In 2001, PMA Insurance Group relocated its call center from Blue Bell, a suburb of Philadelphia, to a new facility in Allentown. But the move was more than geographic. It was a call to arms for PMA to reassess some of its long-time practices governing customer interaction.In fact, at PMA an d other insurance companies, a new methodology for customer engagement is rising to the fore-part of a mandate by senior insurance executives to shift customer service from what had been regarded as a necessary cost of doing business to a value-added service. Employing better recruiting strategies, which market customer service representative (CSR) positions as "destination" jobs with opportunities for advancement, insurers are hiring individuals who have an affinity for call center duties, training them and ultimately converting them into specialists equipped to handle specific areas of inquiries.

It's doubtful that a "call-taker" could talk a distressed customer through a life crisis unless they are trained to think outside the box. But it's more than that: For a long time, the number of phone calls that a CSR at PMA was required to field per hour had been regarded as a core performance evaluation method. But this expectation, along with some others, is being scrapped in favor of new performance benchmarks.

"Establishing quotas limits the amount of time agents can spend with a caller, meaning service quality suffers," says Meg Schumer, assistant vice president of call centers at PMA. "Instead, we measure other factors, such as the percentage of time a CSR is available to help a customer and how long customers are kept on hold."

PMA's 23 agents field 1,800 calls per day at a center that's open nine hours a day, Monday through Friday. When the facility closes, the insurer provides 24-hour loss reporting and emergency call service through an outside vendor.

The new mindset appears to be working: In an independent survey, 96% of insurance clients rated PMA's call center as helpful, or more helpful, than expected. Using its resources to the full extent, PMA is able to answer 70% of its in-bound calls in 20 seconds or less, which is equivalent to three rings on a home phone. And the facility has been able to provide optimal service even as its claims volume increased 10% over the past year.

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