By Robert McKay
As financial institutions close their lobbies and discontinue in-person service to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, contact centers are seeing dramatic increases in call volumes. While growing numbers of customers use digital banking solutions for basic operations, during these unsettling times many turn to the phone channel to complete transactions, obtain assistance with sensitive financial dealings, and confirm the status of accounts and loan processes.
According to data compiled by Neustar, between January 21, when the first US COVID-19 death occurred, and mid-March, some of the nation’s largest financial institutions experienced a 36 percent increase in overall inbound call volume. Retail banking divisions offering direct consumer-facing financial products, such as mortgages and vehicle loans, saw an even greater spike in traffic, with call volumes up 43.4 percent. As a result, some customers experienced long wait times, leading to frustration for both callers and agents.
To compound the challenge, social distancing measures led many banks to transition their call center agents to remote work, creating an additional layer of compliance and productivity concerns. So what steps are banks taking to enable their contact centers to deal with the elevated level of calls, while providing customers with a secure and positive experience during this chaotic time?
Enhancing the IVR System
The first step in ramping up a call center’s capacity to accommodate high call volumes is generally to optimize the interactive voice response (IVR) system to increase the number of calls it can process. Banks take a closer look at their IVR call-flow design to ensure the user experience is intuitive and can provide answers to a wider array of inquiries. This includes questions customers may have due to the logistical impact of branch closures and to the economic impact of the pandemic.
Banks must reexamine authentication methods if a large share of inbound calls cannot receive full verification without agent intervention. Voice biometrics and device-based authentication, for example, can quickly and accurately confirm callers. This creates a frictionless experience that allows most customers to conduct their business entirely through IVR. And when the need for agent involvement arises, IVR authentication ensures the agent has the account information ready. This largely eliminates time-consuming identity interrogation.
Containing more calls within the IVR system reduces the pressure on call centers, while facilitating faster service for all customers.
Investing in Call Center Agent Well-Being and Productivity
Most financial institutions’ business continuity plans call for redeploying operations to areas unaffected by a disaster. But faced with a global pandemic, many organizations have had to mobilize in unexpected ways. This includes transitioning call center agents to working from home. To maintain smooth operations in their inbound communication networks, banks have made extensive investments in equipment and software solutions. This provides agents with access to the programs and processes that ensure compliance with government regulations and anti-fraud measures.
Many banks have also found that they must hire more call center staff, as working from home decreases the productivity of agents who must care for ill or elderly family members or young children home from school. This requires additional employees to compensate for this decrease in productivity, which is due not to lack of diligence or enthusiasm but to the unique nature of this pandemic. Both financial institutions and their employees must have realistic expectations of productivity levels under these circumstances.
It’s also important to remember that call center employees are the people on the front lines, calming frantic customers and helping them execute important transactions. In addition, banks must recognize that their employees may experience increased professional as well as personal stress during this time.
Analysts and call center managers regularly report that call center agents’ job satisfaction is related to their ability to effectively do their job. Banks can support their employees’ effectiveness by routing lower-priority calls to the IVR system so agents can spend their time on high-value interactions. Financial institutions should also equip agents with all the tools they need to work from home. This includes a high-speed internet connection.
And for agents who make outbound calls, this means ensuring that customer relationship management databases have up-to-date phone numbers. Customers could miss essential information if banks don’t take this crucial step for outbound dialing.
Mitigating fraud is another important aspect of smooth call center operation. In times of crisis, criminals inevitably attempt to take advantage of the chaos. Fraudsters are targeting consumers directly (the Federal Trade Commission has issued an official warning about scams related to COVID-19) as well as attacking call centers. Call centers have historically been the weak link when it comes to account takeovers because human agents can be socially engineered by creative fraudsters and call centers are staffed by customer service professionals who naturally have a strong desire to help callers solve their problems quickly.
With larger call volumes and more agents feeling harried and anxious, the risk of fraud increases. Fortunately, the same solutions that help reduce call overloads and excessive customer wait times—well-designed IVR systems and accurate caller authentication—can help combat fraud as well. Biometrics and device-based authentication technologies can reduce the time agents spend verifying callers, provide a more secure environment, and decrease the number of legitimate calls inadvertently directed into the call center’s fraud queue. Now more than ever, it is important to deploy fraud specialists at call centers in the most efficient manner possible—investigating actual fraud attempts versus legitimate customer calls incorrectly flagged.
As financial institutions assess the reasons for increased call volumes and long wait times, they need to ask themselves several questions. Are most customers talking to agents because they have complex needs to resolve, or could a better-designed IVR system handle their questions? Have banks made adequate investments in staffing and agent productivity, considering the challenges of working from home? And are agents spending time asking security questions when technological solutions could provide faster and more accurate authentication?
Ultimately, the pandemic-related branch closures may help hasten the transition to digital banking for some customers. This entire episode will amplify the need to press forward with omni-channel strategies. For the foreseeable future, however, the phone channel is here to stay, and overloaded call centers may be the catalyst financial institutions need to implement more effective, efficient, and streamlined approaches that strike the right balance between robust authentication and low friction in the customer experience, while maximizing IVR use.
Robert McKay is the senior vice president of customer identity and risk solutions, Neustar.