ST. PAUL, Minn. - Patricia Cannon is a woman with a sweet smile and very, very thick skin. Those attributes come in handy, especially when you're not allowed to hang up the phone - ever.When the phone rings - and it always does - Cannon, who works at U.S. Bancorp's call center in St. Paul, Minn., must keep talking, no matter how weird, angry or threatening the voice on the other end of the line."Well, everyone is unique," said Cannon, 45, sounding less like a sunny optimist than a customer service veteran who knows a thing or two about human nature. "You learn to not take it personally because they are not really mad at you. You have to connect with them and redirect their anger away from being a personal slam."As banking becomes a 24/7 operation, U.S. Bancorp is increasingly relying on call-center employees such as Cannon not only to field questions and complaints and solve problems such as lost ATM cards but also to sell products such as checking accounts, loans and credit cards. In fact, U.S. Bancorp looks at call centers as large clusters of one-person branches."It's not just 'ask a question, we answer it, and now we are done," said Mary Blegen, senior vice president of 24-hour banking and financial sales at U.S. Bancorp. "You've got to think of yourself as a banker. You are not a customer service rep. You are not an agent. You are a banker."Running a 24/7 call center is expensive, which is why many companies in recent years have outsourced their operations overseas. According to Celent, a Boston-based consulting firm, it costs companies $6.85 per call to serve a customer compared with $4.95 for e-mail and 50 cents by Internet. Banks on average spend more than $5,000 to hire and train one agent.Call-center employees in the United States earn relatively good money, anywhere from $10.50 to $16 an hour. By contrast, call-center workers in India make only 7 percent of their American counterparts' salaries.U.S. Bancorp, well-known for its cost-control philosophy, says it has invested heavily in call centers. During the past two years, the company has spent $20 million to upgrade technology at its five call centers across the country.The call centers, which employ 1,400 people, receive about 523,000 calls a day, including 73,000 calls that go to a live person. (The rest typically use automated services to check account balances.) The St. Paul center handles 82,000 calls a day, about 10 percent of which involve interaction with an employee.Dealing with people's money requires a certain level of skill and trust that makes outsourcing customer service problematic at best, said Greg McBride, a senior analyst with Bankrate.com."It's a slippery slope," McBride said. "How are your customers going to feel about outsourcing? Do you really want to outsource something that is as critical as banking? Consumers have cited loss of personal touch as a consequence of consolidated banking. Outsourcing throws another log onto that fire."Banks first rolled out call centers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mostly just to answer questions. But thanks to technology such as ATMs and the Internet, which made banking more convenient and instantaneous, consumers demanded service at all times of the day, experts say.From 1996 to 2002, the number of transactions at branches fell 11 percent to 11.9 billion transactions, according to Celent. Call-center transactions rose 10 percent to 7.5 billion, while ATM transactions jumped 31 percent to 14 billion. Internet transactions totaled 3.3 billion in 2002, 16 times more than 1998.Call centers also offer banks another opportunity to cross-sell products such as checking accounts and credit cards to customers. Analysts, however, doubt whether call centers generate significant sales, noting that the branch continues to be "the sales floor" of the banking world. Call-center employees risk alienating customers if they try too aggressively to sell products. In other words, they become telemarketers."If customers get their problems solved quickly at the call center, they are more likely to be receptive to the cross-sell," McBride said.Thomas Lee writes for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

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