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BirdsEye View

the important role of the phone bank during acquisition integration and conversion

 Bank acquisition volume has been rising steadily over the past few years.  Our forums attendees come from banks that are heavily involves in acquisition planning, consideration, execution and integration.  Unfortunately, the best-planned integrations invariably create unintended consequences of confusion and customer irritation.  Any change or disruption of service take their first toll on the phone banks, which are typically flooded with calls for help or even just venting.  What can your phone bank (a.k.a customer care center, contact center etc.) do to better plan for the inevitable call volume explosions, besides increasing staff?

Some solutions were offered at our most recent Call Center Forum.

1. Buy self-service password change software.  The #1 reason for phone call explosions (and also a major reason for routine calls) is password change.  There are self-service software solutions to this problem.  Prepare them and advertise their availability before integration occurs.  It will save both your team and your customers much aggravation.

2. Link branch staff into the phone bank for overflow calls.  Leverage branch staff capacity (yes, it does exist) by linking branches to the phone bank and using them as backup when you flip the switch and things change.  Plan way in advance and make sure your branch staff is aware and trained for the additional challenges associated with servicing customers by phone.

3. Automate a call-back feature.   Guaranteed call-backs can reduce wait times, but only if the caller had confidence that you will indeed call them back within the period specified.  This is an excellent feature which increases customer satisfaction and improves the experience if well-executed.  The worst thing you can do is introduce the feature and then fail to deliver.  Solid preparation can help you serve your customers best and reduce phone bank overload.

4. Tell callers how long is the wait, in minutes or number of calls ahead of them.  All too often we are reluctant to confess to our callers how long the wait really is.  Your customers want to know, though, and if you have alternatives available to them (such as #1 and #2 above) they can self-select to exit if the wait is too long.  Setting expectations in advance and offering alternative solutions are both essential to managing the customer experience.

5. Make those long nights and weekends fun for your phone bankers.  The phone bankers will have a hard time during this period. The call flow is relentless, the questions infuriating, and your callers will experience battle fatigue.  Make the work more fun – and not necessarily through food – by offering small rewards for small achievements (for example, a trophy for the person who fielded the most calls of the day, or the person who received the highest customer satisfaction score in your post-call surveys).  

6. Train branch staff in topic-specific conversion/integration issues (e.g. debit card).  It’s a good thing to get your branch staff involved in integration issues.  It is also important to prepare them for the onslaught through training on both technical and human interaction topics.  Do not skimp on the training – preparation is essential to success.

7. Measure customer attrition and call wait-time correlation to optimize target wait-time and staffing.  We have preconceived notions of appropriate wait-times.  In many cases, those are biases we developed over time, and not necessarily fact-based.  Gather more data around wait-times and reset your expectations based upon that information, whether it validates current practices or suggests changes.

8. When the acquired bank has a call center – provide detailed training on both product and cultural acclimation; utilize on-site buddies just like at the branches.  Phone bank integration often fails to get the focus it needs to ensure smooth integration.  Even in cases where the cultures of both banks are well-aligned, daily execution varies widely.  Phone bankers have greater impact on integration and customer experience than any other banker, since they touch many more customers than the average banker.  Give them the necessary tools to handle the demands of this new bank by acclimating them to your culture, work ethic and customer handling ethos way in advance of conversion.

9. Anticipate the grieving of the acquired bank and empathize; recognize how difficult it is to manage the unknown; be clear in setting direction and expectations to reduce uncertainty; demonstrate how you’re both aligned on customer care and service levels. All acquisitions involve grief.  Even the worst banks are staffed with good people who are committed to their organization and feel like winners.  Losing the mantle, operating style and culture that served them well (they believe) for so many years is painful.  Recognize and understand that sense of loss, and empathize.  At the same time, change must occur, and speed is important.  Set a clear direction for the entire team with as much specificity as possible, and focus on areas where alignment is strong.  Almost invariably, wanting to do the right thing for customers is a unifying force across all customer service people.  Highlight the commonality and learn from each other how to optimize the experience across the two teams.

