18. Call center ‘tsunami’

Hibernia’s two customer telephone call centers were located in New Orleans and Shreveport.  Peggy Elliott, one of the bank’s most experienced retail managers, supervised them.  She came to Hibernia in the mid-1980s when the company acquired Shreveport Bank & Trust.  She became manager of the Shreveport’s main banking office before taking over the customer service operation in 2000.  Elliott, 52, had three grown children, 30, 27 and 22.

In the two centers, Elliott was responsible for about 140 employees.  Her agents were skilled in handling customer issues, and Elliott worked hard to retain good staff, fighting a high turnover trend common in call centers.  Moreover, she had a very knowledgable manager running the New Orleans center, Eric Geigenheimer.

“I know, I know, but just make sure you have your list,” she responded.She and Geigenheimer discussed how to prepare for the storm Friday before it struck, but he thought it would prove a false alarm.  “Peggy, we will be here Monday.  This storm isn’t going to hit New Orleans,” he said.

Three days later, Katrina struck on the birth date of Elliott’s daughter, Aug. 29.  “It was that Sunday afternoon that it really hit me; it was not going to be a regular Monday.”  Little did she know.

A TIDAL WAVE: They were swamped in 40,000 calls / Graphic: Russ Hoadley

A TIDAL WAVE: They were swamped in 40,000 calls / Graphic: Russ Hoadley

Swamped by calls

Monday was deceptively calm, but the next day, as New Orleans flooded, a tsunami of telephone calls deluged her 60 agents.  Some 40,000 calls swamped them, four times normal volume.  The call center in New Orleans was gone, with agents scattered and equipment stranded in a rising sea of water.

And the calls?  Pure, raw emotion.

“People had made deposits in branches that were under water.  They had to relocate out of New Orleans and just had to leave everything … just walked out with the shirt on their back.  Now, they needed money, and they did not have access to checks or debit cards.  So they were just stranded, in need of money in their account, and some were worried about what happens to all my stuff left behind.  What about the deposit I made, and what about that money, and how do I get my money?”

“We just had to field them on the run, because I don’t think anybody was prepared for the situation … but when everything went under water, nobody was prepared for (bank) work being left in branches or people not having time to gather things.  Once we got a feel for the nature of the calls, (the agents) would kind of group together and say what can we offer?  And whom do we need to get with? … Just kind of setting up procedures.”

Exceptions to rules

The call center normally operates from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and a half day Saturday.  During the storm week, and on the Labor Day weekend that followed, Elliott kept the lines open many hours longer, as well as Sunday and the holiday.  “We made a lot of exceptions to (normal fraud protection) rules  …  For instance, normally we don’t change an address and order a debit card the same day.  Normally we do not send debit cards or checks the same day.  We don’t order them the same day and send them to another address, but all those rules went by the wayside.”

They sent debit cards to alternate addresses and on deposits, offered provisional credit, whether the transaction had “cleared” or not.  On merchant transactions, her team also gave provisional credit.

PEGGY ELLIOTT: 'We kind of winged it' / Photo: Hibernia Corporate Communications

PEGGY ELLIOTT: ‘We kind of winged it’ / Photo: Hibernia Corporate Communications

“If we verified the customer had a New Orleans address prior to the storm, then we worked with them.  We do not do wire transfers here, but we channeled wires to (operations) and processed wire requests.”  The wire room was swamped, but they soldiered on, trying to accommodate as many as they could.

“There was a lot of teamwork,” Elliott remembered.  One of the things I admire most about Hibernia is just being able to have everybody pull together.  That and the compassion the bank showed to the employees were probably the two things that made me proudest.”

