Want to connect better with customers? Try empathy

Success at bank contact centers has long been measured by resolution speed and call volume. But is this changing?

Terri Panhans from Vericast joins us to share her insights on how the role of contact centers is evolving as day-to-day banking transactions go increasingly digital.

A few takeaways from the conversation:

    • Contact centers remain in high customer demand for more complex issues and transactions that can’t be handled by digital means.
    • The best way to satisfy customers while achieving cost efficiencies is for banks to shift their focus from products to engagement.
    • Empathy as a contact center trait is growing in importance as a way for institutions to build deep, lasting connections with customers.

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Terri Panhans, vice president for contact center solutions at Vericast, welcome to the BAI Banking Strategies Podcast.

Thank you, Terry. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Terri, to set up our conversation, could you give us an overview of what Vericast, formerly known as Harland Clarke, what you do in the contact center space, and what your role is in overseeing the solutions that are being offered?

Vericast has a long and rich legacy of supporting calls for thousands of financial institutions in our contact centers, really focused primarily around placing check orders and handling check-related inquiries for those clients. About 10 years ago, we very deliberately began to build on that foundation. We looked to develop and create contact center solutions aligned to assist them as they execute on their strategic initiatives. Many of those centered around acquisition, engagement, and retention. I have the privilege of leading our team that collaborates with clients to develop and deploy those solutions.

We’re going to be talking today about how the contact center is changing as the banking industry continues speeding toward a customer care model that’s premised on self-service first. There’s no reason to think that trend is going to change. How is the self-serve trend currently affecting the human side of customer service in contact centers?

We don’t see that self-serve trend slowing at all. In fact, we see that momentum continuing to build through the engagements that we have with the clients that we serve. Quite frankly, digital banking transformation, it really isn’t even a nice to have anymore. It’s vital, and it’s a key factor that drives how account holders view their financial institution. In fact, results of a recent survey that we conducted showed that mobile banking capabilities are a top factor that influence how a consumer feels about their financial institution and whether or not they choose to bank with them. So obviously very, very big. Yet while we see more consumers utilizing and embracing those self-serve channels, we continue to see that there’s reliance on live agent support, especially for those transactions that can’t be fulfilled digitally, where customers are more comfortable talking with a human around whatever they’re calling in. What we’ve seen as a result is that the types of calls being handled by the contact center are evolving as a result, many times much more complex conversations.

Self-serve, of course, can handle many or most of the routine task that have historically been the bread and butter for contact center reps. In leaning ever more toward that self-service model, how do you think banking institutions are doing in trying to strike that balance between efficiency, both timewise and cost-wise, and making sure that the customer comes away satisfied when they interact with their bank or credit union? And in that answer, maybe you could tell us also some of the things that they could be doing better.

I do think that financial institutions are recognizing, and many are embracing the need to strike a balance. They understand that they need to migrate from a product-centric perspective, which primarily has been focused on efficiency, to a customer-centric perspective – one that focuses on engagement and experiences. Those that are successful realize that it’s much more than making the investment in the technology. Certainly, that is key and drives so many things. But to support their strategies, the investment needs to be made not only in the technology but to support the overall customer experience in a holistic manner. What we find is those that are successful have their executive leader at the very top, their leadership really driving that engagement culture throughout their organization. It’s a commitment throughout – not just the technology investment, but how do you create a culture that is going to move away from the product-centric more toward an engagement, regardless of channel that your account holder chooses to interact with you.

You mentioned earlier about call center representatives having more complex conversations with customers. With that in mind, what are the key areas of customer interest or customer concern that you’re seeing these days relative to self-serve, where human intervention is particularly valuable? And does that relative value differ when we’re looking at different generations, given that the younger folks out there are more comfortable doing everything digitally and their financial needs tend to be less complicated than older folks?

