As carriers add more features and functionality to their Web sites, they need to implement technologies that enable customers to communicate directly with call center agents while they're online.Selling and servicing complex insurance polices on the Internet is like fitting a round peg into a square hole: it just isn't a natural fit. The Internet experience is all about providing customers with self-service capabilities, whereas products such as term life insurance and variable annuities require human intervention to explain their intricate features.

John Hancock executives believe they have solved this dilemma. Customers who have questions about life insurance policies while they're visiting the Boston-based insurance company's Web site can simply type in their phone number and click on a "call-me" button on the Web site, and a customer service representative will quickly call on the telephone. Or, using the Web chat feature, customers type in a question and get a quick response from a call center agent.

"We're looking at using the Web to do more up-front qualifying for life products and get as much information so that we can move toward automated underwriting," says Brian Burnside, vice president of sales for John Hancock Financial Services Inc.

"When a customer hits the call-me button, they're very interested in buying the product, and they ask a lot of specific questions."

Consumers are flocking to the Internet in record numbers to research and purchase insurance. But often times potential customers get frustrated when they can't complete an online application and simply log off. Or, if they're still interested in a product and want to talk to a licensed call center agent, they must sign off the Internet, pick up their phone and call a teleagent, get the information they need and then log back on to the Internet.

Eliminating the hassle

A simple way that insurers can eliminate that hassle is by transforming their traditional call centers into customer contact centers where licensed call center agents process electronic mail requests, call-me messages and Web chat inquiries.

Technology also is available that enables a call center representative to view the same information that a customer is looking at online and, while talking to the customer on the phone, direct the customer's browser to an appropriate Web page.

"Insurance companies are thinking about how they can integrate e-mail capabilities or Web chat or a Web collaboration with their call centers and move to a true customer contact center, but it is not yet a top priority for them," says Kimberly Harris, a senior research analyst with GartnerGroup, Durham, N.C. "Insurance companies first need to address back-office system integration to support their front-end Web integration initiatives."

Making the connection

Insurers traditionally have not been among the leaders in the financial services industry in adopting new call center technologies.

But carriers that are now emphasizing Internet-based sales and service-especially dot.com companies that solely exist on the Internet-are investing in technologies that link Web site customer support and their call center agents.

"The insurance industry is lagging the banking industry by three to five years in the whole range of technologies supporting customer interactions," says Thomas Tynan, a partner in Andersen Consulting's Global Financial Services practice in New York.

"Banks have taken the lead in transforming their call centers into customer contact centers that support e-mail, Web chat and other collaborative technologies."

But insurance companies are committing more capital to call centers. Last year, insurance companies spent $98 million on call center technology, while banks invested $835 million on call center technology, according to GartnerGroup research.

However, carriers are expected to double their spending this year to $197 million and, by 2002, GartnerGroup estimates that the industry will spend $787 million on call center technology.

Furthermore, spending on technologies that support call center e-mail management, Web chat and other Web self-service tools by financial services providers is expected to grow from just $29.2 million in 1999 to $340 million in 2004, according to Datamonitor, a technology research and consulting firm based in New York.

"Insurance companies are in somewhat of an enviable position in that the banking sector has been wrestling with creating enterprisewide data repositories, and now that it is doable, insurance companies can leapfrog that part of the learning curve," says Brad Adrian, a senior research analyst with GartnerGroup. "Building a customer contact center is technically feasible, but insurance companies have to first integrate their call centers with their back-end systems."

Technology challenge

Building those connections and then linking call centers to Web sites, some industry observers say, is easier said that done.

"The challenge that most companies face is they have a lot of customer information on various back-end systems, and what they need to do is pull together a subset of all that information into an interaction manager, and getting those two systems to communicate is a challenge," says Tom Capp, director of marketing for Esurance Inc., a San Francisco-based company that sells insurance via the Internet and through its call center.

"The back-end systems typically are batch oriented, and the Web-based applications typically are XML-oriented, so the communication protocols are vastly different."

