Banking on Experience

Revolutionizing the Credit Union Call Center: How to Go from a Service to a Sales Model

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Contact Centers can easily become reactive, resulting in a subpar member experience. However, a contact center doesn’t need to be a bottleneck. It can instead become a secret weapon for improving member experiences and driving growth.

Banking on Experience guest Darlene Hilton, VP of Member Services at Lone Star Credit Union, sat down with our team and explained how decades of industry and career-centered experience helped her revolutionize her contact center.

What are the major limitations and challenges that credit union contact centers must overcome to succeed and drive growth?

As Hilton explains it, the landscape of contact centers has seen a dramatic shift over recent years. Gone are the days of cookie-cutter scripting and order-taking. Now, the focus is on building relationships and searching for opportunities to strengthen the bond between the credit union and the member. It’s a change that requires a new approach to staff education, focusing less on rote learning and more on fostering a proactive, relationship-focused mindset.

The catalyst for this shift was the COVID-19 pandemic, says Hilton. As the world went into lockdown, our lives became increasingly virtual, including our financial interactions. We’ve become accustomed to quick, efficient, and painless interactions that are professional, pleasant, and anticipatory of our needs, even when we’re not entirely sure what those needs are.

Reflecting on my own experience as a call center representative, I’ve realized that traditional training methods don’t cut it anymore, says Hilton. We were taught to follow policies and procedures, but we weren’t taught how to build relationships. That’s where the focus needs to be now. It’s not enough to stay within the lines. We have to think differently, listen actively, and provide immediate solutions.

What is it like to create a contact center at a small credit union and how have you been able to do more with less?

Building a successful contact center is a complex task, but it’s not solely about the center itself, explains Hilton. It’s about understanding how you work as an entity and recognizing that it’s not a siloed world. The effectiveness of a call center is largely dependent on the individuals staffing it, but growth opportunities extend beyond the center itself.

This includes branch operations, and understanding the necessary channels to direct various queries, whether they need to be addressed by a lending service representative or a collections officer. These interactions often lead to revenue-driving opportunities.

Consider a scenario where a customer informs you that they’re headed to a dealership to purchase a car. This is an immediate opportunity. The customer may not be pre-approved for a loan, but by quickly connecting them with a virtual lender, you can facilitate this process without them needing to step foot inside the branch.

Missed opportunities can be costly. The key is to find a way to meet a member’s needs, whatever it takes. That often starts with staff training, says Hilton. Employees need to understand that if the traditional approach isn’t feasible, they must explore other available options. In essence, running a successful contact center within a small credit union is about understanding the broader picture, seizing opportunities, and being adaptable to the needs of the customer.

What are the three biggest challenges facing credit union contact centers, particularly when it comes to turning them into growth centers?

In today’s dynamic business environment, credit union contact centers are faced with the daunting task of transforming into growth centers. The keys to this transformation are a mindset shift, consistent training, and setting clear expectations.

The first hurdle is the mindset. Many employees follow a routine, performing the same tasks every day without questioning or deviating. The need of the hour is to encourage these employees to think beyond their daily tasks. They must understand the bigger picture, their impact on the organization, and the importance of building relationships with customers, rather than just making a sale.

The second challenge is training. In the past, the products offered by credit unions were simple and straightforward. Today, credit unions must strive to make their customer experience memorable to ensure repeated business. To achieve this, employees need to be trained consistently and effectively. Training should not be a one-time event, but an ongoing process. Immediate feedback and on-the-spot corrections are crucial.

The third challenge is about setting clear expectations. Every customer should receive the same high-quality service, regardless of who they interact with. This level of consistency can only be achieved when employees fully understand their roles, have been adequately trained, and have clear expectations set for them.

Who is responsible for training the contact center?

In the realm of contact centers, it is not the training department that shoulders the responsibility of training, but rather the supervisory staff, Hilton said. They are the ones who should be actively involved in the process, listening to phone calls, and providing the necessary feedback to their team members.

Supervisors should be pulling up phone calls and dissecting them with their staff, allowing them to listen, understand, and learn from their own experiences. This hands-on approach gives staff members the chance to identify their strengths and areas for improvement, fostering a sense of self-awareness and personal growth.

By hearing their own voices and interactions, staff members can reflect and say, “I could have handled that differently. I should have done this instead.” This method of learning from one’s own experiences is far more impactful and effective than traditional classroom-style training, explains Hilton.

What is your advice for how to turn a credit union contact center into a driver of growth?

In the world of finance, we are not salespeople. We are subject matter experts, dedicated to driving financial stability. Our role is to build relationships and understand the needs of our members.

We are here to ensure their financial security, whether that means detecting fraud, helping them find a viable source to increase their income, providing a loan, or opening a new account for a child.

