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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – For all the truly wonderful things the Web has done for the credit union industry, it’s also responsible for gumming up credit unions with hordes of member e-mails. It’s not that CUs don’t want to hear from their members “virtually,” but it’s an animal most CUs aren’t equipped to deal with if the e-mails are coming in high numbers. The Golden 1 CU isn’t letting members’ e-mails be shoved off into some cyberspace graveyard – it is answering them, but doing it in a much more specific way than many e-mail response systems. John Brooks, call center manager for The Golden 1 CU said there’s nothing “colder” from a member service standpoint than for a member to have their e-mail answered by a stock, generic e-mail informing them that the CU has received their e-mail and will get back to them at some point. A recent informal survey by the American Banker found that e-mail questions into large financial players went unanswered for days, even weeks, aside from a generic e-mail noting receipt of the customer’s e-mail Receiving about 4,000 member e-mails a month, The Golden 1 wanted to do much better than that. It recently implemented an e-mail response software solution that incorporates artificial intelligence to give members a targeted answer to their questions. The solution is called eServicePerformer and is offered by Firepond, whose software is used by such financial giants as TD Waterhouse and retail giants the likes of Best Buy “We want consistency in the responses we send, and we want to take a lot less time responding,” said Brooks. He said one of the challenges with e-mail is that the member service reps are “speaking” through the written word, so punctuation and grammar count. “Before this solution, when I was determining who was going to answer e-mails I needed someone who knew the products inside and out, but also had good writing skills,” said Brooks. Now what call center reps working e-mail duty see is the e-mail on one side of the screen and the suggested response from the software on the other. The rep simply OKs the chosen response and it’s sent to the member. The rep can also edit the response if he or she wants to add more info. If the solution pulls the wrong response, the rep picks another one. So how can you be sure you’re hitting the mark with responses? First, the CU writes up responses based on its most popular e-mail questions. These responses are populated in a database. Then the system looks at words in the member’s e-mail to pick up on what the member is looking for. But it’s not as simple as just picking up key words, said Eric Snow, a spokesperson for Firepond. “Key words are part of it, but we actually analyze the intent of the question. You can pick up key words like `account balance,’ but if your e-mail response system is not sophisticated, you can be way off. We use something called natural language processing,” said Snow. Beyond the artificial intelligence aspect, the software has great practical features, said Brooks, whose work revolves around keeping the CU’s call center moving efficiently. One of the worst things for a call center manager is a jammed queue with member wait times over five minutes. That same philosophy carries over to e-mail response management. Brooks said the e-mail management solution essentially queues up the e-mails letting the rep know when they came in, and alerting them to ones that might be getting a little crusty, based on The Golden 1 CU’s own internal policies. The e-mails are rated in importance, and may be sent to another channel, such as a telephone rep, for a more personal response such as a call back. “It can also prioritize the e-mail based on content. It’s allowing us to do what used to take three to five minutes, in 20 to 30 seconds,” he said. Members who do e-mail The Golden 1 get an instant response informing them that the CU received their e-mail, but within that response is a guarantee that the CU will respond to their question within 24 hours. This technology isn’t cheap. The package cost Golden 1 about $400,000 to purchase, plus an annual maintenance fee approaching $40,000. Of the CU’s 80 person call center staff, three of them are dedicated to e-mail response. Brooks said that may go up as the number of e-mails coming in have risen steadily over the years, especially as the CU adds more online services. Obviously there will be member e-mails that can’t be answered by a stock response, but that’s OK, said Brooks. With this solution the response time has been cut so dramatically on the routine e-mails, that reps have more time to spend on more intensive responses, he said. Brooks said the most common member e-mails include stop payment requests; online bill pay enrollment info requests; and questions about the CU’s online services. The CU, which is on the USERS data processing system, is looking to push the envelope further. It is currently migrating off of Digital Insight’s online banking solution and onto Corillian’s. It is looking at integrating the Firepond software with Corillian, so members who ask account balance questions can be given answers by e-mail reps pulling up info from the home banking system. [email protected]

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