A strong focus on containing costs is preventing banks from realizing the full potential of their call centers, according to an American Bankers Assoc-iation survey.

Only 24% of the 450 ABA member financial institutions surveyed said their call center gives them a competitive advantage. Sixty-two percent said their call center is a cost center; only 14% said it is a profit center. Call centers that operate as cost centers tend to focus on measuring average talk time or call abandon rates, said Rhonda Proctor, the marketing director at Frontline Group Financial Training Resources, a consulting firm that conducted the study with the ABA.

Call centers can become profit centers by "exploring qualitative measurements such as 'Was the customer's need met?' " Ms. Proctor said. "As banks focus more on their customers' experiences, they will have profitable call centers."

Banks must invest in the human as well as the technology side to achieve this, Ms. Proctor said. Managers need to provide performance feedback, motivation, coaching, reinforcement, and help their agents set goals, she said.

The survey found that most banks are not providing adequate training for call center managers, are not tracking customer satisfaction, nor measuring dimensions associated with call centers as profit centers. Only about one-third of respondents offer sales management or leadership skills training.

Other shortcomings cited in the survey report include few motivational programs that compensate call center representatives for unique aspects of their jobs, a lack of a selection process for call center leaders, and little or no management training.

Yet personnel-related issues concern call center managers most. Seventy-eight percent of them listed adequate training among their most important concerns. Seventy-nine percent cited hiring workers, 76% retaining quality people, and 59% improving team performance.

"Skill and well-trained staff are still at the heart of the successful call center," said Jane Yao, ABA managing director of surveys and statistics. "Providing the necessary training and measuring the end results are two critical components that cannot be overlooked."

Training managers is "one of the surest ways to maximize the call center's potential," said Cheryl O'Donoghue, senior vice president of Frontline. "Call center profitability can literally skyrocket with proper training."

The survey indicated that banks plan to spend slightly more on employee training in 2000 and cut back a bit on technology spending.

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