Calling for compliance

Peter Richards of BT Global Services looks at the compliance issues that call centres face.

Call centre managers face many challenges on a daily basis - they have to manage a large number of staff; process calls as quickly and efficiently as possible; control costs; and, at the same time, comply with different regulations.

This is especially true for those involved in the sale of financial products and services, which are, in many cases, more tightly controlled than others. But putting the necessary technology and processes in place to ensure compliance can be complex or expensive within traditional call centres. 

Many financial services companies have embraced the internet by creating interactive, live websites and allowing customers to do more than ever online. But there will always be occasions when a customer's requirements are slightly different from the norm, or when they have an unusual request, when they need to talk to a customer service representative who can help them out.

In response to these situations, many financial services organisations provide online enquiry forms or 'Call Me' buttons to make it easy to provide assistance. But once the customer is on the phone, that's where the difficulties start.

To ensure that the company complies with the many legislations and regulations from the Data Protection Act of 1998 through to FSA requirements, they have to carefully monitor their advisors, to prove that any advice given is both readily accessible and legally compliant.

Training is essential - call centre operatives working for financial services organisations must know what can be sold to whom, and the process involved. They may even need to pass specific examinations to demonstrate their knowledge.

But whatever training is given, it is important that it is effective, which means that some random calls will need to be recorded or a manager will need to listen in, to be sure the correct procedures are being followed.

Another issue that financial services organisations face is that of identifying their callers. There are always security questions, but how can you be 100 per cent certain that the person on the other end of the line is who they claim to be, and not an impostor?

In addition, to achieve compliance, organisations need to prove that offers were made and accepted based on the correct advice, so they need to keep a record of every call. Unfortunately this can be cumbersome and expensive. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel as companies switch to multimedia contact centres that use IP telephony (IPT).

There are many reasons for organisations to select IPT. One key factor is that it is more cost effective to run than conventional phone systems, because it utilises a common network infrastructure driving the voice and data traffic over the same network platform.

Because these calls are transmitted over the same network as data packets, multimedia contact centres are much easier to design and operate, opening new opportunities to address the challenges of compliance.

Another benefit is the inherent flexibility that IPT provides. The link between specific phone numbers and cables is removed, which means any IP phone on a company's network can be linked to any number.

This makes flexible working and hot-desking much easier: employees simply log in to the phone on the desk they are using and their calls are routed to them, enabling staff to handle calls from anywhere on the company’s network as the need arises.

One example of a financial institution in the UK that has benefited from IPT is Newcastle Building Society. By rolling out the technology, the company allows calls to be handled anywhere across its entire branch network. In effect this 'virtualises' its contact centre and allows surplus resource at branch level to be utilised by the direct sales and marketing team.

Another way that IPT helps financial services organisations is with recording and logging calls. Using traditional analogue systems this has always been a difficult process.

In all but the very small contact centres, the equipment needed to create the recordings was specialised and expensive. And the resulting tapes had to be stored carefully - often for many years.

But it wasn't until users attempted to go back and locate a specific conversation that they really found the flaws in the system. Even if they knew when a specific call was made, and therefore which tape it was on, they still have to scan through the whole tape to find the actual call.

With IPT, however, calls can be saved digitally as WAV files and archived on the customer database alongside information such as copies of emails or online transactions. And they can be accessed and replayed just as easily by simply clicking the link.

The current use of IPT is just the start - the potential benefits of the technology are significant. BT itself has developed a prototype compliance assistant called Gabrielle that helps its own employees comply with the regulations that govern the company's operations.

The system is based on cutting-edge speech recognition technology, and it listens to the dialogue between the customer and agent. It monitors for specific words or phrases that suggest a potentially sensitive topic is being discussed, at which point a reminder of the steps to be followed is displayed on the agent’s computer screen.

A trial installation at BT's Canterbury call centre has resulted in the largest improvement in compliance performance since the introduction of CRM.

Another benefit of technology that listens to and recognises speech is that it can help identify callers. Every person's voice is virtually unique. The characteristics of their vocal system mean that the pattern of sounds we each use to make up speech can be recorded and used as a voiceprint.

There is technology available which can create and store these voiceprints in about a minute, and then when the customer calls back it only takes a matter of seconds to verify them. For example, when they say their address or other identification details the sounds can be analysed and compared to the voiceprint on file.

These systems have an accuracy level of nearly 100 per cent, and provide another identity verification method that financial institutions can use.

It is true that these and other opportunities to reduce compliance costs and improve performance can be exploited without making the switch to IP telephony. But it's clear they can be applied more readily and economically in an all-digital environment, and that makes the case for financial services businesses to move to IPT even more compelling.

This article first appeared in July 2006 ITNOWextra.