As the interaction between fund companies and intermediaries and investors is evolving, call and contact centers are undergoing a continual facelift.

Mutual Fund Market News Associate Editor Chris Frankie spoke with Bryan Mehrmann, vice president, client services at Fidelity Investments, who provided a peek into the fund giant's call center operations, its philosophies, technology and his thoughts on the industry overall. Mehrmann works within the division at Fidelity that distributes Fidelity Advisor Funds to intermediaries.

MFMN: What has been the No. 1 concern at Fidelity's institutional call centers recently?

Mehrmann: One of our main focuses over the last couple of years has been improving our problem-resolution capabilities. We have very high customer satisfaction in that area.

We have a service model where we do "warm transfers" from our primary call center into a separate problem-resolution group. And those problem resolution reps then handle pretty much any client issue from A to Z, including status updates.

Another focus over the last year or two has been handling or supporting our segmentation strategy - the different tiers of clients and the different channels that we service.

MFMN: Have there been any interesting new technologies at Fidelity recently?

Mehrmann: One new technology helps us automatically identify clients when they come into the call center, so we can more rapidly and efficiently identify who they are, what type of firm they're calling from and what the general nature of their problem might be before we even talk to them. This alleviates a rep's having to verify who that client is - and their having to repeat that information.

MFMN: So, that's a good way of eliminating a couple of sluggish steps?

Mehrmann: It is, and it really enables our phone reps to focus in on the more value-added aspects of servicing our clients.

MFMN: Does the call center representative of today have to be more educated than during the bull run due to increased questions and skepticism from investors and intermediaries?

Mehrmann: At Fidelity, we've always taken the stance that the folks who staff our phone centers need to be the best caliber we can find. We spent a lot of time training them.

But I would say that the economic climate of the last year or two has created some difficult conversations, especially with some of the shareholder calls that we get.

Our primary mission is to service the intermediaries, but, when we get shareholder calls, they can be sensitive. The training we give to our reps is not so much factual about the market or about the products. Rather, we train them in terms of having empathy for the client and talking them through an issue that they have. We're able to politely, courteously route them back to their intermediaries or to the firms that they're working with.

MFMN: So it's more or less situational training as opposed to numbers?

Mehrmann: We do some role-playing to be able to handle those calls.

MFMN: How are Fidelity service shareholder representatives able to provide quality service in light of all of the cutbacks your, as well as other firms, has made in this area?

Mehrmann: My sense is that the industry is dealing very well with the volumes. I think one of the results of this market that we're in is that we're not currently experiencing a high level of turnover. Our reps are much more tenured and much more capable of handling all sorts of the types of challenging calls that are now coming in.

MFMN: Have fund companies been able to leverage any new types of technologies during this market downturn, which, obviously, has also pushed fund operations pricing and servicing to more attractive lows?

Mehrmann: Absolutely. We find that the Web site and some of our other remote access products take some of the simpler transaction-oriented, inquiry-oriented types of things. This clears those out of the call centers so that the reps can concentrate on really helping the clients with the more value added, needs-based, complex issues.

So, yes, technology has helped in that it's freed up our reps to spend more quality time with our clients.

MFMN: What do you see as some of the big technology and operations trends now in the industry?

Mehrmann: Initially, technology was seen as a cost manager and everybody rushed to push everything to automation and technology. But I think the trend is completely counter to that and really centered around balancing technology with real live customer service and giving the clients what they need.

MFMN: How do you measure how effective your call center is operating from a quality perspective?

Mehrmann: We have an internal, independent quality group that monitors our calls and measures how we're doing. We also run client surveys, which always provide us a lot of feedback.

And then our line managers spend time monitoring calls. Their primary function is coaching and mentoring the associates and their teams.

MFMN: Do you also measure productivity?

Mehrmann: You have to make sure that you balance the quality of the call with the need to be as efficient as possible. So, yes, there are a number of different metrics that we look at.

I haven't seen one that's standard in the industry. But ones that you'll see more frequently are average handle time, calls per rep and off-phone activity.

We have common judgment sessions for reps to get together and talk about calls and do some role modeling, things like that.

Copyright 2003 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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