FRAMINGHAM, Mass. – Seeking to serve members better at lower cost, credit unions may be tempted to overlook the contact center while emphasizing Web-based services. Still, if every channel is to yield maximum return on investment, the contact center – sometimes expected to be a “branch without cash” – deserves attention and poses significant choices, according to a recent report from Financial Insights, the Framingham-based research and advisory firm. The Financial Insights report forecasts that contact centers will remain focused on inbound service calls and will never grab top billing from the traditional branch and ATM as consumer channels of choice. “Call center/IVR rates are highly variable and reflect the financial institution’s contact center strategies,” said FI analyst Richard Bell. His report says that such strategies can “dramatically influence” call volume, costs, issue resolution, and customer relationship management (CRM). Financial Insights conducted structured telephone interviews, based on more than 180 questions and topics, with 20 retail financial service call-center executives and managers. There is a complex balance between IVR technology and agent staffing, and institutions can tip this balance not only with cost cutting but also with business philosophy, Bell says. Strategic choices “can have a dramatic impact on overall call center expense,” he says. Since agent cost per call is roughly 22 times higher than IVR cost per call, Bell says, “this is a major operational decision that should be carefully considered.” Costs for IVR are as low as a nickel per call for an institution running an old, fully amortized system, or as much as a dollar per call for an institution with a new system installed only recently. Most institutions reported a cost of about 13.5 cents per call, which the FI report characterizes as both reasonable and stable over time. By contrast, the cost picture for agent calls has dramatically changed. Cost per call ranged in the survey from $1.50 to $6, each, with most institutions clustered at about $3 per call. From a CRM viewpoint, the call-center agent is commonly the first or second most frequent point of personal interaction – rivaled only by the teller – between the consumer and the financial institution. Institutions, Bell says, “should seriously consider using such centers to build a relationship with the customer and, when appropriate, to sell.”

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