An executive from First Union Corp. is sparkplugging a proposed consortium that would establish an industry standard for customer service.
Thomas J. Kitrick, a vice president at First Union National Bank, has held preliminary talks with the Bank Administration Institute to solicit its help in forming the group. Discussions are still in the early stages, he said, but six financial institutions have expressed interest in joining.
Using benchmarking techniques, the nonprofit group might, for example, establish an average period within which calls should be answered, Mr. Kitrick said. Ideally it would have a Web site on which members could share ideas, and it would hold quarterly meetings.
"The way the company implements the strategy is what will give it a competitive advantage," Mr. Kitrick said in explaining why banks should not be fearful of giving away competitive secrets. "This is not an application, like Microsoft Word. It is a cultural change, which can be harder to embrace."
Mr. Kitrick has been working for eight months on an important aspect of First Union's customer service strategy: the development of an intranet for the 7,000 employees of First Union Direct, the company's call center. Employees are to use the network to keep colleagues up to date about developments in their part of the company. The goal is to use employee knowledge to generate exemplary customer service.
"Financial institutions need to value the intellectual assets of their organizations as something that needs to be managed," Mr. Kitrick said in a speech at the Bank Administration Institute's Internet Banking Conference in Miami last week.
Most banks wrongly focus most of their efforts on their Internet sites, giving only minimal attention to intranets for their own employees, Mr. Kitrick said. "We are talking about the opportunity to get a database of information and transfer it so that your employees can use it as knowledge," he said.
Banks that succeed in doing so can increase revenue, decrease expenses, and reduce employee attrition, he said.
First Union's intranet, which is officially scheduled for a June start-up, is intended to ease communication between groups of employees and between managers and employees. Managers can use an authentication process to verify employees' identities and can dictate who gets what information. Eventually the intranet is supposed to let customer service representatives see the same screens that customers see when they call with a question.
Mr. Kitrick has held focus groups with customer service representatives to get their feedback on the intranet. He also has hired an editorial staff to monitor the intranet's content and to train employees on the style of writing that is expected in exchanges within the network's chat areas.
"It's not just about worrying about offensive language," he explained. "There is a certain style of writing you have to use to make sure that the words link to different areas of the site."
First Union's intranet is one of a string of initiatives by the company to improve its customer relations. Last May it formed a 23-person service "SWAT team" led by chairman Edward E. Crutchfield Jr. to find problem areas within its departments.