Countrywide Trains Agents to Handle Online Calls

Countrywide Home Loans Inc., the Calabasas, CA, mortgage company, hopes to run a more efficient customer-response system by cross-training phone agents to also handle inquiries generated from the company’s e-commerce site.

“What we have done is what a lot of the analysts are saying is going to be the way things are going to happen in the future, and that is to be truly channel agnostic,” said David Espenschied, senior vice president of Internet marketing. “We don’t care whether people call us or contact us through the Web or walk into one of the branches.”

The “clicks-and-bricks” strategy requires using agents who can handle different tasks, he said.

“By and large our goal is to have everyone cross-trained in both environments so we can maximize service wherever we’re getting the bulk of our volume from,” he said.

The company’s 160 phone agents also conduct outbound telemarketing when inbound volume is low. Live agents are available around the clock, seven days a week, to respond to inquiries generated by the Web site. Call volume fluctuates based on interest rates, he said. Countrywide processed about $936 million in online applications during July.

The company has been giving “Internet 101” training to the phone agents in its Rosemead, CA, call center, where its Internet-support unit originally had been based, and in its Plano, TX, facility, which had been used exclusively as a telephone center. Training agents to become familiar with how to use the site takes from one hour to a full day, Espenschied said, depending on the agents’ experience with the Internet.

“We see this as an opportunity for a group of people that are truly dedicated to the Internet to share their knowledge with a group of people who are predominantly focused on handling inbound,” he said. “So, there is significant knowledge-sharing that will take place.”

Part of the training, he said, involves “trying to get them to understand the psychological makeup of an e-commerce consumer vs. someone on the phone.”

Customers who call from the Web site are more likely to be ready to buy, he said, and so the role of the phone agent evolves quickly from an information provider to a salesperson.

“What we are finding,” said Espenschied, “is that [people who contact the center from the Web] are into a decision-making mode, and we are answering a lot less questions when they come in from the Web site because they’ve done a lot of research already on our site or on someone else’s site.”

Customers go online to begin the qualification process necessary to obtain a home-equity loan or a mortgage. Once customers have completed an online application, the data can be transferred to a local branch office where the customers can complete the process.

Each section of the site has a different phone number to route customers to an agent who has knowledge about the particular Countrywide service offered at that part of the site. However, agents also are being cross-trained so they can be equally adept at answering questions about each of the different loan products Countrywide offers.

The company also is using an automated e-mail response system to handle some basic inquiries about rates, and Espenschied said Countrywide’s use of automated e-mail responses probably would increase over time.

“We are hoping to create additional functionality in the Web site that would enhance its efficiency,” Espenschied said. “That’s the whole purpose of this thing: to make this more efficient so that we can do more business with the same number of people, or, if we have to add more people, it’s because we’re doing incrementally more business.”

For e-mail inquiries that cannot generate an automated response, the company tries to have an agent write an immediate reply, although it has a policy of answering all e-mails within 24 hours. Espenschied said a recent report indicated agents were responding to e-mails in six to seven hours.

The company is exploring the possibility of adding live text-based messaging to its blend of customer-contact channels when it revamps its Web site by early next year.

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