Solving those system integration obstacles aren't the only roadblocks preventing insurers from linking their Web sites and call centers. Many carriers are afraid that if they bulk up their Web self-servicing capabilities, customers will prefer to use the Web and call centers as their primary contact points with insurers, leaving agents out in the cold.

"Insurance companies are afraid of how their agents will react to any direct-to-consumer initiative," Adrian says. "But integrating call centers and the Web makes a lot of sense for insurance companies, because it is a less expensive way to provide customer support than if an agent gets involved."

Start with the basics

Most insurers list a toll-free number on their Web sites that customers can call if they have a question about filling out an application or understanding the terms and conditions of a policy.

Another basic feature that insurance companies are adding to their Web sites is the capability for consumers to e-mail a question to a call center agent.

"For starters, it's important to have an e-mail management system, something more than just a person typing in responses to e-mail messages," Adrian says.

"The volume of incoming e-mail messages for financial service providers this year will be double the volume experienced last year, and I expect the volume in 2001 will be triple the amount of e-mail messages this year."

E-mail response management systems can be used to automatically categorize, route and manage inbound messages. For example, if a customer from Wisconsin types a question about deductibles for auto policies, the message is routed to a call center representative who is licensed to sell and service auto polices in that state.

Hartford Life is using technology from Kana Communications Inc., Redwood City, Calif., that uses a keyword search to route inbound customer e-mail messages to appropriate call center agents.

Although most messages are not answered in real time, the technology can answer simple questions with an auto response message without any human intervention, explains Vi Beaudereau, program director of e-business strategic initiatives for the Hartford, Conn.-based carrier.

All e-mail messages are answered within 24 hours, he adds.

The software routes all incoming e-mail to a queue and sends an auto alert to call center representatives indicating how long a message has been held. Beaudereau says Hartford implemented the technology a year ago "because the constituents that we serve-independent agents, broker/dealers and policyholders-are demanding to use e-mail as a readily acceptable way of transacting business."

Analyzing e-mail

Hartford is archiving and analyzing the questions to help develop auto reply answers for future e-mail messages, decreasing the amount of intervention from call center representatives and increasing response times to customers.

The Hartford also is planning to use the information it gathers from inbound e-mail to send targeted outbound messages to policyholders.

Beaudereau will not say how many e-mail messages that the carrier receives on a typical day, but he did indicate that the volume in the past year has grown on the magnitude of one to 1,000 per day. "The increase is not just from the fact that people have grown accustomed to using e-mail but also because as a company, we overtly send mail to people that includes our toll-free number and our e-mail address."

The volume of e-mail that The Hartford now handles serves as a warning for insurers who are considering adding this capability to their Web sites.

"I know of one insurance company that I will not name that after a few days of being live was behind on responding to more than 10,000 e-mail messages, and had to shut it down," Beaudereau says.

If a call center is receiving that much e-mail, industry observers say that carriers should consider adding more functionality to their Web sites, such as a drop-down menu that contains answers to routine questions, or self-service technology that automatically provides the answer to a written question.

"Web self-service technology is designed around a very robust knowledge base that can provide answers to all possible questions," says Brian Huff, a technology analyst with Datamonitor.

"Savvy Web consumers want to get the help on their own. If the call center is receiving a ton of e-mail, it's a sign that something is wrong with the Web site."

A true measure of success in the e-commerce age is not how many consumers visit a company's Internet site but rather how much business is actually accomplished either directly on the Internet or indirectly through alternative distribution channels. The challenge for businesses in the e-commerce world is providing enough information, features and functionality on their Web sites to hook savvy Internet consumers.

That's especially true for those companies who solely rely on their Web sites and call centers to provide customer support. Many of these e-businesses that are providing insurance services are offering a blend of technologies that integrate their Web sites with their call centers, not only to provide a high level of customer service to their Web audiences but to hold down costs.

