How Prudential handles a 60 percent increase in customer calls on the busiest day of the year

It’s 7:55 a.m. on a Tuesday in January at Prudential Retirement’s call center near Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the 125 or so employees in the office are in anxious anticipation. In five minutes, they and their colleagues in Dubuque, Iowa; El Paso, Texas; and the Philippines will begin the busiest day of the year, answering questions from more than 17,000 clients over the course of a 13-hour day.         

“The call screen lights up like a Christmas tree that day,” said Laurie Deininger, a senior customer service representative who will handle around 65 calls during a 10-hour shift.

The Tuesday after Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the busiest day of the year for Prudential Retirement’s call centers. The reason is a combination of a new calendar year, which allows participants to take out new withdrawals and loans; recently received annual statements; and tax planning. There’s one more thing, said Bob Rismondo, director of the Scranton call center—a long weekend in January to get caught up with all the financial paperwork.

“People tend to put mail that takes a little bit of time to review away until the weekend,” said Rismondo, a 20-year veteran of the Scranton call center, which sits close enough to the Montage Mountain Ski Resort to afford views of machine-made snow clouds floating across the mountain top.

Rismondo notes that 80 percent of the time callers will speak to a representative within 20 seconds. Keeping that record intact during the busiest day requires anticipating the questions that typically come this time of year, a deep understanding of the ins and outs of each plan, and staffing. Lots of staffing. Vacation days are discouraged, overtime is available and the company brings in food. What’s more, complex modeling allows Prudential to anticipate peak call volume at any location and match it with more-than-usual representatives.

In all, there will be more than 350 hands on deck that day to answer questions and educate Prudential retirement plan participants. Prudential Retirement is among the industry’s biggest recordkeepers, with 4.2 million participants and annuitants with $417 billion in retirement account values.

Given the location of the Scranton call center in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, there is another variable to be considered when planning: the weather.

“We really plan to make sure that the weather is not a factor,” said Veronica Charcalla, vice president of retirement participant services. “Even with call routing to other locations, we often put people up overnight in hotels or set them up to work from home to make sure we can handle calls quickly and spend the time each caller needs to get their questions answered.”

Customer service representatives all undergo an intensive training period that can last 14 weeks. New representatives get routed easier-to-handle calls, while more experienced team members take more complex ones.

“We see everything from questions about the website to requests for statements to discussions on hardship loans and withdrawals,” said Susan Unvarsky, vice president of operations. “We also talk to people calling to report a death. Every single caller deserves our full attention and understanding.”

That’s why showing empathy is a top priority for this team, said Joe Perks, who works in a supervisory role as a customer experience consultant. This year will be the eighth time that Perks is working the busiest day.

“When you are taking a huge number of calls that day, you work even harder to guard against treating people like a number,” Perks said. “We stay upbeat throughout the day, because it’s not a good experience to sit on hold, even for 20 seconds, then hear someone who is underwhelmed when they answer the phone.”

This year, Perks said he is expecting an increase in calls about making hardship withdrawals due to natural disasters. In addition to hurricanes such as Harvey and Irma, the Internal Revenue Service added the California wildfires as an allowable reason to tap into an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

To Deininger, those are the most difficult calls that come up on her screen. “People will say, ‘I don’t have a home right now, I am calling from three states away, and I need money to rebuild my home—or just to pay my bills,” Deininger said. “Hardship calls are tough calls to take.”

In the end, Rismondo can look across the wide-open call center floor from his centrally located desk and know that his colleagues are providing best-in-the-business service and educating Prudential clients.

“We take the opportunity to engage people in positive discussions on how to maintain financial wellness while facing the challenges of current financial hardships,” he said. “We make sure that we are educating our callers, that this is their retirement, this is their future.”

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