Thrive and Direct

Aware of the public’s increasing willingness to deal with financial matters over the phone, Colonial has gone direct. As Sophie McKenzie reports, the benefits of selling services from one central office cannot be overstated

As more companies join the rush to sell their services direct, Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) technology looks likely to be a determining factor in the success of many of the new ventures.

One new outfit where the employment of information technology has been central is Colonial Direct, launched in March as an arm of Australian financial services company Colonial.

Colonial decided to broaden its distribution channels at the end of 1993 and, aware of the public’s increasing willingness to deal over the phone, chose to set up a direct operation based around call centre technology.

Founded in Australia in 1873, the organisation has a UK network of 28 branches and a strong base in life assurance. Colonial’s decision to go direct was reinforced by research that suggested significant growth in direct sales of life insurance was likely. A 1993 MORI poll looking into consumer perception of direct sales found that eight per cent of respondents said they would buy life insurance and investment products over the phone. At that time no financial services companies were in those markets.

Colonial Direct took 16 months to plan. The call centre is based at the head office of Colonial’s UK operation in Chatham, Kent, and, from there, a range of financial products from PEPs and investments to mortgages, life insurance, pensions and general insurance products are sold over the phone. The benefits of selling from one central office include a reduction in overheads, a streamlining of technology and – in theory at least – the opportunity to offer a better service to customers by empowering phone advisers (staff taking incoming calls) to make on-the-spot decisions (which, outside a direct operation, would probably have to be referred to other departments).

Colonial Direct systems manager Mario Antoniou says: “Our advisers have to be able to access all the information that they need on screen, to maximise their efficiency when dealing with customers. If a caller has previously spoken to a particular adviser, we wanted a system that would recognise this caller automatically and route them to the same adviser whenever possible. The system had to provide managers with key real-time data so that at any one time call centre performance could be measured. Being able to manage the peaks and troughs in call centre traffic was also a necessity.”

CTI specialist Co-Cam was appointed to install an appropriate system – with 60 telephone lines. Co-Cam’s solution to Colonial’s needs centred on Brock sales and marketing software and automatic call distributor software Softcall.

Brock provides Colonial advisers with all sorts of relevant information – such as call prompts and campaign details – on their PCs and offers access to a wide bank of other details. The software also collates and manipulates sales and marketing data, providing managers with the latest information on how many and what sort of financial products and services have been sold and by whom.

Softcall uses the information from Brock to control call routing into the call centre. For example, the system can ensure each adviser is being given a fair and balanced number of calls to deal with. And, using productivity data on each adviser, it can even identify those operatives who are best suited to a particular campaign.

Peaks and troughs can be broadly anticipated in a call centre, but they cannot always be managed. Softcall provides a Calling Line Identity (CLI) function, which recognises a caller’s telephone number. This means consumers who call in and hang up before being answered are given a higher priority by Softcall the next time they ring in, and their call is answered more speedily.

In addition, when a caller does get through to an adviser, the CLI function means all database information on that person is triggered by his or her telephone number and can be automatically displayed on the adviser’s screen. This information can include the number and nature of enquiries that caller has already made, which allows for improved management of the new call.

Having access to this data provides a more professional approach and avoids the negative feelings generated when a caller has to mention the same details before starting every call. Reducing the time it takes to handle a call also increases the number of enquiries advisers can take.

Brock can also help operatives by gathering data on specific financial products which they can use to offer a tailored service to each customer.

Technology manager Andy Williams says: “With links to our lenders, our advisers can use customer information gathered by Brock during the call, access a range of quotations from different lenders and provide the best possible quote for the customer. Giving a competitive quote means we remove some of the customer’s quote searching and we do the shopping for them.

“Traditionally, lenders have received completed application forms and cheques from customers, which then had to be input manually onto their systems. Sometimes these contained errors that caused further delays. Our system removes all of this administration. Reducing the customer’s involvement, merely asking them to confirm, sign and return easy-to-read documentation, reduces customer apathy and encourages a swifter turn-around on policies.”

Colonial Direct also has links with a network of surveyors across the UK. Once a mortgage is agreed, property information can be sent to them immediately. This means they can get a survey under way quickly, without having to wait for the building society surveyor to make arrangements first.

Other CTI facilities also help advisers concentrate on their own keyboards and the call in hand, without having to search for bits of paper. A link to the Postcode Address File means advisers only have to request the house number and postcode from a new prospect to obtain his or her full address.

Automatic fulfilment is also possible. Instead of advisers having to select manually the appropriate mailing information to be sent to each caller, this process happens automatically using the customer information collected in Brock. The caller will receive relevant information the next day and the adviser is free to move on and take the next call.

The call centre also has access to credit checking organisations. A window is displayed on-screen, during the call, if the prospect is not a suitable customer. At this point the adviser is prompted on-screen to gather more information on his or her credit-worthiness.

However, Colonial realises all the technology is useless without experienced operators, placing a high priority on training. The company employs two types of adviser. The basic agent may take a call and, thanks to the sophistication of the software and simplicity of the scripts he or she follows, can go a long way towards finding out what the caller is interested in. The call can then be transferred to a licensed adviser who has a more thorough training in financial products and services.

Colonial Direct backed its new call centre with an off-the-page national press ad campaign – through Brann – and direct response national TV advertising. Each campaign, and even each ad, used a different 0800 telephone number.

Co-Cam marketing manager Gary Coville explains: “An ad in one paper for a PEP, say, would have a different number from the same ad in another paper. This means that the place in which the caller found out about the product is logged automatically by computer.

“This saves the adviser time and means Colonial can work out not only where from, but when calls are likely to come in,” he adds.

Peaks and troughs can also be managed by encouraging callers to give a number where they can be contacted. This is presented as an added-value service to the consumer but in fact it helps Colonial to schedule its calls and balance the number of operatives required to run the phones over the course of the day.

As a formerly unexplored area of direct sales quickly becomes a highly competitive environment, it is those companies investing primarily in training and computer integrated technology that can expect to outperform the rest.

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