Cost efficient

"It is much more cost effective to have a call center representative who can handle simultaneous customer interactions than it is to talk with one customer on the telephone," says Keith Lippiatt, chief technology officer of InsWeb Corp., Redwood City, Calif. "Our call center representatives typically handle five Web chat sessions simultaneously."

Customers who visit the company's Web site, www.InsWeb.com, can either e-mail a question to one of the company's 30 call center representative, or, if they're having trouble filling out an application, they can click on a button and receive line-by-line assistance.

"We built proprietary, knowledge-based technology so that if a customer has a specific question about a specific product, they can click on a pre-set menu of questions and get an answer without having to log off and call the call center," Lippiatt explains. "The call center representatives also have the tools to modify answers on the fly so that if they notice that people are getting stumped on a particular area of an application, they can modify the question and answer."

InsWeb also has integrated a Web chat feature with its e-mail function and the knowledge-base technology so that when a Web customer types in a question, a call center representative can quickly respond with an answer. Chat software is a form of real-time e-mail that enables Web customers and call center agents to exchange text messages.

"Every potential question and answer is legally approved, so that when a customer using the chat technology submits a question, the call center representative finds the appropriate answer and sends it back in real time," Lippiatt says. "The call center representative knows where the customer is on a particular page and can go to the predefined knowledge base, click on the particular question, cut and paste the answer and send it back out to the customer."

Real-time e-mail

Web-based chat software consists of Web browser-enabled software and server software. The server software acts as an interface between back-end systems, such as customer information databases, and the company's Web site.

A text chat session typically requires the customer to click on a Web call-back button to download a small application. Less than a minute later, a small window pops up on the customer's screen, usually with the name or a picture of a call center agent, who then prompts the customer to submit a question.

When the customer types the question and clicks a "send" button, the text message is automatically routed to the agent.

The cost of basic Web chat software varies due to implementation factors and the sophistication of the application, but generally ranges from $200 to $2,000 per call center agent seat.

Integrating e-mail and Web chat and other Web-based customer service applications is difficult, industry experts say, but it's necessary so that a call center does not have to set up different systems to support each application.

Esurance selected E-Assist, a San Diego-based application service provider, as its technology provider. E-Assist uses a product from Octane Software Inc., which was acquired this year by E.piphany Inc., to integrate e-mail, Web chat, voice over Internet and Web collaboration customer support services.

"When a customer calls us, the call center representative gets the Web chat message or the e-mail message on one screen, so that if there are any previous action items that have not been answered, the agent can identify that right away," says Tony Capp, Esurance's director of marketing.

A majority of Esurance's customers prefer to use e-mail to ask questions about a policy, but Capp says the Web chat function is particularly effective in handling questions that arise when a consumer is filling out an online application.

"People who typically use the Web chat feature either want to get a quote or they have a question about filling out an application," he explains. "Web chat is not a good forum for getting online quotes, so we direct those customers to our quote page. "But Web chat is extremely effective in supporting the application process. Some people will chat for 30 minutes, and some prefer to use it because they can remain anonymous. For example, if someone has a bad driving record, it's easier to use Web chat and remain anonymous than it is to send an e-mail."

Esurance's call center representatives typically handle between 100 and 200 Web chat messages per day. "When customers log on to the Web chat feature, we ask them what state are they from, and the software automatically routes the message to the appropriate agent so that we don't have to license all of our representatives in all 50 states," Capp says.

Parallel browsing

Exchanging text messages through Web chat and e-mail are effective tools for answering basic questions. But given the complexity of insurance, some consumers need more handholding while they're browsing on carriers' Web sites.

Web collaboration, also known as co-browsing, enables a customer service representative to talk on the phone with a customer while the customer is logged on to the company's Web site.

The technology links a call center agent's browser to a customer's browser so that the agent can view the exact screen that the customer is logged onto.

John Hancock began using Cisco System Inc.'s collaboration server in 1999 to provide Web-based customer support for its variable annuity and term insurance products. To log on, a customer clicks on a call-me button on the site, and the request is sent to the call center's automated call distributor system, which routes the call to the most appropriate agent.