Winging it

“We kind of winged it,” she added, giving a couple of examples:

  • One customer said she would not get off the line until she spoke to a supervisor. The lady had a savings account, and she had received a statement with a $200 withdrawal she said she had not made.  She went to a branch and was told they would research it and have an answer in a couple of days.  She went back and was told, “Due to Katrina, it’s going to be 10 days.”  She returned in 10 days, and the branch still did not have an answer.  “She was absolutely livid.  She said ‘If I made the withdrawal, that’s fine’ … I apologized and tried to locate (the information, but) you could not get copies of stuff, so I just gave her the money back.  She carried $45,000 in that account.”  Later, Elliott was told that the debit was likely the result of miscoding at a teller window.
  • “You had a little old lady (on the phone), and you could tell … she was disoriented.” All she wanted to know was whether her Social Security payment had been deposited.  She wanted to know her balance.”  Elliott’s call:  “Just give her the darn balance.  Tell her that her Social Security went in … Do not put this lady through the wringer.  You’re empowered to do this … If she doesn’t have all her account information right there, find something she might have, put some pieces of the puzzle together … This is the right thing, do it.”

The empowerment she felt in those frenetic days proved something to Elliott – that call center people need more authority to take care of problems instead of handing them off to others.  She was a big advocate of having rules and following them, but also in having flexibility to “do the right thing.”

“At that point, I believed the customer was the most important thing to the bank.”

Employee call-ins

“We also had so many employees calling us, asking us where to go and what to do.  Employees from every department used the customer service line to try to reach the company, when emergency lines were overwhelmed.  During the week following the storm, Capital One stepped in and set up an 800 emergency number for employees, but their calls continued to hit the call center for a while.


A number of Elliott’s agents quit during this time, mostly in New Orleans.  “There were a few who ended up in Texas, but for the most part, I would say that 75% of the New Orleans center left.”  One agent Elliott asked to return simply said, “Look, I got my FEMA check, and I’m doing just fine.  I won’t be back.”

~  ~ ~ ~ ~

Stranded in an attic

One day, one of Peggy Elliott’s agents answered a call from California.  It was from the sister of Delores Brown, another agent who had been working in Elliott’s New Orleans unit until it was shut down.  

“She called to tell us that Delores was stranded on her house top and asked us to get help.  

“We called the Coast Guard, the police, the fire department, trying to get somebody to check on her.  I was amazed at how difficult it was to get help.”  

Eventually, Brown was rescued.  “She had been trapped in the upper attic of the house.  They got there and got her out … (but) it really impacted her.”

“Always a real positive, professional person,” Brown came to work in Shreveport, then wanted to go back.

“I spoke to some people, and the wire department took Delores, but she called me later and said, ‘Peggy, I just cannot do this … the smell, the depression … I’ve got to get out of here’.  She ended up leaving the bank and leaving Louisiana altogether.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Not just newcomers

It was not just newcomers, however.  The pressure took its toll on regular staff as well.  “I had experienced agents who couldn’t take it … because you answer a phone, and somebody is crying or somebody is mad, and you don’t feel like you are adequately equipped to handle the call … It was just from morning to evening, and you just felt so helpless.  Customers were crying, and even if you’d get somebody who was not angry at the agent, gee, they just lost everything.”There were also losses in Shreveport, as the stress got worse.  Elliott needed more agents desperately.  She tried hiring temps but could not give them enough training before throwing them into the maelstrom.  Some quit after just a few days, unprepared for dealing with so many distraught customers.

A supervisor reported to Elliott that one of their better agents had just left.  “I remember Dana just stood up, took her headset off and said, ‘I can’t take this anymore’.  She walked out and never came back.”

There were other signs of stress.  “Bonnie came to me one day and said, ‘We’ve got agents throwing up’.  Agents were getting physically ill.”


When 22 volunteers from the Direct Bank in Baton Rouge, a telephone sales staff, showed up, they were a godsend, even if they were not trained on customer service issues.  They struggled to deal with the calls, and they, too, felt helpless at times.

Shreveport’s retail branch bankers also helped the telephone bankers.  Keith Bergeron and Larry Melancon, who are in charge of the bank offices there, sent branch people to the call center.  “They were tremendous … they were managers, personal bankers, assistant managers … really a high level of experience that was just awesome.”

