A surge in growth forced CCU to start hiring more employees directly into the contact center, rather than transitioning them from traditional teller roles. The knowledge and proficiency needed for the role took a significant amount of time to acquire, which put pressure on level two support teams at the company.
In late 2020, things changed when the credit union introduced a two-week rotational program to have a level two support team train individuals from the contact center: live.
New hires for contact center positions at Corning Federal Credit Union ($2.0B, Corning, NY) are often entry level. These hires are typically in their early 20s and from outside the financial services industry but are service-oriented and fit well within the credit union’s culture.
“A 20-something's banking experience generally revolves around apps like Venmo and CashApp but they don’t necessarily know what an IRA is, or a certificate or a trust,” says Chad Hassler, Corning’s digital services supervisor.
Initial onboarding and training serves to fill these knowledge gaps. But still, gaps may remain.
As part of his capacity at the credit union, Hassler oversees the — fully remote — team that handles digital communication with members through Corning’s website and mobile app, as well as escalated digital and card support. In his one-on-ones with his direct reports, Hassler monitors how his team members feel about the questions they receive.
CU QUICK FACTS
HQ: Corning, NY
Data as of 03.31.21
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 29.4%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 22.9%
“When your phone queues blow up, what kind of questions are you getting? Are they tough questions or strange scenarios?” he asks.
Under pressure from high call volumes, the contact center employees were relying more and more on level two support teams for answers rather than leveraging self-service resource channels. Of course, this is not without its reasons: based on its internal tracking, the contact center answers the widest variety of questions of any department; in addition, employee turnover on this team has made continuous training a necessary part of its existence.
“We have members who will call in about anything,” Hassler says. “And to try and keep our people up to speed on all of it over and over again can be daunting.”
At some point in the past, Hassler admits, his team had come to accept they had become another layer of the contact center training process, answering questions while providing de facto, in-the-moment training. That worked well enough.
But by late 2020, Hassler and his team had a better thought. Why not flip the script? Rather than provide the training from one department to the other, why not just let the contact center learn by doing?
Teach A Rep To Fish
Hassler’s team is remote and has been since before the pandemic. As such, the team communicates largely through WebEx video meetings or through chat rooms. And while the team has set up a chat room for everyone to communicate with one another, they’ve established three others focused on card support, digital support, and digital member services.
“Depending on your role you could be involved in one or all those things, and it really just focuses the conversation,” Hassler says. “These channels also turned out to be helpful for our apprenticeship program as we got it off the ground.”
In the program, a contact center employee is effectively loaned to Corning’s digital services team for two weeks.
The program starts with a one-hour primer on two tools: Corning’s firstname.lastname@example.org email inbox and its secure message center portal, plus an overview of its chat channels and response templates. Of Hassler’s eight-person digital services team, four will work with the contact center reps over the two-week training.
Chats and messages come in and the contact center reps begin to answer with the tools at their disposal. At the start of the second week, apprentices move from chat to the phone, answering escalated questions from their contact center teammates.
“I come from IT where if it’s broken, you’re the one who’s fixing it,” Hassler says. “The same principle applies here: We’re teaching them to own a situation or problem until it’s solved; it just happens to be experiential rather than technical.”
At the heart of the apprenticeship program is tension, Hassler says. For those handling member requests, there is no more teachable moment than when a question comes in that they don’t know the answer to; if you allow reps to leverage the knowledge of others, there’s no learning, there’s just an awareness for who to ask next time.
“There’s this tension in having a member waiting for your real-time reply that can make you better. You don’t want to let them down,” Hassler says. “And while we certainly offer our apprenticed employees support, we feel like there’s no substitute for in-the-moment learning.”
For him, no amount of classroom training can replace the pressure of a real-time interaction. Within the two-week period, contact center reps do the job of a digital support and cards support employee. It’s as much an exercise in confidence building as technical training, as Hassler hopes to empower these employees to make decisions in the heat of a member interaction.
For instance, Hassler imagines a scenario where a member has a $2,000 check for remote deposit but their limit is $1,500. Before, they would call the credit union’s contact center, who would then contact digital support to raise the limit. But without that option they have to run the scenario live in their head: What’s the member’s credit score? What’s their balance? What’s their account history with us? How long have they been a member? The answers to all these questions — and more — can help the rep understand how to answer the request.
“Ultimately it comes down to whether the contact center knows how to do it, knows where to find the answer, or is willing to make a judgment call,” Hassler says. “We have great people on our team, and putting them in an environment where they have to find these answers or make these decisions will only make them better.”
Nothing Beats The Real Thing
Initially, Corning’s plan was to open the apprenticeship program to any contact center rep who might want the experience, though the goal was to train them all.
Because the contact center is busy, it took an initial test case or two to fully highlight the value this apprenticeship could bring to the department. Once that was demonstrated, scheduling became the next point. At first contact center reps would complete the full two weeks one at a time, but for the sake of efficiency that’s been changed to where two reps apprentice at once — one completing the first week, one on the second week.
At this point, Corning is still working on training its full roster of contact center reps. But for those who have been trained, the response has been positive, Hassler says, even for longer-term reps who may not have been obvious candidates for additional training.
“We had a seasoned employee go through it recently,” Hassler says. “And he said he was glad we gave him a chance to prove himself and that he got to have the same experience as others on his team, when we easily could have told him that he didn’t need it.”
Looking forward, Hassler is looking for ways to make the two-week apprenticeship more impactful for the contact center team. Already, Hassler and his team will meet with the apprentices to have broader conversations about their future plans with the credit union; in addition, Hassler will meet with the apprentice’s contact center managers to brief them on how the rep is faring in their two-week rotation.
“Because nothing beats doing something for real.”
Hassler would like to get to a point where, to paraphrase from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, contact center reps will sharpen the saw themselves. Meaning, now that contact center reps are versed in this culture of owning problems and finding solutions, how will they grow that knowledge and even pass it along to others?
The success of the apprenticeship program between digital services and contact center offers lessons for other departments too, Hassler says. Training is effective, but there’s more to learn outside of the classroom.
“I think it’s unfair to put all the onus of education on one training department. What we have to ask ourselves is how do we enable and encourage those doing the work to share and spread their knowledge with those who want to learn,” he says. “Because nothing beats doing something for real.”
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