What we see in working with our clients and supporting them is that, when it comes to self-service, many of the concerns or inquiries that we see primarily, believe it or not, that require that human invention, are around customers needing assistance with the self-serve tools. That may seem very primary and very basic, but it goes way past that. It goes past a simple password reset, getting them unlocked. It goes many times into helping them migrate through the tools, be it the online banking, the mobile app, and helping them do so in a way that’s meaningful to them and helping them personalize it. By that, I mean, if someone is going to check their balance on their mobile app every day, and that’s their primary focus is, “I want to check my balance, want to make sure things are clearing,” then to help them around that piece, versus saying, “Here’s how you can check investments around this or that kind of thing,” but really helping to personalize it for them and the journey that they want to take through it, is really, really important. It’s important because it encourages that awareness and the adoption of the tools. But I think even more so that, as we discussed a little bit earlier, many define how they feel about their FI through the self-serve channels and the experience they have through them. What we find is our contact center agents, and the FIs we serve have reiterated that their agents not only be digital advocates, but they need to be digital experts and really helping, again, around that migration and helping to understand and help customers understand how that flows.

Right now, we’re in this iffy time economically. Maybe we’re in an official recession, maybe we’re not. Inflation was down in the last measure, but it’s still pretty high – it’s near those 40-year highs, markets are volatile. Terri, I’m guessing you’ve been in your role long enough to have gone through a full business cycle. Do contact center demands change during more difficult economic times? And if so, in what sorts of ways?

They certainly do change, Terry, and you’re right, about where we are. When we’re in uncertain times of any type, the calls received many times become much more emotionally based is what we find. In the same survey, we found that 75% of respondents said that the amount of money in their bank account impacts their mental health. Callers, when they’re calling in, they’re concerned about their financial wellbeing. They want a sense of comfort that their bank or credit union supports them, and they expect them to offer flexibility on things like rates, fees, waiving overdraft or late fees. Many conversations we’re finding are really centering around that. They want assistance with how best to save their money, how to pay off their debt, how to invest. While we do find in all transparency, that some of those people, many do rely on friends or family or even social media to get guidance like that, many times still they are looking to their bank or credit union for that guidance.

Banking-related M&A is down in 2022 compared to the brisk pace that it’s been seeing in recent years, but it’s still a significant industry trend. A merger is one of those major change events that can have a big impact on customers, both for the acquiring institution and for the acquired institution. How do you think about big change events? M&A is one example. Another is, say, the early months of the pandemic when there was so much uncertainty. How do you think about those big events in terms of opportunities for customer care teams to better connect with customers?

I think change events provide an opportunity for financial institutions to not only engage with their current or new account holders, but if done correctly, they can become opportunities to create and build loyalty. We talked a little bit earlier about digital transformation leading to more self-serve transactions. That’s not going to stop. Change events like an M&A may be the only time a customer has a need to reach out and talk with someone at their financial institution. There’s a huge opportunity there. For a financial institution to recognize that and invest in optimizing those touch points related around are centered around the change event, they can be critical and they can have a deep impact on how account holders view their financial institution. I’ve seen that many times banks or credit unions will underestimate the amount of planning and resource that’s needed to investing in that great and good experience around it. Looking at the right things. I mean, just the merger itself has a lot of things and projects within it, but really neglecting to invest in that, I think can be a mess. What we’ve seen is that personalized communications offering a consistent brand experience, delivering excellent and very accessible support, both online and offline throughout the change event. They’re key. What we find is the majority of consumers prefer live interaction through change events like that when looking for answers, specifically around urgent or complex issues.

Speaking of major change events for banking, there continues to be a lot of interest in the future of branch lobbies. As we’ve been discussing for contact centers, the focus for enabling transactions and branches is also shifting to digital. The most common vision for the future branch that I hear about is that they will largely function as advice centers. Do you envision contact centers also taking on a greater role in providing advice to customers?

Yes, and I will tell you your assumption is right, Terry. The clients that we work with and see, they are seeing that their branches are becoming more advisory centers, advice centers, as you put it. I do agree that the contact centers are evolving as well. As we’ve discussed, more customers than ever have adopted and rely on digital channels. But when they seek guidance or advice just like, really, if you think of just us being humans, we want to speak with someone. We want to either see them or we want to hear their voice and hear their guidance in a live state. They want to have meaningful discussions. They want to have a sense of comfort that the person they’re speaking with is knowledgeable and that they have their best interest at heart. Many clients that we talk with have shared that branch traffic actually is returning, probably not as much as it was a couple years ago, but folks are more comfortable now returning to some level into the branches. But many customers have gotten used to transacting their business from home or from work, or wherever they may be. We are seeing that, as you assumed, that a lot of that is spilling over into the phone channel. We absolutely are seeing that migration.

