Rise Of The Virtual Agent

Evangelical Christian plans to improve its call center service by going more virtual and less human.

To paraphrase the iconic Ferris Buehler, life moves pretty fast. Forget smelling the roses, though, because with only limited hours in a day and an endless to-do list, most people rank tasks by importance. Banking? It’s probably not at the top of the list. Plus, with most branches closing by 5 p.m, the hours don’t work with the constrictions of many full-time jobs.

Evangelical Christian Credit Union ($1.07B, Brea, CA) opens for business at 6:30 a.m. and closes at 4:30 p.m, which, says Tom Mauer, member service manager, suits the schedules of its primary membership Christian ministries in the United States 98% of the time.

However, the credit union’s 11,500 members also include many missionaries who work overseas with Evangelical’s affiliated ministries in 120 different countries. Whether the missionaries are in Thailand or one of Russia’s 11 different time zones, the credit union’s hours of operation don’t mean much because these members aren’t awake then.

That’s why in April 2013 Evangelical began using virtual agent software through a third-party provider to improve the call center’s ability to respond to members with banking questions after business hours.

It’s definitely something we’ve been wanting to deploy for our members, Mauer says.

An In-House Resource For Call Center Staff

So far, Evangelical hasn’t introduced the software to the member-facing channels it ultimately wants to occupy: the credit union’s website, post-login online banking page, and Facebook page. Currently, the institution is updating its website and online banking systems and expects to introduce the software once those changes are complete, either by the end of 2014 or early 2015. The software, however, is used in house.

At this point, it’s an in-house subject member expert for the representatives on our member service team, Mauer says.

The software is designed to answer a member’s query with one correct response. Unlike search engines, the software doesn’t spit out 20 possible answers that you have to scroll through on a million web pages, Mauer says. Instead, the goal is to get you that one right answer.

Because the software is a cloud-based system, Evangelical doesn’t need to add more servers or provide its own tech support. The software administrator provides everything for less than the cost of one full-time call center representative.

Security, too, is not an issue. No personal information is shared through the software, and, according to Mauer, the system is incapable of providing account-specific responses. In addition, information that applies to internal processes or security will only be available after the member logs into his account.

Even though the software has yet to be introduced to members, the credit union has already seen an improvement in its internal development processes. Before, the credit union needed 10 or 11 weeks to train a new agent; with this system in place, that time has been sliced to just 4.5 weeks.

The system recognizes keywords and can even offer suggestions when only part of a question is typed. A list of the most common questions that members ask is also provided.

This tool makes representatives much more confident that they can access information that had previously been stored all over the place, Mauer says. They don’t have to remember which file, program, or folder specific information is housed in.

A Data-Capturing Tool To Improve Service

Once the system is introduced to members on Facebook, the main website, and the online banking page, Mauer predicts the effect will be positive. He anticipates a 30% reduction in email volume as well as fewer online messages and phone calls. People will be able to go online to get the right answer instead, he says.

The software also has the potential to become a powerful tool for organizing and capturing information.

Before, we didn’t have a systematic way of capturing what types of questions current or perspective members were asking, Mauer says. We can now get reports on the types of questions asked and their frequency, so it gives us market intelligence. If there’s a hole in our product line or a need we have to address, we’ll see that by the type of questions asked.

So with a system like this in place, will the credit union’s call centers no longer require the services of live staff?

There will always be a need for live staff, Mauer counters, though the role of employees will likely change to just answering complicated questions outside the capabilities of an automated system. Increasingly, what will happen is a larger percentage of our calls will be how can you help solve a problem?’ versus can you give me the last five checks cleared’ or what is your wire routing number?’

Aaron Pugh contributed to this article.

June 16, 2014

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