Weathering the Storm

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During its 55-year history, the Texas Dow Employees Credit Union (TDECU) has seen its share of bad storms. For example, the nonprofit financial institution, headquartered just eight miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, endured Hurricane Carla in 1961, Hurricane Rita in 2005, and Hurricane Ike in 2008.

So when it wanted to upgrade its call center and automated telephone banking systems, the credit union—which offers checking and savings accounts, retirement accounts, auto and home loans, investment services, credit cards, insurance, and more to about 140,000 members—needed a solution that could withstand such wild weather. It also wanted one that would be future-proof. It found both in the Customer Interaction Center (CIC) from Interactive Intelligence.

TDECU’s CIC deployment included a fully redundant disaster recovery configuration that, according to Ron Wright, vice president of payment systems, performed flawlessly during Hurricane Ike, the last powerful storm to devastate the Texas Gulf Coast. CIC worked reliably for the 400 employees scattered at 17 branch offices.

TDECU installed the CIC all-in-one IP communications software suite in mid-2007. It added an interactive telephone banking system, complete with natural language understanding, in February 2009. 

CIC is a call center and unified communications suite that converges voice and data traffic on one network. It also features applications for managing customer contacts—including phone calls, Web chats, faxes, and email—and provides for call routing, multichannel recording, scoring, real-time supervisory monitoring, blended dialing, outbound campaign management, voicemail, unified messaging, and Web capabilities. Advanced applications include an interactive voice response (IVR) system, screen recording, workforce management, and multisite routing. 

The software-based, single-platform architecture enables TDECU to easily and cost-effectively add applications and users as growth dictates. 

For example, since TDECU rolled out the system, it has added a branch and ATM locator and debit/credit card activation. “And we continue to add to the system,” Wright says. “Not only does our CIC system effectively meet our current communications needs, we can rest assured that future growth will be easily accommodated through simple software license purchases—no forklift upgrades or complicated integrations.” 

But despite the ease with which components can be added to CIC, installing the toll-free telephone banking application was a year-long process for TDECU. It involved ripping out an old IVR system that was outdated and no longer supported.

During that time, Adapt Telephony Services, an Interactive Intelligence reseller and systems integrator that worked on the TDECU project, customized CIC to include natural language speech recognition from Nuance Communications. The natural language component not only captures and interprets a caller’s request and then processes the transaction through tight integration to TDECU’s complex back-end systems, but it also teaches members how to complete transactions more efficiently by supplying them with available shortcuts. Natural language also allows users to bank hands-free via their mobile phones, which has had a positive effect on TDECU’s customer service.

Brian Holdampf, president of Adapt Telephony Services, calls the natural language component a unique addition. TDECU is doing “quite a bit more with it than just balance inquiries and transferring funds,” he says. Customers “can check rates, get loan information, pay bills, change passwords and PINs, etc.”

TDECU and Adapt also used that year to develop a persona, which is named “Max.” The development of that persona followed months of user input that revealed customers were most likely to place their trust in a male in his mid-30s. “We now have a single voice for the credit union,” Wright says. “Before we had different systems, each one with its own voice.”

TDECU probably could have launched the telephone banking application in November 2008, but it opted for three months of marketing and usability testing prior to the rollout. “All that testing was a good thing,” Wright says. “We owe it to our members to make the best product available.” 

Following the testing phase, TDECU and Adapt reworded some of the prompts “because what we thought was self-explanatory really wasn’t,” Wright says.

User feedback also allowed TDECU and Adapt to adjust the scripts, grammars, menu structures, and prompt sequences. “We found out what kinds of prompts users were looking for and expected,” Wright says.

In addition, the extra time enabled TDECU to adjust the system for its own unique account identification systems, in which account and user ID number sequences are not uniform in length and can fall anywhere between two and eight digits or more.

“That was probably the biggest technical hurdle to overcome,” says Wayne Basham, vice president, chief technology officer, and project manager at TDECU. “We had to do a lot of testing to get the system to recognize all that. The system had to adjust for all that.”

For Wright, it all comes back to usability testing. “We had to decide on the maximum time for the system to wait before it realizes that the person has finished giving the number,” he says.

It was also important that the system be able to handle both speech and touchtone inputs. And there had to be a system in place to capture PINs because some transactions require authentication.

For those transactions that require security, CIC provides advanced voice encryption and fewer access points for a hacker to break into.

The automated IVR, which is supplemented by 120 live agents, offers service in English and Spanish. Each month it receives about 110,000 to 120,000 calls and handles about 250,000 transactions. Call volume has not changed much since the system went live.

“The goal of the [upgrade] wasn’t to send more business to the phone channel, but to build more into the system and to see more disaster recovery,” Basham says. 

TDECU originally wanted a prepackaged system that it could customize to suit its needs. It had a hard time finding one. “Other vendors couldn’t customize their solutions and wanted us to operate within their parameters,” Wright says.

Furthermore, most canned systems couldn’t be modified to fit TDECU’s needs, or system overhaul would be very expensive for those that could. “It would have cost us more with a canned system that with a customized [solution] from Interactive Intelligence,” Basham says. “A canned system would have gotten us faster results, but not better.”

That’s why both Wright and Basham stress the importance of due diligence when researching any system. “The [request for proposal] process is one of the most important steps,” Wright says. “That’s when you can see what the limitations are to all the systems that you’re looking at.”

Basham also recommends making site visits to the vendors’ customers and talking with managers and staff.

As for the summer of 2010, which scientists predicted would bring a large number of hurricanes and tropical storms to the area, Wright and Basham weren’t concerned—not as long as CIC continues to perform as it has so far. ?

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