<p>LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Jon Anton at Purdue University's Center for Consumer Driven Quality has some good news for credit unions struggling to control their call center operations. "The technology providers have proliferated. There are so many choices that didn't exist even five years ago. I think a major challenge for an executive is determining `What do I need?,' `How can I afford it?,' and `What will it do for me?,' " Anton says. He offers special encouragement to smaller credit unions. " Size is a challenge. It's much harder to run a small call center efficiently than a large one. Scheduling can be a nightmare, especially with in-bound call centers. It's very hard to predict how many people you ought to have ready on the phone," Anton notes. "There are about 10 companies now that really do provide very, very sophisticated and accurate workforce management software. You can save lots of money if you have it installed. If you don't have it, it's almost impossible to be efficient. "In the past you probably couldn't afford it if you didn't have at least 100 agents. Many credit unions only have perhaps 25 agents. But with the competitive pressures, the workforce management software providers have been able to build products that are just as good for very small centers as they are for big ones." A related challenge, Anton continues, is finding good people. "It's hard to find good people to work these telephone jobs. The volume of calls continues to grow at about 15% a year, so it basically doubles every five years. Americans love the phone and the phone is getting cheaper and cheaper," he notes. Some of these calls can be handled by automation, he continues, but many require humans. There's a push-pull situation. If you look for more knowledgeable people, you must pay them more and they probably won't be comfortable doing the same job for many years. A talented person is likely to leave in two or three years. On the other hand, you can hire someone who will remain on the job longer. But that person is likely to possess fewer skills. "Human resources is now, and will always be, the biggest challenge for call centers," Anton declares. "Better technology allows you to do better with less able people. The more knowledgeable the technology is, the more it can aid a less-than-skilled person to do a good job. The desktop you prepare for agents, and whether the agent will stay, are heavily related. "We find with good desktop software there's less turnover because the agent is more frequently able to have the answer the caller is looking for." How important is that? A study by General Electric published in the Harvard Business Review noted 68% of consumers leave because of poor service experiences. The next highest cause, product issues, was cited by only 19%. When someone finally dumps a financial institution, Anton says, it typically has little to do with price or other product issues. It more likely involves going through one too many lousy service experiences. The folks at Purdue wondered, when someone leaves a business because of a service issue, what is the most frequent service issue? Poor access to information topped the list at 32%. Poor access to the right person ranked second at 28%. So it's important to keep members happy by providing the right answers quickly when they contact your call center. Your members are becoming fussier about access to information, Anton warns. Technology can help. But how does a credit union wade through everything available to find the right tools? Anton says major call center conferences can provide a tremendous education for executives – if approached properly. Anton said he personally believes the major gain occurs in the exhibit area. As a frequent speaker at such conferences, Anton appreciates the fact attendees will spend hours listening to his and other presentations. But in a way, he says, the best insights may come from spending 90% of your time talking to exhibitors. "There's an army of people dying to show you their stuff," he says. "If I were in the shoes of a credit union executive looking for information on call center tools, I would dedicate a whole day to shopping what's available. Force them to prove you need what they're offering. "It's no different than buying a car. Shop. Drive a few. Try a few," he advises. Other sources of information, he adds, are the benchmarking studies at the Purdue Center for Customer Driven Quality. Credit unions can enter their data and receive a report assessing how they're doing compared to others. The report also recommends certain technology solutions. "Benchmarking answers the question, `How good is good enough?' You say, `Hey, we're doing a pretty good job.' Good relative to what? The benchmark is relative to other credit unions your size, geography and other factors," Anton says. [email protected]</p>

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