We don’t sell. We guide. We present financial options and help our members understand the benefits that these options can bring to their lives.

Consider an A-plus member applying for an auto loan but refusing a service contract. At this point, our role is to help them see the bigger picture. For just pennies on a dollar, less than the cost of a Starbucks coffee, we can offer them protection. It’s about presenting the benefits in a way that resonates with the member’s needs and priorities. We are not pushing products or services. Instead, we are offering security and peace of mind.

In essence, the secret to turning a credit union contact center into a driver of growth is not about selling—it’s about understanding, guiding, and providing security. It’s about being there for our members, offering them the financial stability they need, and building relationships based on trust.

What kind of technology should Contact Centers be leveraging right now?

As an industry veteran, I can affirm that call recording systems have the potential to revolutionize the way we understand and improve our interactions with customers by listening, learning, and consistency.

Let’s start with listening. The beauty of call recording lies in its simplicity. Recording allows us to step back, listen, and learn from our interactions with customers. Unlike face-to-face encounters, where non-verbal cues can often dominate, phone calls strip communication down to its bare essentials. The tone of voice, choice of words, and the rhythm of conversation matter. This is where the real learning begins.

Call recordings are akin to a mirror, reflecting our strengths and weaknesses and providing valuable insights. I often bring my team together, pull up a call recording, and dissect it. The team members grade themselves, identify areas of improvement, and suggest alternatives. This exercise not only helps them self-evaluate but also encourages them to think critically and creatively.

While individual learning is important, collective learning can be transformative. In team meetings, we dissect calls together. The beauty of this approach is that it creates an environment of transparency and trust. It allows team members to learn from each other’s experiences, mistakes, and successes.

When a team member successfully addresses an issue that others have grappled with, it triggers a collective ‘aha’ moment. They take notes, learn new ways of conveying messages, and most importantly, they learn to communicate with each other. This shared learning experience strengthens the team and fosters a culture of continuous improvement.

The ultimate goal of leveraging call recording is to achieve consistency. This level of proficiency and comfort means that every customer receives the same high-quality service.

As a contact center leader, my role is not to micromanage, but to provide the tools and environment for my team to excel. With call recording, the need for intervention is minimized, freeing me to focus on strategic improvements. It’s a tool that facilitates learning, encourages peer-to-peer communication, and fosters consistency in customer interactions.

What are the metrics that folks in the CU space should use to measure contact center success?

The Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are commonly used include average handle time, staffing and queue management, average speed of answer, customer satisfaction scores, and referral tracking. However, the application and interpretation of these metrics are not always straightforward.

For instance, average handle time, which measures the duration of customer calls, is not just about efficiency. It can also be an indicator of potential issues such as knowledge gaps among staff or unnecessary deviations from the topic at hand.

Similarly, staffing and queue management is not just about ensuring adequate coverage. It’s also about maintaining team morale and ensuring that the team feels supported and aware of what’s going on.

The average speed of answer, contrary to what the name suggests, doesn’t just measure how quickly a call is answered, says Hilton. It also assesses how swiftly the customer’s question or issue is resolved once the call is picked up. This metric can reveal training opportunities and gaps in the information provided to the team.

Customer satisfaction scores are another crucial KPI. However, it’s essential to dig deeper and assess the emotional aspect of the call and how the customer felt during the interaction. Even if all the boxes were checked from a procedural standpoint, if the customer didn’t feel valued, the interaction was not a success.

Finally, referral tracking is an important metric that requires a clear process and understanding among all involved. This includes knowing who the contacts are, what the process is, and the expectations around timeframes.

What is your insight from your years of contact center experience that you feel everyone should hear right now?

It’s crucial to be transparent with your team, not just about the what, when, and where, but also the why. Employees need to understand the importance of their role in the larger scheme of things and how they contribute to the member’s experience.

However, as a leader, you should be prepared for failure. It’s inevitable, but failure also presents a valuable opportunity for growth and training. Celebrating successes, no matter how minor, is equally important to keep morale high and encourage continued effort.

The key to effective management is consistent teaching, says Hilton. It’s not about a one-off training session, but about continuous learning through every interaction. Accountability is another crucial factor.

Once employees have been trained and have demonstrated their understanding, they should be held accountable for their performance, which can foster a culture of mutual responsibility.

Finally, the goal should be to build consistency and empower your staff to the point where they can operate independently. Empowered employees often become a source of growth, identifying gaps in systems, processes, and procedures and helping to address them.

In conclusion, Hilton explains that honesty, acceptance of failure, continuous teaching, accountability, and empowerment are vital elements in contact center management.

By embracing these principles, leaders can help their teams realize their value, leading to increased retention and a more productive work environment.

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