The life of a call center agent is rapidly changing.

Where once agents at credit unions and banks mainly answered routine questions over the telephone, today they are addressing a wider range of technical queries through a growing number of media.

There is live chat on mobile apps and websites. There are Skype-like experiences on ATMs. And in some foreign countries, there are mobile banking apps with video-chat capabilities. There is two-way texting, and of course, there is responding to consumers' tweets and Facebook requests.

And the cries for help have evolved along with technology, too, like helping consumers find the camera app on their iPhones after Apple updates its operating system.

PenFed CU President and CEO James Schenck said the advent of mobile banking applications has had a similar impact on how consumers interact with their credit union as did the advent of call centers.

"The introduction of the telephone call center made branches less relevant in a world where most people value their time," said Schenck. "Mobile apps represent a leap forward in technology. They can be powerful time-management tools that literally place the versatility of online transactions in the palm of one's hand—from anywhere on the planet that has an internet connection."

Eighty percent of PenFed's member interactions last year—including logons, balance checks, transaction histories and more—involved web and mobile devices, with 15% taking place via phone and only 5% in branches.

During the last 18 months, mobile logons have accounted for 10% of total online member interactions, with roughly 90,000 logons to PenFed's mobile app each week and anywhere from 350,000 to 400,000 mobile interactions per month. Contrast that with the call center, which receives about 200,000 calls per month, or branches, which see about 25,000 visits per month.

PenFed isn't the only credit union to see those sorts of changes, either, as Credit Union Journal has reported.

As a result of these changes, said Schenck, growing the brick-and-mortar branch network is not part of the $17 billion-asset credit union's growth strategy.

"I won't say that branches are obsolete, but our members are now accessing information via mobile devices at a rate that has surpassed branch visits and telephone calls combined," he said.

Image-Conscious

The for-profit banking sector—both big banks and community banks—is also exploring ways to increase service levels through technology channels.

The $2.6 billion-asset Happy State Bank & trust in Texas is exploring the idea of using video within its mobile-banking app and letting more employees communicate with customers over social media. It already lets its agents remotely connect to customers' devices for troubleshooting and other purposes.

"We have to protect the bank's image, and at same time we have to engage and be where the customers are," Matthew Smith, VP of digital banking, told American Banker, an affiliate publication of CU Journal.

Where consumers and members prefer to communicate will continue to evolve — and it might be typing instead of talking over the phone.

mBank, a Polish bank regarded as innovative, is testing customer chats over WhatsApp, a popular mobile messaging app, SMS text or any other avenue the bank thinks its smartphone customers prefer.

"Normally, [we] would just call you," said Jaroslaw Mastalerz, head of operations and IT at mBank. "Some people don't want to talk over the phone anymore."

mBank sees the messaging experiment as a way to address an industrywide marketing challenge: as people conduct ever-more transactions on mobile devices, cross-sales opportunities erode as there is less room on the screen to promote additional products.

"You can't copy and paste things you used to do," Mastalerz said.

Sure, consumers usually access an app more frequently than they would a website, but they tend to do simple transactions like check their account balances.

"Migration to mobility is really challenging for the business model, even for Internet banks," Mastalerz said.

Redefining Service

The direct bank's messaging experiment coincides with U.S. financial services companies' efforts to refine the ways they connect with customers. Orrstown Bank in Shippensburg, Pa., for example, has quietly rolled out a feature that allows customers to SMS text with its call center agents. So far, the bank says the most common queries touch on subjects with a sense of urgency, like lost cards.

"We are still very bullish on this medium," said Benjamin Wallace, executive vice president of operations and technology at Orrstown. "But we are still in early days of rollout."

As the $1.2 billion-asset bank studies how customers use its two-way texting capability, a number of large banks like Bank of America have recently updated their apps so people can click to connect to call center agents — but over the phone. USAA has a virtual agent that lets members navigate its mobile app via verbal or written queries. And Digit, a service that automatically transfers funds from checking to savings every few days, in amounts its algorithms believe a person can afford, interacts with users through texts.

Ethan Bloch, chief executive of Digit, said consumers of all ages like message by smartphones.

"It's a no-brainer," Bloch said. "Everyone is communicating over text and messaging."

But credit unions have kept current with many of those trends, sometimes even beating larger institutions at the tech game. Earlier this year, for example, CO-OP Financial Services relaunched its mobile banking app as "CO-OP Mobile," which includes P2P payments, text banking and more.

"The world has changed," said PenFed's Schenck, noting that members don't just want these services—they expect them. As such, the credit union has created a User Experience team to manage mobile functionalities at the credit union.

"Mobile apps are game changers in the truest sense," said Brandon Harris, PenFed's director of user experience, "and organizations that are unwilling or unable to adapt to become mobile-friendly have already been left behind."

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