When the call arrived at PMA Insurance Group's customer contact center in Allentown, Pa., it was unlike most of the in-bound inquiries normally fielded at the sprawling facility."The agents at our contact center assist injured workers seeking claims-related indemnity or medical payment status," explains Meg Schumer, assistant vice president of call centers for the Blue Bell, Pa.-based mid-size property/casualty insurer. "But in the midst of a call, an individual informed one of our agents that he was contemplating ending his life. Our agent began to talk the individual through the crisis-basically got him to calm down-and then sought intervention from crisis counselors, who took it from there."

When the inquiries arrived on Sept. 11, 2001 at the corporate Web site of Chicago-based insurance brokerage giant Aon Corp., they were unlike any others.

But in the hours following the events of 9/11-Aon had 1,200 workers at the World Trade Center-Aon's disabled phone lines and e-mail servers necessitated alternate means of communication with its New York-based employees and affiliates. From a data processing center in Glenview, Ill., Aon's Web site took on an unexpected role, serving as a two-way communication clearinghouse for critical business and personal matters.

Within its walls or outside its doors, meet the new mindset for engaging insurance customers and affiliates. For PMA Insurance, the plan revolves around thinking outside the box to stress problem-solving over being "call takers" trained to react to a script, Schumer says. For Aon, the deployment of its Web site following 9/11 exhibited how alternative channels, such as the Web, e-mail and interactive voice response (IVR), can be transformed into a viable option to live phone support.

"In the late 1990s, it was essentially a case of people at our call center taking phone calls," explains PMA's Schumer. "We had some concerns and had received anecdotal feedback from customers. There were staffing issues, abandonment rates were too high and we were not taking advantage of existing technology."

People speak volumes

It's a good thing that PMA places so much stock in the abilities of its human capital because, despite the growth of automation tools that provide customers with alternative ways of interacting with a carrier, human decision-making and execution is still the primary driver of contact-center efficiency.

Insurer spending trends appear to reinforce this belief. In a recent report, "The Evolution of Insurance Call Centers," Boston-based research and consulting firm Celent Communications Inc. reveals that 60% of the call-center budgets of insurers polled were devoted to salaries and benefits.

Despite some indications that a growing number of customers are bypassing customer service representatives to make inquiries either online, via e-mail or using IVR technology, carriers are still relying on live customer support.

"Even with the self-service components that we offer customers, we still need a safety net in place," says Jim Plotts, vice president of agency and customer support, at Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co. Plotts oversees activity at Allstate's 11 personal-lines contact centers across the United States, encompassing 3,000 customer service representatives (CSRs).

"That safety net is someone on the other side of an IVR who can intervene when needed," he says. "We pride ourselves on first-call resolution, which is what we call 'level 1' response. We never want a call to move to level 2."

Allstate's call-routing system and the establishment of CSR specialists help drive these efficiencies. When customers dial 1-800-Allstate, they must first select their option from an IVR menu, which alerts Allstate about the nature of the call-for a claim, a policy matter or a new-business inquiry, for example. The IVR captures the call type and routes it to the appropriate facility.

Therefore, if a customer were reporting a first notice of loss, the call would be routed to an Allstate facility in St. Petersburg, Fla., Hudson, Ohio, Charlotte, N.C., or Dallas. Dallas can handle bilingual first notice of loss inquiries.

If a call pertains to a policy change or inquiry about obtaining coverage, it is sent to one of three facilities-in Woodridge, Ill., Stockton, Calif. or Charlotte, which handle both claims and sales/policy inquiries-but by two separate staffs.

Every inquiry routed to an Allstate contact center is handled by an individual that has been trained, and even licensed, in such areas as first notice of loss, existing policy matters and, on the sales side, new-business opportunities.

Other insurers also have recognized the need to rethink the roles of their CSRs. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a Wellesley, Mass.-based health care provider with 765,000 members, revitalized its call-center communication strategies several years ago to make CSRs less reactive and more proactive.

Harvard Pilgrim's member-services call center, which is located in Quincy, Mass., fields 3,000 calls a day, or 60,000 a month, encompassing 100 CSRs. The facility is a point of entry for customer inquiries for claims, existing policy and new-policy matters.

"It used to be a case of answering phones," says Lynn Bowman, vice president for customer service. "We also did not have very extensive performance standards in place for our CSRs, and we needed to make improvements, and we have. What continues to prevail is that customers want to speak with knowledgeable, confident CSRs."

With these new efficiencies in place, the results at Harvard Pilgrim have been realized in several areas. One of them: Call abandonment rates at the call center-once as high as 12%-are now less than 2%.

Greater access

While customers indeed want to speak with knowledgeable CSRs, there is a pent-up demand to augment live interaction with alternative channel access.

