All Systems Go

In today’s digital age, customer contact centers rely on the right technology

By Phil Britt

Where your customers are is where your community bank needs to be. And it’s no secret: Today’s consumers want to choose how they interact with the companies they do business with. The Internet and mobile devices provide people with a cornucopia of options for obtaining the information they need, buying something or accomplishing tasks. Telephone, email, text messaging and the Internet, including social media, are channels many people want, and sometimes expect, to use.

As remote customer contact centers take on the service of traditional brick-and-mortar storefronts, technology acts as a digital bridge for communication between banks and their customers, several retail service consultants and experts say. With the properly selected technology, contact centers should provide the same superior service (possibly even outside standard office hours) that customers have been accustomed to at brick-and-mortar locations, they add.

“The idea is to take the bank to the customers,” offers Jimmy Sawyers, co-founder of Sawyers & Jacobs, a bank technology and risk management consulting firm Collierville, Tenn.

So equipping today’s contact centers with appropriate technology resources to handle a variety of inbound and outbound communications is a task that community banks should review, retail service consultants say. Such technology should allow bank service staff to serve customers efficiently and effectively through their preferred communication channel, which could mean a different channel for a different circumstance. Such technology should also provide bank service staff with timely and relevant customer information and metrics to engage customers, including effective cross selling on the digital front lines.

As Germantown, Tenn., technology consultant Trent Fleming puts it, “To ensure that customers embrace these technologies, you have to ensure that you can support them.”

Centralizing communications

For many community banks, Fleming says, addressing customer service technology can start with centralizing the most fundamental communication channel: telephone systems. He maintains that many community banks operating with decentralized telephone hubs—where customers are offered a menu of disconnected branch and operational nodes to call that are answered by separate, disconnected staff personnel—should be centralized and coordinated.

“In a lot of community banks, there’s reluctance at the board level to even centralize the phone system,” he says. “Some will have [multiple] branches with a receptionist in each one. The reality is that banks cannot afford to continue doing what they have been doing.”

“The key to better service is resolving the customer’s issue, not passing them around the bank trying to find someone who can.”
—Trent Fleming, technology consultant

An extension of the trend in centralized telephone systems involves migrating toward fully centralized communication structures. Such organizations allow customer contact center workers—empowered with increasingly broad or “universal” knowledge of banking services and products—to manage and monitor the multiple communication channels a community bank provides. In addition to answering telephone calls or routing them to appropriate staff ready to provide quick and accurate answers, those centralized communication systems should enable staff to do such things as answer emails and texts, respond to a social media post, or assist online customers with a transaction or loan application. Increasingly those systems should allow contact center staff to respond to customers in real time across multiple channels.

A community bank contact center needs the technology to enable staff to service inbound communications coming from telephone calls, email and chat sessions within a single banking application, Fleming recommends. Facebook and other social media messaging applications should be a secondary consideration unless the bank will commit the resources to maintain regular interaction, he and others say.

Collecting service data

The communications systems should also be integrated with the bank’s customer relationship management, retail technology consultants say. This technical capability can allow a bank to support sales fully and consistently across all channels at the contact center. It also allows banks to gather and use customer interaction data to improve cross selling, build customer relationships and adjust service protocols.

Minimally, Fleming recommends having a centralized phone system that supports contact center features such as identification of the number being called and the number of the caller. It should also give contact center staff the ability to selectively route calls according to a customer’s specific need or question, and it should automatically redirect calls if a phone call isn’t answered in a certain number of rings, he says. Automated email responses acknowledging message receipt and setting customer expectations for prompt replies (for example, stating when a customer should expect to receive a reply to an email or text) can better enable a bank to handle multiple emails without overburdening staff.

Bob Meara, analyst for Celent, the Boston technology and management consulting firm, says community banks should consider Computer Telephone Integration systems to route customer calls faster and more efficiently. In addition to providing service staff with more information about an incoming call, these computer-guided systems are designed to prevent customers from getting delayed or stymied by clunky interactive voice response systems. They can also prevent customers from encountering dead-end call transfers into a staff person’s voice message box.

“For the community bank this can be a point of differentiation compared with the larger banks,” Meara suggests.

Automated call management systems should also allow community banks to more effectively spread incoming calls across more staff to allow them to more fully handle customers’ questions and needs, and avoid follow-up calls to customers, Fleming adds. Live chat capabilities can also quickly support digital customers, he says. “The key to better service is resolving the customer’s issue, not passing them around the bank trying to find someone who can.”

Sawyers recommends identifying the most common customer requests and making sure staff has the knowledge and technology resources to respond quickly and thoroughly. Just as important, however, is identifying customer service goals, he says. Such goals could mean more inquiries handled, more (or particular) products and services sold, or fewer repeated inquiries about the same issue.

Jim Burson, senior director for Cornerstone Advisors Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz., advises community banks to develop a formal delivery channel roadmap to prioritize strategies and investments in their contact centers, as well as in their other channels. When it comes to contact centers, several retail technology experts agree that community banks can take some cues from megabanks regarding the importance of collecting details from all customer contacts and communications. Aggregating all customer service information across all retail delivery channels, including whether a customer relied on the branch, ATM, electronic banking channel or contact center, is an increasingly important technological function for all financial service providers.

Community banks should ensure their contact center systems can collect, access and analyze all customer service data, retail systems experts say. Such information, regardless of the volume of customer calls and contacts at its foundation, can be extremely helpful in supporting not merely overall service, but also product development, overall technology needs, and marketing and sales campaigns.

Phil Britt is a freelance financial writer in Illinois.