open this week to handle the second round of a customer conversion, which occurred June 16, related to the FleetBoston branches. One of the centers was deactivated Thursday and the other is expected to close next week, Ms. Gettler said.
They are put on ice when "the issues are null and void," she said.
Communications teams at the Solutions Centers distribute lists of common questions and their answers twice daily to all of Sovereign's 600 community bank offices.
"We give them frequently asked answers and questions to help them serve customers on the spot," Ms. Gettler said. "If a specific issue arose, we would document it in our communications to all branches."
The Solutions Centers also hold daily conference calls. If necessary, executives from Boston, where Sovereign's division Sovereign Bank of New England is headquartered, are patched in to the call.
The first round of Fleet customer conversions was completed March 24. The third and final round is scheduled for July 24.
During each round, branches and automated teller machines are rebranded, and consumer and business accounts are transferred to Sovereign Bank of New England.
The bank first deployed the Solutions Centers in 1998. They are "extremely effective," Ms. Gettler said.