Designing the Un-Call Center

Since its inception in 2000, ING Direct USA has looked to go against the grain of banking, seeking to differentiate from the status quo while offering quality products and a superior customer experience. This focus on a smarter approach to banking also extends to the company’s call center, where associates are trained to serve customers but also to grow the business.

Its low-cost business model was intended to provide a competitive advantage so it could offer better rates and low fees. This model and customer advocacy position has paid off. ING Direct has grown into the nation’s largest direct bank, with more than 7.5 million customers.

To meet customer demands, the business needs to be accessible and available with a neighborly, human telephone connection. The company’s sales center was created to field customer service inquiries over the phone, but also to generate savings, mortgage and investment sales out of those opportunities. Similar to the organization’s initial business approach, the mentality to handle phone calls needed its own unique stamp to help it fit into the overall culture. There was a desire not to be a seen as a call center, but rather to build a strategy around the “un-call center.”

In designing the un-call center, the company sought to eliminate customer frustration triggers, such as greeting them with a robotic options menu, multiple transfers, repeating information multiple times and long hold times. At the same time, locally based sales associates would be tasked with providing an exceptional customer experience.

This focus helps ING Direct consistently register a Net Promoter Score at the top of the banking industry — 40 percent of new customers come to the company via word of mouth, which implies this focus is paying off. The ingredients of this customer experience effort have come together to cultivate a progressive culture where employees are engaged and business results continuously improve.

The Core Elements

The sales center always has been considered a strategic asset to the organization because the corporate brand can be reinforced on every call. Traditionally, call centers are seen as a drain on the bottom line — employees are just there to answer inquiries and move to the next call. This approach overlooks the opportunity to capture more business through selling while keeping engagement and performance high and maximizing learning opportunities.

ING Direct also wanted the sales center to be considered a home base for talent. Individual performance is nurtured as associates deliver a simple customer experience and become experts on the bank’s products and processes. Because of this, management knew tenured call center associates would be naturally transportable to other departments, which turned out to be beneficial for the associate and the bank. Today more than a third of current associates started their careers in the sales center, populating the organization with individuals who are a proven culture fit. Further, these individuals represent the customer voice in bank-wide projects.

ING Direct was founded on the “orange code,” a cultural map designed to keep the entire workforce focused on the company’s core missions. One of the tenets of this code is “We will constantly learn.” This is especially true in the sales center. Associates receive training to help them grow their sales skills and product knowledge; they also develop themselves in other lines of company business.

In 2007, a structured, transparent program was created to make working in the sales center a stepping stone to a fulfilling career. While in sales, every associate participates in a self-guided career development tool called the Evolution Roadmap. Through checkpoints, challenges and rewards at each of the four phases of the roadmap, associates have a defined path to professional and personal growth.

Associates begin as “believers,” giving them an introduction to sales and the company itself. The next move is to become a “promoter,” which is when they learn how to sell and service the bank’s deposit products. Once proficient in that, they can be promoted to a “champion” role, handling mortgage inquiries and understanding the intricacies behind what is typically a person’s largest lifetime purchase. Through this ongoing layering of new skills that build upon previous strengths, by the fourth phase — “advocate” — the associate can handle every kind of call — mortgage, checking, savings — creating a one-and-done customer experience.

From a management standpoint, the roadmap allows for structural flexibility and easy product expansion. Call centers structured by product silo can be challenged when business volume fluctuates because product specialists cannot be easily and quickly deployed to handle other calls. New products, however, can easily be added. In September ING Direct launched MONEY, a debit card designed for parents and teens. The training to support the new product took no more than 30 minutes, and associates can go back and reference it if necessary.

Own the Call

The Evolution Roadmap also fosters a self-managed approach for the sales associate position. The team mantra is “own the phone call.” The decision on how to handle the call — what to say and how to say it — is up to the associate, with no scripting. Associates can review their performance on a day-to-day basis on a digital dashboard and monitor their progress toward various atypical rewards programs, such as the ability to work whenever they want.

The approach pays off. In a 2011 survey, 88 percent of ING Direct customers stated they would hire the associate they spoke with if they were starting their own company.

As for business results, ING Direct says the Evolution Roadmap has increased employee engagement and reduced attrition. Last year 65 percent of team members used the program to advance their career. Average tenure has increased by 133 percent and the absenteeism rate is just 3 percent compared to an industry median of 5 percent.

In 2011 the organization rolled out a new program called the Ideal Customer Experience to teach employees to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. Most call center training takes a structured and cookie-cutter approach to resolving customer issues. The Ideal Customer Experience is about perception and reducing the amount of customer effort required to do business with ING Direct.

Training at ING Direct aims to create an emotional connection with the customer. The program trains associates to identify and acknowledge the mood behind the reason for the call. For example, associates are encouraged to gauge the customer’s personality at the time by asking: Are you talking with a retiree who has all of the time in the world to chat or are you speaking with a mother rushing her kids off to soccer practice? Associates use their own judgment on what to sell and when to sell it based on their conversation with the customer. They are given the following as a guide to gauge the customer’s personality and mood:

Controller — “Don’t spend time on unnecessary details, just resolve my issue.”

Tactic: Own the issue and get it done.

Feeler — “Understand how I feel about my issue and take a sympathetic approach to solving it.”

Tactic: Demonstrate patience.

Thinker — “Take the time to fully explain the resolution steps and allow me to talk.”

Tactic: Listen well and fully explain the next steps.

Entertainer — “Treat me like a person. Don’t provide me with generic answers.”

Tactic: Have a sense of humor and be friendly.

Since implementation, call times have decreased by 12 seconds, and associates have consistently improved their call-to-sale ratio. As for customers, their issues get completely resolved, with no need to call back, 86 percent of the time.

ING Direct’s three nationwide sales centers are managed using consistent metrics through automated reporting. Sales coaches — managers — have performance management tools to track individual staff performance and expose the connections between behavior and performance, down to the level of each phone call.

Because of these tools, conversations between a manager and an associate on specific actions to take and how to align them with a set of performance metrics can be tailored to the individual associate and tied to specific behaviors. A personal digital dashboard allows associates to self-manage and adjust, to see how their scores map to their goals and to compare their performance to their peers’ and the team. As with the Evolution Roadmap, associates have more control. Coaches use the dashboard to identify where coaching can have a specific impact on individual performance. More than 13,000 coaching sessions were logged by December.

Jason Heupel is the head of East Coast sales at ING Direct USA. He can be reached at