The jury is out on exactly how important this demand has become. "Currently, 80% of our customer contact is via the telephone," Bowman declares. "In time, consumers will become more comfortable using technology to perform basic transactions, such as checking the status of a claim and verifying eligibility. The challenge is to strike a balance between human interaction and technology."

One thing is certain: Online self-service has advantages because it "removes CSRs as an interface layer," says Matthew Josefowicz, senior analyst for Celent Communications. "This in turn enables staff to focus on more high-value issues. The impact is faster service, around-the-clock access and lower costs for insurers-in essence there's no HR cost to deal with."

As a result, it behooves insurers to provide customers with multiple ways to interact with them. In 2000, Allstate introduced an ambitious multi-access program to enable a caller to start an inquiry on www.allstate.com, and if they had to opt out of the activity, they could seamlessly resume later via another channel, such as phone or e-mail. Presently, the multi-access initiative, dubbed the "Good Hands Network," is available in 30 states, encompassing 95% of Allstate's personal lines policy base.

"We've evolved quite a bit in the past 13 years," Plotts explains. "In the early 1990s, the big breakthrough was taking calls from customers after business hours and on Saturdays. In the mid-1990s, we began to offer around-the-clock support via phone. And in 2000, we rolled out multi-access, to enable customers to access Allstate anytime, anywhere and anyhow," adds Plotts, who has been with Allstate for 35 years.

One key to making a high-touch initiative work is unifying the respective channels, as Allstate has done.

"The proliferation of contact channels places new demands on the infrastructure of contact centers and requires new IT investments as well as new management practices," Josefowicz explains. "When they're not unified, a CSR who is speaking to a customer who performed a task on the Web site would not be able to detect the action that the customer made."

Indeed, as e-mail communication increases in synergy with a contact center, insurers must have a system in place that can quantify these activities. Surprisingly, many still have not gone that extra mile.

Discipline needed

Celent's survey of insurance contact centers reveals that on average about 6% of insurance contact center contacts are currently being done via e-mail, and this activity is excpected to grow by 15% by the year 2007.

But, "insurers must apply call center discipline to e-mail, with a central queue with workflow 'hold times,'" says Josefowicz. Celent also found that insurance CSRs often have the responsibilities to handle both e-mail and phone, "which might be one reason for the current state of bad e-mail service," he explains.

At Allstate, e-mail inquiries are fielded by individuals who have proper skill sets to handle these inquiries, says Plotts, adding that Allstate strives to respond to e-mail requests within an hour.

At Harvard Pilgrim, e-mail inquiries have picked up, too, which has exerted more pressure to provide quick and accurate responses. "We went from about 500 e-mails a month just a year ago to presently 1,600 inquiries a month," Bowman says. "The key is that the agents who handle e-mail inquiries have to be able to write, but more importantly, write in such a manner that they can explain complex customer inquiries clearly and concisely."

Tough call

Going ahead, an insurer's reliance on technology at the call center will continue to expand, both internally to measure and support CSRs and externally to serve customers and affiliates.

Which technologies do insurers find most beneficial? A few years ago, technologies such as automated call distributors (ACDs), computer-telephony integration (CTI) and skills-based routing were among those considered on the leading edge of contact center IT solutions. While still vital, insurers have learned these tools are no longer the be-all and end-all of contact center operations.

"We don't invest in every bell and whistle on the technology spectrum," notes Plotts of Allstate, which added four new contact centers in 2000. "We ask two questions about IT investments for our call centers: Will it improve the customer experience and will it make our operation more efficient?"

A NICE system

From an operations standpoint, insurers appear to be continuing to invest in software solutions that pinpoint gaps in quality assurance. "Insurers might need to know why it's taking a call center in Florida 12 minutes to resolve one inquiry, but takes their call center in Texas only five minutes to resolve the same inquiry," explains Lawrence Schwartz, president of Frisco, Texas-based Skywire Software Co., whose Answer Suite software provides desk-side diagnostics for technical support and customer service.

Harvard Pilgrim has a call monitoring system, referred to as "NICE," which enables it to measure the quality of customer service calls.

"NICE records conversations with customers and monitors their servicing skills, problem-solving and technical competencies," states Bowman. "Based on these criteria, agents have to get a score of 90% to remain with us."

Harvard Pilgrim is preparing to update NICE to view all the screens on an agent's computer during a phone call.

"This way, we'll be able to identify the agent's ability to find answers quickly. The more computer screens they use-some possibly unnecessarily-the longer it takes to resolve a call," says Bowman.

New technologies, channel expansion, new metrics for call-center performance, the advent of CSR specialization and other components are expected to provide insurers with the ammunition they need to attract and retain customers.

But at the end of the day, there is no substitute for providing the basics. "I tell our call-takers: I care less about what you tell a customer in the middle of a conversation than what you tell them at the beginning and at the end," Plotts says. "And that is, the ability to say hello and goodbye with empathy. You can provide right answers all day long, but if those answers are given without empathy, it's really meaningless."

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