Patricia Cannon is a woman with a sweet smile and very, very thick skin. Those attributes come in handy especially when you're...

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MINNEAPOLIS — Patricia Cannon is a woman with a sweet smile and very, very thick skin. Those attributes come in handy especially when you’re not allowed to hang up the phone — ever.

When the phone rings — and it always does — Cannon, who works at U.S. Bancorp’s call center in St. Paul, Minn., must keep talking, no matter how weird, angry or threatening the voice on the other end of the line.

“Well, everyone is unique,” said Cannon, 45, sounding less like a sunny optimist than a customer-service veteran who knows a thing or two about human nature.

“You learn to not take it personally because they are not really mad at you. You have to connect with them and redirect their anger away from being a personal slam.”

As banking becomes a 24/7 operation, U.S. Bancorp is increasingly relying on call-center employees such as Cannon not only to field questions and complaints and solve problems such as lost ATM cards but also to sell products such as checking accounts, loans and credit cards.

In fact, U.S. Bancorp looks at call centers as large clusters of one-man branches.

“It’s not just ‘Ask a question, we answer it, and now we are done,’ ” said Mary Blegen, senior vice president of 24-hour banking and financial sales at U.S. Bancorp. “You’ve got to think of yourself as a banker. You are not a customer-service rep. You are not an agent. You are a banker.”

Running a 24/7 call center is expensive, which is why many companies in recent years have outsourced their operations overseas.

According to Celent, a Boston-based consulting firm, it costs companies $6.85 per call to serve a customer compared with $4.95 for e-mail and 50 cents by Internet.

Banks on average spend more than $5,000 to hire and train one agent.

Call-center employees in the United States earn relatively good money, anywhere from $10.50 to $16 an hour.

By contrast, call-center workers in India make only 7 percent of their American counterparts’ salaries.

U.S. Bancorp, well known for its cost-control philosophy, says it has invested heavily in call centers.

During the past two years, the company has spent $20 million to upgrade technology at its five call centers across the country.

The call centers, which employ 1,400 people, receive about 523,000 calls a day, including 73,000 calls that go to a live person. (The rest typically use automated services to check account balances.)

Call-center tally

The St. Paul center handles 82,000 calls a day, about 10 percent of which involve interaction with an employee.

Dealing with people’s money requires a certain level of skill and trust that makes outsourcing customer service problematic at best, said Greg McBride, a senior analyst with Bankrate.com.

“It’s a slippery slope,” McBride said. “How are your customers going to feel about outsourcing? Do you really want to outsource something that is as critical as banking? Consumers have cited loss of personal touch as a consequence of consolidated banking. Outsourcing throws another log onto that fire.”

Banks first rolled out call centers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mostly just to answer questions.

But thanks to technology such as ATMs and the Internet, which made banking more convenient and instantaneous, consumers demanded service at all times of the day, experts say.

From 1996 to 2002, the number of transactions at branches fell 11 percent to 11.9 billion transactions, according to Celent.

Transactions rise

Call-center transactions rose 10 percent to 7.5 billion transactions while ATM transactions jumped 31 percent to 14 billion transactions.

Internet transactions totaled 3.3 billion transactions in 2002, 16 times more than 1998.

“Branches are still an integral part of the overall banking experience,” McBride said, “but it’s no longer the sole means of interacting with the customer. Customers want the availability of multiple channels so they can reach their bank anytime, anywhere.”

Call centers also offer banks another opportunity to cross-sell products such as checking accounts and credit cards to customers.

Analysts, however, doubt whether call centers generate significant sales, noting that the branch continues to be “the sales floor” of the banking world.

Call-center employees risk alienating customers if they try too aggressively to sell products. In other words, they become telemarketers.

“If customers get their problems solved quickly at the call center, they are more likely to be receptive to the cross-sell,” McBride said.

Aside from cost, analysts and bank officials say the biggest challenge facing call centers is recruiting and retaining a work force prone to high turnover.

Sitting in a cubicle all day answering phones may not be the most attractive career option to some people.

Banks lose about 20 percent of their call-center employees a year, according to Celent.

U.S. Bancorp officials wouldn’t disclose the turnover rate.

Officials at the St. Paul center say the average employee stays on the job a year and a half.

But managers hope to double that figure.

That’s why U.S. Bancorp officials say they work hard to boost morale.

The company purposely designed the St. Paul center, which opened in 2003, with large windows that offer employees lots of natural light and panoramic views of the downtown city skyline.

Managers compliment employees, through messages or quick visits to their desks. Prizes and games are a staple in the office.

Every Monday, the day with the heaviest call volume, employees get bingo cards.

Employees who accomplish a certain task, such as selling a credit card, mark a spot on their cards. At the end of the day, those who have bingos enter to win a $100 gift-card drawing.

“It can be a stressful environment,” said Jeanne Fichtel, the call center’s site manager. “You have to keep them fresh call after call after call.”

Angela Peterson, a 9-½-year veteran, is one of the more experienced call-center employees.

She likes the money and the night hours, which allow her to be home with her children during the day.

Still, the job can be taxing. Peterson estimates she takes about 120 to 130 calls for a nine-hour shift, not all of them related to banking. Some try to pick her up.

“Some people think this is a 900 number instead of an 800 number,” she said.

Others ask for lottery numbers or extra zeros at the end of their account balances.

“You hear every name in the book,” she added. “You just move on to the next call.”