ING DIRECT USA Satisfies Customers, Drives Sales With The "Un-Call Center"

Jason Heupel

This article was contributed by Jason Heupel, head of sales for the Eastern Region, ING DIRECT USA. Jason will be presenting at CMIQ’s 7th Annual Contact Center Summit, January 23-26, 2012 in Orlando, Fl. For details on speakers, the agenda and registration, click here!

Do you remember the feeling of dread the last time you picked up your phone and dialed into a call center? Did you feel the irritation mounting as you pressed the corresponding number as instructed by the recording in the ‘hopes’ of eventually reaching a live voice! Did your teeth grind as you entered your account numbers into your phone pad – for the third time? You probably weren’t alone. Every day millions of people contact call centers and from beginning to end experience frustration. On average over 25 percent of those calling will not have their issue resolved and will need to spend more of their scarce free time calling back.

Now imagine calling a company and having a friendly, knowledgeable person inquire how they can help you. Imagine that the person is not reading from a script and actually engages you in conversation. Imagine that the voice is clear and not funneled through voice masking software. And finally, imagine remaining on the line with the same person – never being transferred – and never having to repeat the same information again– and that your issue gets resolved.

At ING DIRECT USA, the fact that 40% of our new customers come to us via word of mouth is directly related to our focus on providing exactly this experience.

In designing the "Un-Call Center", we sought to eliminate customer frustration triggers, and to empower our Sales Associates to provide an exceptional customer experience. What we’ve done is simple but transformative. The good news is that it is adaptable to any industry. Here are the essential lessons learned.

1. Approach the call center as a strategic asset.So often call centers are seen simply as a drain on the bottom line. But we recognized that each call represents one of three essential opportunities: to build our brand; be neutral to our brand; or destroy our brand. Even the name matters: don’t label a key customer-facing organization in the flat terms of a "call center." We run a dynamic Sales Center that proactively creates sales opportunities. Our Sales Associates are encouraged and empowered to make changes that simplify the customer experience.

2. Instead of treating your Sales Center as a place to just punch the clock, make it a stepping-stone to a fulfilling career. Our experience shows that customer loyalty is linked to a positive and knowledgeable staff. So at ING DIRECT USA, every associate goes through a self-guided career development program called the Evolution Roadmap, which we began rolling out more than five years ago. Through checkpoints, challenges, and rewards at each of the four phases of Evolution Roadmap, associates have a clearly defined path to professional and personal growth. At the final phase the associate can handle every kind of call – mortgage, checking, savings – anything that the customer may need. The Roadmap has increased employee engagement while reducing attrition. Last year 65% of our team leveraged the Evolution Roadmap to advance their career.

3. Instill an entrepreneurial, self-managed approach to the position of Sales Associate. Our team mantra is "own the phone call." The decision on how to handle the call (what to say and how to say it) is entirely up to the associate. There is no scripting. Our associates have complete freedom to review their performance on a day-to-day basis on a digital dashboard, and monitor their progress towards various atypical rewards programs, such as the ability to work whenever they want. The entrepreneurial attitude pays off: in a recent survey 88 percent of our customers stated they would hire the associate that they spoke with for their own start-up.

4. Teach your employees to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. Most call center training takes a structured and cookie-cutter approach to customers. Our training aims for an emotional connection with the customer. The "Ideal Customer Experience" program trains associates to acknowledge the mood behind the reason for the call. 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. Not coincidentally, since the implementation of this program, we have seen a 12 second decrease in the average call time, a 30 percent increase in the call-to-sale ratio, and an overall increase in first-call resolution.

5. Manage to metrics. Today managers have at their disposal advanced performance management technology to track individual staff performance. These tools are instrumental in exposing the connections between behavior and performance, down to the level of each phone call. Because of these tools, the conversations between a manager and an associate on specific actions to take and how to align them with a set of performance metrics have become tailored to the individual Sales Associate and tied to specific behaviors. A personal digital dashboard allows Sales Associates to self-manage and correct, to see how their scores map to their goals, and to compare their performance to their peers' and the team. Managers use the dashboard to identify where coaching can have an impact. More than 13,000 coaching sessions have been logged so far in 2011.

Executing these five tactics simultaneously has helped move ING DIRECT USA one step closer towards delivering a world class customer experience while creating a highly productive and engaged sales culture at the company. By treating each call as an opportunity instead of a cost, our Sales Center has raised our brand awareness, built value for the company, and increased customer loyalty.

What experience would you like to deliver?

About the Author:Jason Heupel is the Head of East Coast Sales at ING Direct USA. He can be reached via e-mail at

And if you like Jason’s take, you won’t want to miss his exclusive presentation at the 7th Annual Call Center Summit. Details here!