The rise of the hybrid call center

A partially remote workforce brings both benefits and challenges for banks and credit unions.

Five years ago, James Geeslin never imagined that he’d be developing strategies for his bank’s hybrid call centers, where some customer service staff work from home and some work in a bank office.

“A few years ago, hybrid centers were not even on the menu,” says Geeslin, vice chairman and chief consumer banking officer for Waco, Texas-based Extraco Banks. “Everyone worked in defined locations. But the pandemic caused us to rethink our strategy.”

Today, about 90% of Extraco Banks’ customer service staff work remotely at least part of the time and, pandemic or no pandemic, Geeslin does not expect that number to change dramatically any time soon.

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The situation is not much different at credit union BCU in Vernon Hills, Illinois. There, only 10% of the customer service staff is fully remote, but the majority of the staff works at least one day a week from home, explains Keith Parris, BCU’s senior director of call center operations and technologies.

But having customer service representatives spread all over the place can create challenges. Employees can’t ask coworkers sitting next to them for advice when they are stumped. Customers often don’t want dogs barking or babies crying in the background when they are discussing serious business. Supervising and training remote employees can be difficult, and there are security issues to be addressed.

“Our biggest challenge is engagement. When employees are not working face to face with each other, there can be a loss in energy. We have to try to find ways to foster interaction between employees,” says BCU’s Parris.

Christina McAllister, a senior analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., notes that contact centers have a high attrition rate, meaning there is a need to onboard and train large numbers of employees. That may be more difficult when those employees are learning from home and don’t have nearby supervisors and coworkers to help them learn the ropes.

Security can be a problem if a bank does not have total control over what is going on at an employee’s home. “You could install cameras to watch employees, but there are some big privacy issues if you are using cameras that film people’s homes,” McAllister says.

But banks are finding ways to deal with these challenges. Extraco has strict rules for the home environment. There cannot be any distracting noises, and employees cannot care for children while working at home. Video tellers use background scenes, so customers are not looking into their homes, and there are dress codes for those who appear on screen.

BCU has rules to help with training. New hires must spend at least two months fully in office. Once training is completed, they can transition to one day a week at home. Then, the amount of time that can be spent working from home increases with the seniority of the employee as well as their performance standards.

To deal with security, Extraco has its IT staff check out the systems being used at home. Even at home, service representatives must use the bank’s internet service and the bank’s hardware and software. And employees are not allowed to print any bank-related materials at home.

As part of security, McAllister suggests that banks limit the information that remote representatives have access to. “The safest thing is to not give them full access to customer information,” she says. “Just give what is required to complete the task.”

Even with these challenges, some banks find hybrid models are more efficient and allow them to attract better candidates. “Our employees tell us they are happier and have a higher quality of life,” Geeslin says. “And we have seen efficiency improvements as representatives are serving more customers than before.”

Benefits for employees include greater job satisfaction, time saved in commuting and more flexibility in job hours, Geeslin says. And Extraco has found it can attract better candidates by offering the ability to work from home. “This gives us more candidates to choose from in hiring.”

Parris agrees that the flexibility of working at home can be a major draw in hiring and can also reduce attrition. “For some employees, flexibility is its own currency. There are people who will take a slightly lower salary if they can work remotely.”

Lauri Giesen is a BAI contributing writer.

Find valuable insights for banks and credit unions as they adapt their customer-service strategy across ever-evolving channels in the BAI Executive Report, “Changing priorities in bank customer service”