When the customer clicks on the call-me button, a small applet gets loaded onto the customer's browser. The applet provides the link between the collaboration server and the customer's browser that enables parallel browsing.

The call center switch then immediately sends a form back to the customer's browser, asking the customer how they would prefer to be contacted by an agent-via a telephone call or with Web chat. Consumers must have two phone lines if they wish to speak to a call center agent while remaining on the Web site.

When the customer provides a phone number, the system places the call and connects the caller with an agent. The collaboration server then coordinates the link between the agent's browser and the customer's browser, and a window opens up on the customer's end with a greeting note and a picture of the call center representative.

Using the technology, a call center representative can send application forms to the customer or direct the customer's browser to a specific area on John Hancock's Web site, www.johnhancock.com.

"We have had very good feedback on the parallel browsing feature," says John Hancock's Burnside. "Customers can talk directly with an agent about what they're seeing on their screen, and with parallel browsing, an agent can view the Web site page by page with the customer."

John Hancock handles about a dozen parallel browsing sessions per day, and most customers prefer to talk with a call center agent rather than engage in a Web chat discussion.

"Customers have very specific questions about an existing health condition, or they want to know how much insurance they need," Burnside says.

The technology has had a significant impact on conversion rates for John Hancock's term insurance. "We convert inbound calls at a 30% rate and when we collaborate through our call-me feature, our conversion rate is 70%," Burnside says.

"Web collaboration technology has enormous potential for insurers," says Datamonitor's Huff. "An agent can help a customer fill out a form and attempt to upsell the customer to a premium product."

Web collaboration also can be very useful for financial planning.

"The type of `what if' questions that arise with life insurance or annuities and other personal financial planning present a good case for using Web collaboration technology," says Arthur Andersen's Tynan.

Technology concerns

But some companies are wary about introducing the technology because they believe customers may feel uncomfortable with the experience of having someone take control of their Web browser.

"Most consumers are not sophisticated enough to understand what they're seeing and experiencing with that type of interaction," says InsWeb's Lippiatt.

Bob Weinberger, director of marketing for Cisco's Internet communications software group, admits that the technology can be a bit unsettling for first-time users.

"It's a new technology, and some people are taken aback when they see the browser going off by itself," he says. "But it really represents the next wave of e-commerce. We hear a lot of discussion from insurance companies that want to tie in the expertise of a third person, such as a mutual fund manager, who can conduct a three-way phone and Web conversation with a customer and a call center agent."

Insurance companies that have targeted the Web as a strategic business opportunity are evaluating the benefits of the technology, industry experts say.

"Last year, most carriers were at point zero with regards to the Internet, so the fact that insurance companies are making integration of call centers and the Internet one of their priorities is a good indication that they understand the bigger picture," says GartnerGroup's Harris.

"Many insurance companies recognize that call-me buttons and Web collaboration make a lot of sense, but these technology plans are tempered by issues such as bandwidth restrictions and internal support issues."

When Wausau Insurance Co. launched its Wausau Direct site this summer, it selected LivePerson's Web chat software because it was easy to install and it offered great functionality, says Ed Hanlon, managing executive of emerging markets, underwriting and operations, for the Wausau, Wis.-based carrier.

The company also assumed that most of its small-business customers only have one phone line and therefore would have to log off the 'Net if they wanted to talk to an agent.

"We felt that once a customer leaves the Web site, we've lost them, so we want to create a relationship while they're still on the site. If they have to get off the Web site to contact our call center, it's difficult to hold on to that potential customer."

The company also is evaluating Web collaboration technology.

"I think that's a powerful tool because it allows us to help the customer fill out an application online," Hanlon says. "That's the next level where we want to go."

But other industry observers envision that technology will soon provide an even more intimate interaction between Web customers and call center agents.

"At some point in the near future, we'll be able to look at the customer, and the customer will be looking at a live picture of the call center agent," says John Hancock's Burnside. "No one is offering that yet, but that is the direction we're heading in."

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