“I would say that those two groups were probably our lifesavers,” Elliott recalled.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sometimes I felt like I didn’t grieve enough …

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Another burden

Another burden that fell on Elliott’s agents was a swarm of calls from branches looking for assistance with customers lined up in their lobbies.  Normally, Hibernia runs a switchboard out of New Orleans, but it also was shut down.  Inquiries it normally fielded between offices and operations now came in to Elliott’s center.  “They wanted to know where so and so was … we really had no way of knowing.  They expected us to know everything.”

Elliott felt like Jekyll and Hyde.  On the one hand, she had to keep the call center running; it was the first line of defense in the fight to get the bank back on its feet.  On the other hand, she had casualties, deeply emotional situations that tore at her heart.

“Sometimes I felt like I didn’t grieve enough or wasn’t sympathetic enough, but there were so many demands in your face …”

Meals appreciated

When the company began providing meals at the call center, it helped morale a lot.  “That was so appreciated, because it was, like, ‘we know what you are going through’ … It was kind of a motivator to see how much their efforts were appreciated.”

Nevertheless, the pressure was intense.  An electronic tote board hanging in the call center kept a minute-by-minute tally of the number of agents on the phone, the average delay time and how many calls were waiting.  Called a “reader board,” it was programmed to start flashing when the service level began to drop.  “It was flashing all the time … We actually tried to unplug it.”

Insurance company issue

One category of inquiries came from an unexpected area.  The center started receiving faxes from insurance companies seeking evidence of ownership for hundreds of flood-damaged cars.  Elliott’s telephone agents had no access to the titles and scant communication with the loan area that usually handled this.  They received the requests because their 800 numbers were the only ones working.  The insurers, of course, wanted the information to process loss claims and make payments.  Hibernia’s customers were waiting for their insurance money.

An underlying problem

This inability to access normal channels for answers was an on-going issue.  “The back office was shattered.  Deposit operations, bookkeeping, adjustments moved everywhere and had their own share of problems.  Nothing was normal.  These people we rely on so heavily when a customer calls and we can’t fix it … They were not there.”

Normally, people in support areas are “my heroes,” Elliot said, “(but) they were trying to set up operations, they were trying to get moved, they were trying to locate their own employees, they were working short-handed, they were inundated.”  Some areas that promised to take care of things for customers did not follow through.  Then customers would call back, angry at the call center.  “They were mad at us because we violated their trust.”

Payment deferral surprise

When the bank decided to defer loan payments for all affected customers, it did not count on some turning it down.  “I don’t know what percentage … but everybody we got said, ‘I don’t want it’.”  Agents were able to remove them from the plan, but it took time.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I have a deep appreciation for the people who stuck it out.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Appreciation for those who stuck it out

Looking back, Elliott was troubled:  “I don’t care how good you are, it was like staring in the face of a tsunami.  I can do a lot, but a lot wasn’t enough … Her area’s effectiveness depended on support from others.  “I am only as good as my co-workers and my organization help me to be.”

“I think we were at a critical point for the customers, and I feel good that we honored that relationship for the most part.  I think we helped a lot of people.  There were some that we could not (help) … but I do feel good that we helped make the ‘where service matters’ motto mean something … I have a deep appreciation for the people who stuck it out.”

Direct Bank to the rescue

With Hibernia since 1995, the 38-year-old LSU grad had been involved with the Direct Bank since its start-up.  He was married, with three children, and lived in Prairieville, outside Baton Rouge.Stacy Smith did not have much time before the phones would start ringing again in the outbound call center called the Direct Bank in Baton Rouge.  Smith was the sales manager and his 145 specially trained bankers sold deposits and loans by phone and were closing in on a billion dollar goal for 2005 when Katrina hit and changed everything.

