Sometimes the hottest new trend isn’t right for you and your membership. That’s what Pen Air Federal Credit Union ($1.2B, Pensacola, FL) discovered when the cooperative outsourced its call center to a third party in 2007 to provide 24/7 service to its members. It turned out the credit union’s members didn’t really want or need the extended hours.
Although the idea foundered, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Pen Air experimented with the outsourced round-the-clock call center for seven years before ending the service in January 2014. The credit union went through two third-party providers, analyzed the timing and content of calls it received, and ultimately decided the service would be best provided in house with a few changes to staffing and hours of operations. As with all good experiments, the effort was not a loss because Pen Air learned a lot about its members, its operations, and its technology. Here are four lessons from Pen Air’s experience with an outsourced call center.
1. Don’t Adopt An Idea Just Because Others Do
It’s fine to experiment with new ideas, especially when there’s a documented need. But Pen Air began expanding its call center service solely because the credit union saw other institutions doing so.
“We were following a trend we saw with other institutions. They were going with a 24/7 call center,” says Patty Veal, director of public relations at Pen Air Federal. “A third party could address some of the easier questions,” and then redirect more complicated matters back to the credit union to call back during normal business hours.
In theory, it was a great idea. In practice, however, it was a solution in search of a problem.
2. Document How Your Membership Reacts
Offering a new service like a 24/7 call center is hardly likely to prompt outrage from members the way a change in branding or business hours might. Still, because any new service is experimental at first, credit unions should track how members use it and how often to discover what, if any, changes are needed. The data, though, pointed to something Pen Air wasn’t expecting.
“It turned out there wasn’t really as high a call volume as we thought there would be after hours,” Veal says.
Pen Air’s outsourcing experience also produced other useful data. For instance, the credit union not only identified the call center’s peak hours but also the types of questions asked. After analyzing the call data, Pen Air discovered it could receive and answer 90% of the questions just by extending the call center’s hours a little bit, from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on weekday and from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays. For the 10% of calls that fell outside those times, the credit union found most were simple requests for balance checks and other tasks that could easily be addressed online or through Pen Air’s telephone account service.
3. Make Changes Based On What You Learned
As the saying goes, the third time is the charm, and after trying two third-party vendors, Pen Air brought the call center back in house six months ago. The credit union, though, didn’t just return to its old ways of doing things. On the contrary, it used what it learned from outsourcing to handle calls even better than it had before.
Besides extending hours, Pen Air also increased its call center staff from the 15 it had before 2007 to 23 employees who currently answer calls over four shifts. The credit union also added two employees who just do outbound calling to follow up with members, Veal says.
4. Keep The Personal Touch
Although Veal was impressed with the third-party services the credit union used, no outside company, no matter how professional, knows your membership like you do, and no one knows your products and services better than your own staff.
“That’s one of the disadvantages of going with a third party,” Veal says. “They don’t know your ins and outs; they are very general.”
Credit unions that rely too much on a third party risk losing their personal touch with members, which is what sets credit unions apart from other financial institutions.
“Sometimes, you need to bring it back home to get that connectivity established with the member,” Veal says. “If you have somebody on the phone who knows everything about your products and they can answer questions, the member is going to be more satisfied, and you’re going to have better word of mouth.”
In a nutshell, guaranteeing that level of service is what it’s all about, Veal says. Bringing the call center in house does come with added cost of hiring more staff but by maintaining complete control over the member’s experience, the credit union protects two priceless commodities, its brand and reputation.