In order to be that advisory source, a different skill set will be required for branch personnel, right? If contact center reps are also taking on more advice-related responsibilities that they’ll no doubt also need a different skill set. What do you think belongs in that skill set and how much would training have to change for them?

I’ve always viewed the context center to be the emotional component or the pulse of any organization, financial institution or just in whatever vertical. I think today, the demands and expectations of those in the context center, they’re more complex, they’re more varied, and they’re more valuable than ever. Contact centers and employees there are expected to be superior problem solvers, all while doing so in a way that creates that human connection. Not too long ago, I remember when contact centers were viewed as cost centers, and that they were in place just to manage the day-to-day, run-of-the-mill transactions. Just keep it efficient, get on and off the phone, and just move on to the next. But things have continued to evolve, and the contact centers has shifted to the forefront of the customer service strategy for organizations, providing both the necessary services and emotional support that customers need. Really that empathy that is so important. We are indeed seeing that a different skill sets needed. We search for individuals who are able to provide a balance of support, those that have critical-thinking skills, the ability to be mentally nimble, that’s still very important, but that also possess those soft skills – the compassion, the understanding and the active listening skills. We actually have seen and continue to see in our own contact centers with other clients that we work with, that the training needs have needed to be adjusted and will continue to be evolved, but just with a focus of supporting and developing and helping to continually enable the skills that we see are so important right now.

You say empathy is increasingly important. Why is that? In a way, it seems like the answer to that would be obvious, that customers want to deal with a pleasant person who can relate to the situation that they’re calling about and also have that desire to want to fix it for them. Does empathy, as you think about it, as you’re talking about it here, does it go deeper than that?

I think it does go deeper. Empathy is creating that human connection, that human touch, which will always be needed regardless of the amount of automation, self-service that’s available to us as consumers. Empathy is about letting the caller know that they’re heard, that they’re understood. That emotional connection, if you think about, it’s more than warm and fuzzy feelings. Emotional connections drive business results. What we’ve seen is that customers that are emotionally attached to an FI’s brand, they’re more likely to sign up for new services to increase share of wallet with that financial institution. They’re more likely to increase balances, and they’re more likely to seek financial advice. Again, it’s not just a nebulous thing out there, we want everybody to hang up happy. It really can drive some very, very tangible and profitable business results.

Empathy seems to be one of those innate personality elements. You’re either that person or you’re not that person. You’re not an empathetic person. Can you train people to be empathetic? And if you can, how do you do it in a way that they still come across as being authentic?

What I can tell you is that when we’re recruiting, we do look for certain traits. We always say we look not only for the skill, but the will. And I think that emotional component really resides in that will portion of a person’s DNA, if you will. I’m not saying that we don’t consider that other factors may influence how we assess applicants, but the will does weigh heavily in our consideration. And I will tell you, it weighs more heavily now than it ever has. Certainly, they need to have a level of critical thinking and just have the skill set that they will be successful. But to have the willingness to want to be involved and help others, it’s so important. It’s an art and science, and it’s one that we’re continuing to focus on. We realize that we must continually provide tools, development, training that are going to help our specialists once we get the right ones on board to provide that right level of empathy, I’ll use your word, in an authentic manner and in a professional manner. It’s a journey. It’s one that will remain on. I always say that things like that are not a one-time incident in time, but they really are a journey. So we are continuing to look at that, and I see other clients we serve doing the same.

Terri Panhans, vice president for contact center solutions at Vericast. Many thanks again for joining us on the BAI Banking Strategies Podcast.

Thank you, Terry. It was my pleasure.

Terry Badger, is Managing Editor at BAI and host of the BAI Banking Strategies podcast.