STACY SMITH: 'I wanted to help her answer calls' / Photo: Hibernia Corporate Comunications

STACY SMITH: ‘I wanted to help her answer calls’ / Photo: Hibernia Corporate Comunications

No electricity

Katrina roughed up Baton Rouge, knocking out power, downing trees, blocking roadways, although there was no significant flooding.  Monday afternoon, Smith managed to get into his call center building on Industriplex Boulevard and found only an awning missing outside, but no electricity.

He figured he had about 12-14 hours “before customers expected us to answer the phone.”  His unit typically averaged 2,500 inbound calls and up to 15,000 outbound calls and 500 internet inquiries each day.

(One of his colleagues, Cindy Haygood, was a National Guard Major and would help rescue more than 30 people from the Hibernia Center in New Orleans later that week.

Remain calm

His first thought was to remain calm and find temporary space for some of his team to set up and take calls.  “My mission was to answer the phone Tuesday morning.”  He talked to Paul Peters, head of Hibernia’s mortgage division a mile down the road.  Yes, Peters could give him 11 cubicles.  He called Debbie Evans, who worked in telecommunications, to see if calls could be rerouted.  Evans said they could.  He called Heather Dunlap, his senior team leader, to contact his telebankers.  Then Smith got some help to carry phones, chairs and supplies over to the mortgage company.  Unfortunately, they could not take their PCs, so they would not be able to do account look-ups.

Calls pour in

Tuesday morning, two team leaders – Scott Amerson and David Alello – and a small crew were ready as calls began to pour in.  Concerned customers said they had no checks, no access to accounts or simply no cash.  They told about living in hotels with no way to pay.  Business owners wanted to know if deposits made at a branch night-drop before the storm had been credited.  Some callers simply wanted to talk to their local branch banker, “Susan Q at the DeGaulle branch.”

“All we could say was that we had limited resources, we were doing the best we could.  We suggested they try online banking – Hibernia.com – and we would be able to do more in the days to come.  His training manager, Jayme Clark, found information for the agents about FEMA and Red Cross to pass on.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We wanted to be compassionate.  This was our foundation …

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Smith figured his people fielded 25,000 calls that first day.  From the beginning, he coached them to think differently about what they were doing.

“We were going to do whatever we could.  We wanted to have no regrets.  We were blessed.  We could help other people.  He emphasized that, “We won’t be rude.  We won’t push too hard.  We will be polite.  We wanted to maintain character and did not want to add to the misery.”

“We wanted to be compassionate.  This was our platform, our foundation.”  This attitude reached beyond simply handling calls.  “We cleaned up our building, went out and got lunches for others, tried to help.”

Offers to help

Sometime during the week, Smith talked to Peggy Elliott, at the customer service call center in Shreveport.  “I saw she was overwhelmed, and I wanted to help her answer calls.” His building still had no power, but he did have people.  Before the end of the week, he asked for volunteers to go to Shreveport.  A total of 22 agents signed up.

Concerned about how the volunteers — normally hard-charging salespeople — might behave, he cautioned them not “to pull in like cowboys.  We’re going into someone else’s house.  You are their guest and their servant.”

How to pay people?

While Smith wanted to help, he had a tricky problem — how to properly compensate his staff.  As sales agents, well over 50% of their average pay normally came from commissions.  Good telebankers could make $65,000 a year, but their base pay averaged only $15,000.

The sales program – their bread and butter – was essentially shut down by Katrina.  The bankers would be spending all of their time answering service calls from distraught customers.  How could Smith be fair to them?

He and his boss Ken Murray, with help from payroll supervisor Yvette Soniat, came up with a solution.  They figured out a 12-month average – including base and commissions – for each agent and agreed to pay that amount until they could sell again.  The agents felt it was a fair deal.

A big shift

As the Direct Bank temporarily took up service calls, “We had to train our bankers on these types over a weekend,” Smith remembered.  His supervisors, Sarah Hornsby and Sharon Bourgeois, put together a training program Sunday night, with quick-tip sheets on all of the things they might need to know.

