*Call Centers Brace for Influx of Y2K Calls

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Call centers across the country said that they are ready to handle the expected surge in call volume from consumers checking on the status of their bank accounts, credit cards or other services they think might be affected by the Y2K computer bug.

Armed with a slew of detailed contingency plans in case of local power or phone service outages, call centers also are expected to have more staff on hand Jan. 1.

"There are people who are concerned that when the clock strikes 12 they are not going to have their funds available, or they are not going to be able to get cash, or they are not going to be able to use their credit cards," said Gerard Garofolo, director of marketing and management services at CBSI, Harrison, NY, a direct marketing firm that provides call-center management for financial services companies. "Those are the kinds of calls we are anticipating from a very, very small group of the right wing of the population."

In addition to a possible surge in the number of callers fretting over their money, Y2K-related factors that could affect call centers include local telephone and power outages. Most call centers, however, have contingency plans in place.

"If something breaks down, they can forward their calls to another center that they have contingency plans with," said Colleen McMillan, service quality manager at CBSI. "Some companies are contracting with call centers they don't normally work with just to handle the possible overflow."

Donald Berryman, senior vice president of sales and marketing at APAC Customer Services Inc., Deerfield, IL, said his clients are predicting an increase of 10 percent to 15 percent over regular Saturday call volume. APAC operates 60 call centers around the country and provides call-center support for 15 financial companies. In addition to posting extra staff to handle the possible increase in volume, he said, call centers also are giving some special training to their agents.

"Mostly, they could be handling questions from people whose credit card didn't work or it got refused, even though there were funds available," Berryman said. "Obviously, we spent a lot of time looking at the reasons those types of things would occur and we are spending time trying to prepare agents for those types of issues that ordinarily wouldn't be an issue."

Financial services firms are particularly well-prepared for whatever might happen, he said, because they had to deal with the potential computer glitches that arose from placing a "00" expiration date on credit cards.

Berryman said other industries such as telecommunications, healthcare and travel also have been preparing for Y2K-related difficulties in their call centers.

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