Now that the NFL season has ended, it’s time once again to spend our Sundays away from gridiron and begin to strategize over how to deal with the new headaches dreamt up by the regulators and continue the push toward becoming more efficient.
An area that is causing some concern is the call center, where traditional call volumes are down and new ways to communicate are introduced. Top of mind for many call center managers is the steady increase of alternative communication channels like email, chat and text messages. At what point will growth in these volumes affect productivity? How can we best deal with this new reality and prepare for the future?
The Current State
At Gonzo’s flagship, Cornerstone Advisors, we’re finally seeing this first hand. According to the latest Cornerstone Report, Benchmarks and Best Practices for Mid-Size Banks (watch for publication later this year), call volumes as a percentage of checking accounts have declined, on average, 5% per year since 2007, while total customer contacts (calls, emails, chats, etc.) as a percentage of checking accounts have remained flat. Alternative communications channels are unquestionably growing, and banks need to figure out how to deal with the issue before it gets out of control. The following metrics from The Cornerstone Report may surprise some of you:
The Good News – Call Center Efficiency is Up
Despite the decline in call volumes, calls per agent per day have gone from 66 in 2007 to 71 in 2010 (for benchmarking purposes, we use 22 days per month). And while calls per call center FTE/day stayed the same, it is important to note that this metric does not capture the increased alternative contacts like email and chat. So, the better comparison of overall call center efficiency (including agents as well as management and support) would be the 54 calls per call center FTE back in 2007 vs. the 2010 number of 58. As a result, we believe call centers have become more efficient even with the lower call volumes. Much of this productivity can be attributed to technology advances in call routing, telephony integration and overall call management over the last few years but the question of whether we can squeeze more out of agents is fair. It’s fair to say that agent productivity is close to the highest we’re going to see without some new advances in technology that have yet to reveal themselves.
Alternative Interactions are Still Low
For some, alternative channels like email and chat have been offered for several years, and most have found ways to deal with these contacts one-off via agent downtime or a floater. Actually, this has worked quite well given the relatively low volumes. In fact, accordingly to The Cornerstone Report, only about 2% of the overall call center volumes are coming from alternative channels.
The Bad News – Chat/Email Handling is Harder than Answering the Phone
While Cornerstone did not track total email/chats handled per chat/email agent in our 2007 Report, the big story that came out of our latest bank study is that call handling is much more productive than alternative delivery handling. Take a look at the number of agent calls handled per day (71) vs. emails/chat per day (54). That’s a big difference. Of course, like call talk time, the problem lies in interaction times. Last month, a group of bankers were asked how chat/email interaction times compare to their call talk times. For the 5%-10% that tracked it, the answer was interesting. For most, chat interaction times averaged between 8-10 minutes and, in some cases, averaged over 10 minutes. A few hours shadowing a chat support agent will give you a whole new appreciation for this fact. Believe it or not, the aptitude of customers for articulating issues in writing versus speech would make my elementary school teacher cringe.
The first step in any call center is establishing service levels that are acceptable to the institution and customer base. Below are some trends that have begun to surface:
The days of one- to two-day or even week-long turnarounds for email responses are dwindling fast. As customers continue to rely on electronic communications, the service level agreement window will narrow. Look for same-day turnaround times to become a more realistic expectation. Bottom line: customers understand and expect a certain delay in email responses, and the need for real-time email support is not in the cards for the foreseeable future, so plan SLAs around a window of hours, not days.
Given that chat is a relatively new contact method for most financial institutions, many have not established formal SLAs. Taking a look at other industries, we are seeing a convergence of chat and call response times where 30-45 seconds is becoming the standard for both. Today, those institutions that offer chat are realistically seeing chat wait times in the 2-4 minute range, but customers are demanding more. As volumes grow in the future, it will be necessary for call centers to keep up with demands for lower wait times by driving down interaction times.
It’s too early to tell where this will end up but my guess is as we begin to service the next generation of consumers, response time demands are going to continue to push toward real-time. The text junkie generation will emerge ready to text their questions/challenges versus calling in. And as the mobile device becomes the standard for online account access, look for texts to outnumber chats just like mobile accounts may outnumber online banking users in the future.
There is no place in the bank that relies on technology like the call center. From the introduction of Interactive Voice Response back in the ’60s to the latest innovations in integrated surveys, caller ID authentication and workforce management, there’s no doubting the role technology has played in automating traditional call management. Now, banks are dealing with automating these alternative channels. Providing customers a user-friendly and integrated tool versus offering agents one platform to manage all contacts is a major struggle.
Secure email has been around for years. For most banks it is integrated into the online banking product and offers a secure way to communicate electronically with customers. Some providers even offer file upload capabilities and digital signature capture that is pretty slick. The challenge here is it’s managed on the online banking portal rather than the call center platform. This can add challenges in tracking and reporting as well as routing. However, because of the batch nature of emails, managing the emails in a separate application is not as critical.
The struggle here is balancing the routing, reporting and tracking afforded by a chat engine provided by the call center solution vendor versus a chat client that is embedded in the online banking product behind the authentication. One of the biggest challenges with chat is authenticating the user. This adds to interaction time and overall customer frustration. I blame the call center software providers for being too innovative here. As a result, the way most financial institutions offer chat is through a generic link on their Web site that’s managed by the call center solution and outside any Internet banking authentication. Other than the large banks, I haven’t seen a truly integrated chat solution. By the way, don’t count on this functionality to come from your Internet banking providers anytime soon as most Internet banking venders have punted when it comes to chat.
The shift away from traditional call management to an enterprise view of contact management has thrown a wrench in the works for call centers around the country. While the future is unknown, count on growth in chats and longer term text messages that will need to be managed more efficiently than they are today. The winners will be those who plan for the future and begin looking at ways technology and process can support the expansion of customer support options.
From more than a decade of working with financial institutions, Cornerstone Advisors has developed a comprehensive database of benchmarking statistics in 12 key banking areas from a group comprising nearly 200 mid-size banks ($1-$40 billion in assets) and mid-size to large credit unions (>$350 million in assets).
Contact us today to learn more.