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Talking Up Sales in the Contact Center


Banking contact centers primarily have functioned as service hubs for customers who call for information or help with a problem. Now an expanded sales role is unfolding as people downplay the branch and shift more purchase-related activity to remote channels.

Even as shopping for financial services providers and products is shifting online, many customers still want a live conversation with a representative when they get ready to open accounts. And for those who do not want to visit a branch, the next best option is conversing with a contact center representative.

In this situation, the contact center becomes the first line of defense in ensuring that a sale lost to the branch does not become a sale lost to the bank altogether. It is a pivotal role that will only grow in importance as remote banking matures from a transaction service to a full shopping and banking experience in a multi-channel marketplace.

To succeed in this important transition, banks will need to strengthen their sales strategies for the contact center and back up the commitment with the appropriate investments in people, processes and technology. The progressive contact center will essentially become the largest and fastest-growing branch, a leadership role with increasingly large consequences for customer acquisition and cross-sell.

From Cost Center to Sales Center

Today, unfortunately, most bank contact centers are not prepared for this expanded role. Usually they are managed as high-volume service centers, with emphasis on cost control and hyper-efficient call handling. To turn the tide, the unit’s strategic role must shift from cost center to sales center. Leaders in contact center sales productivity recognize that each conversation offers a chance to strengthen and expand a customer relationship. This requires careful management and measurement of the sales process, tracking the yield from each step and also investing in the capabilities needed for further progress.

The potential payoffs exceed what many bankers realize. In mature branches, the typical sales conversion rate (sales units divided by walk-in traffic) is only about 1.5% on average; the very best is usually no greater than 2.8%, but only in a fraction of locations. In contact centers, by contrast, we see higher average conversion ratios of about 2%, with best-in-class centers delivering double or triple the average in select areas with the right investments. Despite years of investments in branch selling, the best sales conversion ratios have only a fraction of the potential of the contact center.

One selling advantage in the contact center is dedicated customer attention. Our research shows that customers will usually set aside a minimum amount of time when they call to ask for help from a contact center, typically 15 minutes, providing a window of opportunity for an expanded conversation.  If service consumes only five of the 15 minutes available, for example, callers are more likely to be pleased and more likely to spare time for a conversation about larger needs that go beyond the service event.

Sales performance in the contact center critically depends on analytically-driven call support. Two factors are call strategy tagging (CST), which helps to set priorities, and call guidance, which helps to facilitate customer conversations as they progress.

The goal of CST is to define the objective for each conversation. Many banks already tag customers for the “next best product,” but this implies that the right strategy is a product sale, which is not always the case. Often, there are more fruitful objectives such as reducing attrition; stimulating product usage; encouraging self-service; or evolving a secondary checking account into the primary account.

For this reason, CST goes beyond products to address all phases of the customer lifecycle. The goal is to provide immediate insight for agents in the course of customer conversations, considering a variety of outcomes and not just product sales only. Because customer strategies will necessarily change over time, a solid analytical process is needed to continually adapt to changing customer circumstances and possibilities.

Conversational Cues

An expert call guidance system provides key conversational cues that have proven their worth in boosting sales, helping average agents to behave more like the best. It is much more efficient to improve the sales efficiency of the majority of agents than to constantly try to recruit and retain a handful of elite performers.

Many bankers believe that they already understand this point and hold out their customer relationship management (CRM) systems as proof. But while CRM does try to facilitate conversations by aggregating relationship data and coming up with sales suggestions, it stumbles when agents try to incorporate real-time information acquired in the conversation and then attempt to modify the approach to suit the situation.

By contrast, leaders in contact center sales productivity provide agents with real-time intelligent guidance systems. This new breed of technology mimics the decision tree that the best agents follow intuitively and provides that intelligence to every agent on the floor. This approach also allows for rapid, continual testing for ongoing improvement.

While call guidance systems will not eliminate the need for agent training and product knowledge, they significantly reduce the burden placed on agents for rote memorization. Agents are brought up the performance curve much more rapidly.

Another benefit is enhanced compliance in today’s stringent regulatory environment. Agents need help in making sense of a complex set of national and state regulations that may come into play on any given call, and call guidance can help agents to remain compliant in all circumstances, without having to memorize every possible regulation.

As U.S. retail banks continue to struggle with sales productivity, it is important to keep sight of opportunities in the multi-channel banking marketplace. A highly capable contact center will be a lifeline in preserving sales rapport with remote customers.

Yet, often today the contact center remains an after-thought in the consideration set for investments that will help to boost retail sales productivity. Meanwhile contact center managers have little leeway or motivation to take the plunge on their own, remaining firmly planted in the role of hyper-efficient service providers.

Banks that can make the most of every phone conversation will be well-positioned to serve migrating multi-channel customers who have left the branch and need high-quality remote services through the contact center. With their controlled environments and advanced technologies, contact centers can make a clear difference in sales performance, with the advantage going to players that make the needed investments now.

Mr. Mattei is a managing director in the New York office and Mr. Demos a managing director in the Boston office of Novantas Inc., a management consultancy. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.