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Customer experience technology's next phase as teams regroup

In this Q&A, Eastern Bank CX head Rich Dorfman discusses how the pandemic shifted approaches to tech, transformation, and measurement of customer and employee experience.

BOSTON -- Customer service volume spiked for most financial institutions during the last two years while call centers, which were mostly in person, went remote. Add to that the Great Resignation, where masses of employees quit their jobs, and many companies had to rethink how they deliver service.

Eastern Bank, founded in 1818 and based in Boston, was not immune to these national trends. While all that was happening, the bank also went public.

Rich Dorfman, vice president of customer experience at Eastern Bank, sat down during the CX Forums Experience Summit to discuss how the last two years permanently changed CX for the banking company -- and how AI and automation figure into its future.

What did the pandemic do to customer experience?

Rich Dorfman, vice president of customer experience, Eastern BankRich Dorfman

Rich Dorfman: It had transformative challenges and opportunities for the employees, for management, for the vendors that serve us all. It dramatically changed the way in which we even think about how to interact with a brand.

We're an old-school bank; we've been around a couple hundred years, and we're a very good service organization. Our people are the shining stars of customer service -- the branch folks and the folks in the call center are what drives our high satisfaction and NPS [Net Promoter Score]. They care deeply, they work hard, they put the customers first; we just hire that way. And that's our philosophy.

The pandemic caused a lot of our customers to be fearful or reluctant to bank the way they normally would like to do, especially visiting the branches. Even before the pandemic, there was a giant migration from transacting in the branch to self-service. The pandemic supersized that acceleration.

Folks whose go-to channel was an in-person experience said, 'I'm going to have to learn to do something different, because I don't feel safe doing this at branches.' Some branches had to curtail hours at the beginning of the pandemic. We had to do appointment-setting. The hurdles to do things the way you wanted to do them at the branches were great.

The call center volume went up, double, triple, quadruple at some points. That impacted not just the customer -- it impacted the employee.
Rich DorfmanVice president of customer experience, Eastern Bank

We had between 1 and 2 million people migrate over to mobile banking. It became even more of a primary tool for a whole new segment of our customers who wouldn't have wanted to pull out their mobile device to do their banking -- for fear of safety, fraud, technology challenges, the list goes on. Part of that pandemic experience was helping our loyal customers open their lens to how to do business with us and achieve their goal of getting the job done, but differently.

That caused issues or opportunities elsewhere. If they didn't know how to log on, they called the call center. The call center volume went up, double, triple, quadruple at some points. That impacted not just the customer -- it impacted the employee. Then, on March 13, 2020, all the employees who were working in the call center were given laptops, and we said, 'Go home and do your job from there.'

Did your contact center volume spike not only because of what you're saying, but also because so many of your customers had instant financial difficulties due to massive layoffs?

Dorfman: [Yes.] It was the perfect storm. And through this, all our humans worked really well. They found a way to do it. There were pain points galore. We did lose some staff; we were definitely part of the Great Resignation because we had some people who decided to retire early. For others, the distress was so great that the job was no longer what they signed up for. On top of all that, we had staffing issues, like many other retail-centric organizations.

Oh, and by the way, during all this, we went public and acquired Century Bank [in November 2021], by far our largest acquisition.

We had issues integrating brand-new technology in our call center. We went from on-premises to cloud-based call center technology that included AI and machine learning chatbots layered upon layer upon layer.

The pandemic was just one of the things that caused all of this changed behavior, externally and internally. Prior to the pandemic, the M.O. at Eastern was, 'Thou shalt come to work on premises to do your job, unless you are a salesperson and go visit clients.' The expectation is you show up at your office, five days a week. It was the rare exception that you could have VPN access to work from home. Then it completely went the other way.

In employee surveys over two years, nine out of 10 indicated they want to work remotely at least some of the time; a full two-thirds want to work remotely most of the time -- one to three days a month in the office at most.

How did your job of managing CX change? What new technologies did you use?

Dorfman: It opened the door to a lot more employee experience measurement. It was always a struggle to do that, because that was HR's domain. HR became much more open to the idea that they don't need to control what we ask our employees.

We've now created much more agile, ongoing measurement. It's still in the infancy stage, but we're now opening the lens to more conversation with our employees -- even employee roundtables with the president. That's been an ongoing thing. We're doing virtual focus groups with in-depth conversations.

We hope to do online communities for customers and employees where we have a virtual conversation to continually gain perspective on how we work, the products we offer, the channels that are being used and the technologies that are getting deployed.

More than ever, we're talking about technologies. I'm very involved with the tech team and the product team to ensure that when we deliver something new -- a new online account-opening system, a new loan-processing system, a new call center platform -- we don't just deploy it and pray for best results. We are working with them early on [in product development] to engage with the communities that are using a particular product, both internally and externally, to make sure that it's delivering as promised.

Do you ever worry that your CX research and hands-on work will be replaced by AI, machine learning, analytics and dashboards -- for example, someone sets up a data model to do your job and occasionally updates or tweaks it?

Dorfman: Machine learning and artificial intelligence are tools. They're great at the calculability of data: taking massive amounts of it and making some sense out of the numbers. But that's mostly around the what.

You still need the human emotional, contextual understanding to get to the why. Machines can't do that. They don't understand the nuances of sarcasm or frustration. Yeah, you can do sentiment analysis, but machines are only so good. They're not human; they don't have the shared, learned experience of going through something. They're just looking at sets of data, zeros and ones. There are lots of tools that one should be using in the toolbox, but if you're over-reliant on one tool, you may not have the right one for the right job.

Folks like me -- and my colleagues who do customer experience -- have to adapt to technology, because 20, 30, 50 years from now when we're long gone, the tools are going to be quite different than what we have now. But I guarantee you, humans are still going to play a vital role in terms of translating the emotional human experience and how they interact with brands. At the end of the day, it is still people doing business with people.

The products will change, the channels will evolve, the technology will be enhanced, but people still need to get stuff done. They need to talk to people when they have a fear or concern, or issues about trust.

It's about having a human-centered design approach to how one does business. A digital-only bank is only going to get so many customers, because when I want to do a mortgage -- or I have a problem with fraud, and I'm angry, I'm scared, and I'm frustrated -- I want to talk to somebody who can talk me off the ledge, have a sense of helpfulness, and create a sense of caring and sharing.

A machine can't do that.

Editor's note: This conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget.

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