Developing and Staffing a New Call Center
Recognizing the Need for a Call Center
Starting a call center is expensive. NMTW Community Credit Union ($470M in Lowell, MA) was committed to starting one and had it in their strategic plan for years. At the time, answering calls were decentralized, causing inconsistencies in response to member queries. No one department "owned" the calls, proving a hindrance to providing superior member service. The credit union hired a mystery shopper company who confirmed that phone performance was poor. As calls are the most active touch point with members, executives knew the poor performance was affecting their promise to members. At that point forming a call center became their primary path, centralizing member service and improving service levels.
Going forward, they had only one requirement from the credit union CEO: all calls needed to be answered with a live voice - no computer menus or automatic answering. With that mission, they moved forward beginning with trips to other call centers and conference calls with industry leaders. Research and interaction taught them how they wanted to build the call center, how to staff it, and how to make the call center the heart of the credit union.
Building the Team
Credit union executives felt strongly that the new call center had to have the right manager. Research indicated that they should hire from the outside - someone with call center experience, strong operational skills and member service background, as well as the willingness to embrace the credit union philosophy and deliver on the credit union's promise to members. However, since incorporating their philosophy was paramount they ended up hiring a long term employee with outside sales experience. Once they found the right person, they began to form the team.
A call center is a different environment from a branch. The credit union was adamant in finding the right call center people with the right skill sets. Tom Hammond, EVP, said, "We had to make sure we weren't going to try to force a square peg into a round hole." They didn't want the existing culture of the credit union to obstruct the progress of success of the call center. Stringent hiring guidelines ignored any call center or financial institution experience. The focus was on fitting the culture and values of the organization. Call center management interviewed 30 candidates for eight positions, interviewing most three or four times.
The resulting team trained together, failed together, succeeded together and bonded. As the new staff was not familiar with the credit union, its products or services, the credit union developed an intensive eight-week training program and paid their representatives full salary, although they were not on the phone or interacting with members during that time. They were taught and tested on products. Transactions were simulated with the core processing system. The representatives could also go online and simulate transactions.
Representatives would be walked through the various departments to understand the flow of each department along with the wants and needs so that when they transfer a member, the agent understands what exactly will happen. The credit union places a large emphasis on training even after their "class" ends. Everyday agents receive some form of training to help the call center succeed.
Management Commitment to the Call Center
The credit union decided to name the call center the Member Value Center to demonstrate the commitment to the center, member value and the culture of the credit union. The agents are Member Value Representatives. That commitment required breaking some of the credit union rules. At the Member Value Center, employees are in casual dress every day - down to the bunny slippers. Representatives have larger cubicles than other credit union employees. The cubicles are also outfitted with acoustic tiles so agents are less distracted. Agents take several small breaks (5 to 10 minutes) and receive a regular lunch break.
There are also more meetings at the call center, ranging from a daily morning meeting to discuss operational issues or any talking points, to once a month when other department heads visit to discuss new promotions, products or services.
First Year's Report
The call center was one year old as of December 2007 and averaged 2,000 to 2,500 calls per month over the past year. There was only one goal insisted upon for the first year: each transaction had to be accurate and it had to provide professional value-added service. These were paramount objectives and reflected the credit unionâ€™s initial need to address that incoming calls were handled by multiple departments, leading to misinformation and poor member service. There were other tangential goals, such as referrals to the credit union's financial planning service and Auto Advisor, a program that helps members shop for cars.
The call center is now the highest performing department in the credit union. It receives, on average, a 90% score in all mystery shops. During one month with 27 mystery shops, it received 100% on all 27! The call center leads the credit union in referrals for the financial planning and auto services. These referrals are also qualified â€“ the call center referrals resulted in the most seated appointments to financial planners and closed the most auto loans.
The call center is also contributing to member retention and deepening relationships. All holders of maturing CDS over $25,000 receive a call from the center. This dedication has resulted in a 97% CD retention rate with a total value over $85,700,000. Hammond said, "Our members that received these calls consistently expressed their appreciation that time was taken to personally call them about their maturing CD."
The initial staffing team has worked out well for the center, with only one agent being replaced. All others of the original team are in place and help new agents as the center expands.
The Year Ahead
The philosophy of centralizing call center operations has proven sound. Hammond explains, "Our call center is the heart of our operation. Everything goes through it. Members call in and the call center gives them much needed information and service. It's the pump that pushes the blood throughout the organization."
As the call center is now a mature department, credit union executives are placing more formalized goals on the call center to align with credit union goals. Agents now have goals for membership, deposit and loan growth, and member retention. Additions to responsibilities also include live chats and online help. Call center agents have been receiving loan training and will soon be able to close loans on the phone. Longer term goals include expanding the hours of the call center and increasing the number of agents.