As financial services firms seek to improve distribution efficiency and effectiveness, call centers will have a key role in reducing distribution costs, creating unique customer value, and supporting other channels such as the Internet. However, few firms have positioned themselves effectively to realize the potential of the call center channel. Too many rely on the call center for traditional customer care functions, overlooking the opportunity to create a distinctive distribution experience for some customer groups.

Financial services is a distribution business. The challenge is to sell and serve the right product to the right customer in the right channel at the right cost. Call centers have an important role in the distribution mix, but getting it right requires effective alignment of the call center's resources with strategic and performance priorities of the business and the enterprise.

Creating a differentiated and consistent customer experience while also capturing economies of scale and scope will be the hallmarks of the winners in financial services. Financial services firms generally are not differentiated by their products. It is through the integration of product, channel, and service quality that competitors create distinctive advantages.

This means transforming a homogeneous call center into a heterogeneous portfolio of customer contact centers, each tailored to the buying preferences and economics of targeted customer segments and their economic drivers.

Traditional profitability measures of channel performance do little to help managers understand the drivers of channel performance - efficiency, effectiveness, and a satisfying customer experience. The need for economies of scale means call centers must operate at full capacity. At the same time, the call center enables highly precise measures of performance and highly segmented delivery of sales and service activities. Satisfying both requires creative and tough-minded management of the design and details of performance.

Successfully combining the need for performance excellence with the opportunity for market differentiation is the challenge. Here are suggestions to make your call center more effective:

Institutionalize the firm's brand promise in the way that sales and service processes are designed and managed. Customers seeking new products or service for existing relationships should experience tangible benefits from doing business with the company.

Manage the call center channel as a business. Firms should measure the expected call center's contributions on distribution efficiency, customer markets, customer experience, talent management, and customer relationship management.

Create a distinctive customer experience for target segments. This means operating models for each contact area within the center that reflect the value proposition for the customers served by the area, their distribution preferences and economics of the customers, and the level of service quality targeted.

Define the call center's role in complementing the strategies of other channels. The advantage of a multi-channel, multi-product distribution environment is the ability to integrate channel functionality and capacity for specific customer segments. Defining these interdependencies and operating requirements is key to making integrated channel management work.

Enable people to make the difference. Capable and effectively managed people are necessary to make a call center work. Firms need employee acquisition and retention strategies that reduce turnover, increase productivity, and enhance the quality of the customer experience by ensuring a satisfying and productive work place.

Use the Internet to accelerate needed change. In most firms the Internet channel is highly dependent on the call center. This means call centers must restructure their operating processes and information technology to support the Internet channel while continuing to serve traditional customer groups.

Manage customer, channel, and market information as a strategic asset. The inherent potential of the call center environment will never be realized unless the lessons learned, the opportunities uncovered, and the knowledge gained of customer behavior is evaluated and acted upon. The operating environment of the call center is unique in its ability to track and monitor practices and performance.

Call centers are at a pivotal point in their evolution as key distribution channels for all types of financial services. Firms that understand the value of distribution in creating value for customers and shareholders are moving aggressively to change their call centers into customer contact centers that are characterized by segmented delivery contact centers, efficient operations, and a highly productive work force.

Ms. McClave is principal and banking practice leader at Tilinghast-Towers Perrin, a management consulting firm in New York.

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