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April 16th, 2020

COVID-19 Amplifies Flaws in Conventional Inbound Caller Authentication

Tier-1 banking customers that use Neustar Inbound Authentication saw a 43% increase in inbound call volumes in the six weeks following news of the first COVID-19 positive case reported in the U.S. versus the same period prior. Most of the increase occurred since February 25, when the Centers for Disease Control issued the first major warning on COVID-19’s likely spread via community transmission. In response to the warning, and subsequent shelter-in-place orders imposed by most states, banking customers unwilling or unable to visit branch locations have increasingly turned to the phone channel for service.

Fewer call center agents left to service more callers

Call centers around the world have been heeding the need for social distancing. International call centers have closed, shifting their call volumes back to onshore peers, many of whom have transitioned to working from home. In response, some organizations are re-allocating and training staff that work in other functions to help manage inbound inquiries. Hold times have ballooned from minutes to hours due to the disruption.

Watch: Inbound Contact Centers and the COVID-19 Pandemic with our guest Art Schoeller from Forrester

Caller authentication exacerbates this problem in many call centers. One year before the pandemic a commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Neustar (Mitigate Fraud And Consumer Friction With Integrated [Identity Verification], February 2019) found that: “Many firms struggle to maintain high quality customer experience throughout authentication: 62% of firms have low customer satisfaction and/or an end-user process that is too complicated.”

The spike in call volume driven by COVID-19 begs the question: how well prepared are inbound call centers to ensure low-friction experiences for anxious customers?

Now more than ever, it’s critical for call centers to find new ways to handle high volumes of inbound calls without further aggravating customers, wasting resources, or jeopardizing security. Unfortunately, most inbound call centers’ authentication approach is inadequate for the task.

No time for KBA

According to the Neustar 2020 State of Call Center Authentication survey, most call center leaders still trust knowledge-based authentication (KBA) questions, such as, “What is your mother’s maiden name?”, to verify callers’ identities. This insight aligns with a finding that appeared in Forrester's study: “92% of the fraud management decision makers we surveyed said that [KBA] is somewhat or very effective at reducing ID theft and fraud.”

Even under normal circumstances, KBA represents a tremendous risk to call centers. During spikes in inbound call volume, KBA puts call centers at intolerable risk of several consequences:

  1. Frustrating customers - Instead of taking an opportunity to reassure customers coping with pandemic-fueled anxiety, KBA implies to callers, "We don't know you and we don't trust you." The dissonance risks insulting customers and driving them to competitors that offer a more welcoming authentication experience.
  2. Degrading IVR containment – When callers become frustrated answering KBA questions in the IVR they’re more likely to "pound out" to speak with an agent. Also, call centers’ entrenched fear of failed authentication (i.e. false negatives) keeps self-service functions limited to low-risk and low-value options. These consequences force more callers than is necessary to wait hours for agents.
  3. Increasing average handle time - KBA adds an average of 20% of call time to each call. Squandering the first 30-90 seconds of the call on KBA wastes 45¢-90¢ per agent call. With inbound call volumes rapidly on the rise, every second matters to the bottom line.
  4. Enabling criminal activity – Answers to KBA challenge questions—consumers’ personally identifying information (PII)—have either been breached or shared on social media. When criminals call in, they combine PII with social engineering tactics to convince agents to grant access to customers’ accounts. Callers’ anxiety compounding agents’ stress levels are perfect conditions for account takeover attacks. Fraudsters can easily use a virtualized call service to bypass legacy defenses and call from an untraceable phone number.

Read “Ten Reasons Why Knowledge-Based Authentication Threatens the Modern Contact Center”

KBA frustrates customers, slows agents, and empowers criminals because it distracts from quickly resolving the original purpose of the call. Anxiety caused by COVID-19 amplifies these problems. The solution is to authenticate callers without agent intervention.

Authenticate callers before they hear "hello"

The faster the person on the other end of the line can be authenticated—even during unprecedented spikes in inbound call volume—the better call centers can deliver safe, speedy experiences without compromising security or operational efficiency.

Ownership-based authentication is a proven method of delivering on the promise of authentication without agent intervention. The process completes before the caller hears "hello," making it faster and more secure than KBA. Trusted callers can be offered self-serve options that are too risky with KBA: account transfers, contact information updates, and PIN resets. Agents can be reserved for more complicated matters and freed to focus on speedy service. Only the smaller remaining pool of unauthenticated callers gets more rigorous authentication or diversion to the fraud department. This sends a reassuring message to trusted callers, supports agents to do their best, and optimizes expensive fraud-prevention personnel and resources.

How Neustar helps manage high inbound call volumes

The ownership-based authentication of Neustar Inbound Authentication decreases average handle times by 30-90 seconds per call and increases IVR containment by 10%. Callers with a broader range of questions appropriate for self-service don’t have to wait hours for agents. Shielded from social engineering attacks, agents greet callers with, “How can I help you?” rather than, “Who are you and can I trust you?” Agents quickly respond to callers’ unique needs, combatting wait times and asserting that the brand is there to help. The approach drives an average $5.50 savings per IVR-contained call, and 45¢-90¢ savings per agent-handled call.

The capability to authenticate callers before they hear "hello" is a powerful advantage under normal circumstances. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s essential. Organizations have an opportunity to earn anxious customers’ trust by resolving their inquiries and issues calmly and quickly. That starts by automatically identifying and authenticating the caller for absolute confidence on every call, every time.

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