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Ewen Fleming

Ewen Fleming, Partner, Financial Services Advisory (Banking), Grant Thornton UK LLP

The ‘digital revolution’ is truly beginning to take shape in the world of banking. We have seen a number of major banks suggest that customers are moving their engagements to online and mobile channels, using this as justification for closing more and more branches. Those branches which remain will begin to become more personal and engaging, and seek to leverage all of the advantages of face-to-face contact, whilst using digital channels to make simple transactions easier and more convenient for customers (and cheaper to process for the service provider). In between these two mediums, the telephony channel has itself seen significant changes in recent years. To date the changes in call centres have, in the main, been tactical with regard to staffing, processes, performance measurement and functionality, yet changes in customer behaviour – enforced or not – call for a fundamental strategic overhaul of banking call centres.

Our own recent research suggests that less than 2% of customers prefer call centres as their primary  channel for servicing their banking needs, and  even less express telephony as a their preferred channel for purchasing a product1. Therefore, the key questions are:

  1. What purpose does telephony serve in modern day banking?
  2. What functionality and culture are required to meet customer demands?

What does this mean for banking call centres?

In the UK, we have almost 5,700 call centres, employing 1.1m people. This equates to around 4% employment across the UK as a whole2. Significantly, we have in the last few years seen a trend to bring call centres back ‘on-shore’ following high levels of customer feedback suggesting they’d rather speak to local people, particularly when the query or need is complex and/or sensitive. Price advantages for ‘off-shoring’ have also been eroded, and as a consequence we’ve seen a growth in new UK call centre operations. For example, Aegis recently opened a second call centre operation in Glasgow.

Ewen Fleming, Partner, Financial Services Advisory (Banking), Grant Thornton UK LLP

Ewen Fleming, Partner, Financial Services Advisory (Banking), Grant Thornton UK LLP

However, when we begin to scratch the surface of the call centre as a relevant channel, we begin to see the challenges being faced now and in future. The Mortgage Market Review (MMR) arrived on 26th April, and this has already seen a shift to increased levels of face-to-face mortgage advice (although some lenders such as Virgin Money have chosen to conduct all direct mortgage sales through their call centre). Preceding this, the Retail Distribution Review (RDR) began the process by shifting investment products towards face-to-face and the ‘execution only’ digital channel. Additionally, technological improvements in online functionality have led to general transactions –  such as making payments, funds transfers and balance checks – being migrated to online channels which customers can access wherever and whenever they chose to do so.

In many regards, call centres remain a relevant and required function to act as an effective bridge between channels – indeed, 89% of customers get frustrated at having to repeat their issue to multiple people in different channels3. However, a separate piece of research has suggested that up to 45% of customers will abandon their online transactions, switching to call centres where their queries or concerns have not been addressed quickly enough4. This emphasises the need to develop an effective strategy to deliver on their importance to both customers and providers of financial services.

The path to evolution for the call centre

Given the important, but continually changing, role of telephony, how should companies evolve to ensure this vital bridge is both efficient and effective?

Jaime Scott, MD of Evaluagent suggests some interesting moves for distribution and operations directors to optimise their telephony challenge, all of which are inexpensive to implement:

  • Define the expected standard of service you want to offer customers in terms of agent behaviours and skills
  • Engage all members of the contact centre by giving everyone access to their own real-time performance data and enable them to play an active and self-reflective role in their own performance improvement
  • Create a culture where coaching and feedback is an integral part of your operational culture – regular coaching, feedback and encouraging 3600 surveys will soon become the norm and improve both morale and results
  • Measure customer satisfaction and first contact resolution at agent-level and integrate and fully embed these metrics into your coaching and performance management frameworks
  • Capture true customer insight – ask customers to tell you what they think of the service!
  • Use analytics and sentiment analysis to really understand your contact drivers and failure points and redesign your customer experience based on their feedback

Dave Howard CEO of InsightNow goes a step further, explaining that ‘ forcing customers to channel switch and making that journey time-consuming and complex is the most significant driver of negative customer experience and sentiment’. Therefore, the call centre ‘must provide an easy support option to rescue customers, either by a Chat or Call-Me buttons, which support instant access which bypasses the IVR route providing an agent within seconds’. Howard then adds ‘much is talked about the multi or omni-channel experience, but I think our industry is a long way from this, with the basics causing the problems – ie fragile functionality and cluttered websites and no ‘rescue’ option for customers – essentially, customers are demanding a joined up multi-channel experience.’

With the useful insights above, it does in the end come back to a mixture of strategy, vision and ambition to leverage existing strengths and integrate these with technology ‘enablers’:

  • Systems Solutions: technology can enhance the customer experience significantly and improve the outcome for customers and financial services firms. For example:

o   vScreen (by Vizolution) – this is software based, and delivers key documentation to customers via a secure website which the customer has a ‘session code’ to access. Distribution of KFIs (mortgage quotes), credit agreements, terms and conditions etc

o   Video Conferencing (eg Cisco’s Remote Expert) – this is hardware dominant, by deploying VOIP technology allowing agents to have a meaningful and interactive face-to-face meeting over a camera set-up, with an additional ‘touch-screen’ allowing key documents to be shared, revised and accepted

  • People: it is important to revisit role descriptions and responsibilities and with these, processes agents will follow. Core competencies for agents are likely to require covering handling complaints and complex transactions/queries. In addition, management practices and coaching processes to discourage and develop soft-skills should be revised. After all, different skills are required as customer engagement becomes more than simple sales and service, through enhanced education of customers aimed at reducing failure demand and enhancing service
  • Measurement: Often agents are measured by KPIs such as the number of calls handled, AHT and not-ready times. Yet, measurement is much more complex than this, and opportunities to assess customer experience and outcomes should be included to ensure effectiveness as well as efficiency is measured and managed

Optimise to remain relevant – or be doomed to irrelevance!

The million dollar question is ‘can call centres be optimised to remain relevant to the customer experience in the digital age, and how?’

Yes, is the simple answer.

Focus on the customer and their behaviours and demands: they want simplicity, speed and efficiency of service, but with that a sense of being able to reach their bank at a time and place of their choosing. Technology has developed significantly in the last decade and it’s becoming an enabler, allowing the call centre to truly become part of a multi-channel solution for customers.

The key to success and remaining relevant is to root out your failure points, enhance standards, redevelop processes, train agents, deploy the right technology and get the customer experience right! But also plan for managing those customers who choose not to use other channels and/or aren’t able to have their queries resolved through that channel. Only then can you realise the on-going potential of the call centre to provide a joined up and seamless customer experience.

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