10. Start discovery as early as practicable. Phone bank due diligence if often cursory, and is typically focused on equipment and headcount.  Facilitating smooth integration has to start with discovery, and that should commence as soon as it is legally and resource-wise practical.  Dig into the human aspect – quality of bankers, depth of knowledge and experience, adaptability, cultural alignment etc.  Find your leading change agents among the acquired team and use them to bring the others along.  Also learn best practices from the new team to benefit the combined group and show that meritocracy is a central value in your organization.

11. Recruit for additional phone bank positions way in advance of the need.  The pressure on your entire team during conversion and integration will be intense and typically lasts at least 5 weeks.  Do not enter this period short-staffed.  I understand that staff is expensive, but we should also consider the lead-time required to get people up to speed.  Balancing these two conflicting demands isn’t easy but is essential.

12. Provide incentives for training modules timely completion.  The new phone bankers who join your team will need to learn your ways.  You will give these bankers lots of training modules and expect completion.  It is helpful to provide positive incentives for module completion along the way and not just at the end of this long and belabored process.  Again, celebrating small victories through small rewards and large recognition events is a highly effective way to positively motivate staff to do the right thing. 

13. Make early employee selection.  This is challenging, especially when you don’t really know the people on the other team.  At the same time, the longer you wait, the more self-selection out will occur.  Typically, those who self-select out are the best of the bunch and have options to go elsewhere.  These are people you don’t want to lose. As mentioned in #10 above, figure the people aspect out quickly and be decisive to avoid losing the very best.

14. Consider temporary help on the phones.  I’m not a huge fan of temporary workforce support, but sometimes it is necessary.  Be prepared through due diligence and reference checking of several phone bank temporary help agencies, such that when the unexpected occurs, you’re ready with emergency measures.

15. Debit cards seem to generate a lot of issues, especially as new customers toss the new cards, thinking these are credit card solicitations.  Consider waiting for card reissues, and use the time to clean up addresses.  This is a complicated issue, and there is no clear right solution.  Coordinate with your operations area to ensure you are aligned toward seamless execution to avoid major glitches.

16. Use a few, consistent measurements to communicate your priorities.  Example:

a. Adherence

b. Not-ready time

c. Handle ratio (out of 100 incoming calls, how many were handled)

d. Average handle time

CLARITY, SPECIFICITY AND SIMPLICITY ARE THE CORNERSTONES OF SUCCESS.

17. Utilize daily reporting to build a sense of urgency across the team.  It has been proven time and time again that frequency of reporting creates a sense of urgency and shortens the feedback loop between the event and its results.  Typical reporting frequency is monthly, occasionally weekly.  Shorten reporting period, particularly early on, to daily, to provide the team with timely feedback on how they are doing against your few critical measures (see #16) and celebrate success daily.  It will shine the light on the importance of short-term performance while utilizing positive feedback to uplift everyone’s spirits during a difficult time.

18. Create a fair scheduling system.

a. A set schedule

b. Scheduling in 15 minute increments, monthly revisions

c. Shift bidding process

i. Based on seniority

ii. Based on performance

d. Offer flexibility in scheduling

e. Reward volunteers who help out in a pinch

Scheduling is a bear.  There is no clean solution to this complex process.  The bidding process discriminates against some people all the time, although not always the same people.  I could write a full article on this topic alone.  Give much thought to the fairest possible system you can institute in your specific environment.  Ask yourself:  does my system encourage attendance? Rewards the behaviors I want? Rewards the right people? Offers sufficient flexibility to improve the employee experience without penalizing others?

19. Create a motto for the team.  Example:  “We strive for availability, friendliness, accuracy and concise communication”.  Reflect with your key managers what are the few things that are central to your value proposition and articulate those so everyone knows what is the definition of success and what you’re trying to accomplish.  This might be crystal clear to you, but it isn’t to many of your team members, especially newcomers.

20. Consider the conflict between call time and customer satisfaction.  They are inversely correlated.  Find your optimal balance to use the phone bank efficiently while maximizing customer satisfaction.  At the end of the day, this is the question you need to ask yourself:  where is your balance?  The tipping point varies by bank, and you need to find yours.