The phones are ringing — is customer service keeping pace?

The rate of homeowners' falling behind on mortgage payments continues to rise, putting ever more consumers at risk of foreclosure, according to a study released by the credit reporting firm TransUnion. Homeowners in this limbo are contacting their banks more frequently to renegotiate the terms of their loans.

Banks need to estimate and plan for an influx of calls — sometimes tens of thousands per day. However, few financial institutions are equipped to handle an immediate and rapid influx of such calls. They need to plan ahead to identify a partner that can deliver thousands of agents in near real time.

The outsourced, home-based agent model, which lets banks tap an elastic pool of home agents to handle spikes in calls, is a response to this need. Banks can make customer representatives appear during times of high call volume and disappear when volume is more manageable.

But the need is for more than just having agents to answer calls. It is about having the right type of customer service agents available. This means using agents who can understand where the customer is coming from and can better resolve questions and concerns, while providing an empathetic ear.

Remember, in times of distress, customers want to be heard. They want someone to say, "I understand. Let me help you." With this in mind, banks should consider using home-based agents to engage with customers who need such attention.

For the most part, home-based agents are in their late 30s, college-educated and typically possess life experience with mortgages, credit cards and families to support. This profile is significantly different from the typical facility-based call center agent profile. The life experience and maturity of home-based agents makes it easier for them to empathize with distressed homeowners who are calling with concerns about their delinquent mortgages; they can relate to customers and help them feel they have been heard.

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