He believed they were ready in the morning, but Smith sent roving problem-solvers around the floor.  If his telephone bankers had a question, they would raise their hands.  “There were hands all over the place” that first day.  “We were on the phone all the time with Peggy (Elliott).”  After a couple of weeks, the hands dropped to “one at a time.”

The issues they dealt with were not run-of-the-mill.  “One man’s parents drowned in their house.  He was trying to get their papers out of their safe deposit box.”

When customers wanted money from their accounts, “We set up a procedure with Donna Exnicios, head of branch operations, to wire up to $2,500 if we could get three pieces of identification.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

People were scarred, and you had a front row seat …

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

An emotional Katrina

By November, when calls began to subside, his team had been through “our own emotional Katrina.” Smith lost 25 people during that time, partly because of the pressure.  He also felt FEMA was responsible.  The disaster agency siphoned experienced call center workers with above-market pay offers to staff its own phone center in Baton Rouge.

Smith was grateful for many of the survivors.  Dunlap had been a “workhorse, relentless;” Hornsby and Clark, “key players in training and communications;” Amerson and Alello, “critical coordinators who went to Shreveport;” and Bourgeois, “vital to operations.”

One of the most difficult things for him was “watching bankers go through what they did.  They were helpless to help (their customers) sometimes … There were conversations that burned deep into your being.”

“People were scarred, and you had a front row seat seeing how these scars were cut.  It was a tough time.  These are our customers … They chose us … It was an honor to serve them, but we didn’t have many answers.”

Volunteers to Shreveport

One of the young telephone bankers who volunteered to go to Shreveport was Jeremy Jones.  Age 28 and single, he joined the Direct Bank after starting in a branch.  “Someone asked us if we were available to go to Shreveport for a couple of weeks, and at the drop of a hat, I had to rush home and start packing stuff.”

They drove there Friday, Sept. 2, arriving about 5 p.m.  “We went straight into a meeting at the call center.”  This represented a sea change for Jones and his coworkers although he had branch experience, “… so it wasn’t that hard for me … for a lot of people around me, it was a hard transition.”

Selling is a lot faster, he explained.  Service calls take more time.  “You are solving problems, trying to figure out exactly what’s happening … The thing is, it may not be something that you can solve right then and there.  It’s something that you have to get off the phone, work on a little bit, see who can help you and then you have to call the customer back … It’s just a lot more involved.”

These young direct bankers all understood the need.  “It didn’t make it any easier, but I never heard anybody complain.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

You’d end up talking to them another 15-20 minutes …

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Hard calls

Some got calls from evacuees at the convention center in New Orleans, also people inside the Superdome.  “A friend of mine got a call the first day from a lady who had lost her baby in the storm.”

“We worked 12-hour days, just taking calls over and over.  One lady was talking about her son (who had) been at the convention center and on the buses … he had to float to it in a boat … We got a lot of stories like that.  The main thing we were doing the first few days was just talking with them … It wasn’t so much bank business as just people calling with questions, but you’d end up talking to them another 15 to 20 minutes about their story …”

Best news they had heard

“We started getting calls from people worried about their loans … That was right around the time we got the word that we were going to be able to defer payments, so it was like the best news that they had heard.  They would start crying.  It was an experience.

“I remember talking to one lady in particular one of the first days when she had come out of New Orleans, and she was in Dallas.  I could tell her that her loan was being deferred.  It was the happiest thing she had heard all her life.  She started crying, and I started crying with her.  That one really got to me.  I ended up giving her my phone number and stuff, and if she ever needed anything else, I told her to just give me a call, even after the storm.”  (Jones never heard from her again.)

He recalled while there that Herb Boydstun, the bank’s CEO, came “walking around one day and shook our hands … That was cool.”

Smith, thinking back on his people, felt, “We handled ourselves with dignity and character.  I was proud of their patience.  There are so many talented people.  This group can do anything …”

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