From pumping your own gas to checking your luggage and getting a boarding pass at the airport, self-service is becoming the name of the game in our economy.For the insurance industry, which has long had a reputation for providing personalized service-from the agent through the claims adjuster-transitioning to the self-service world can require an adjustment in thinking.

Technology deployments that support self-service options must address the needs of two key constituencies-the customers and the agents.

Many companies start to re-shape their self-service worldview by looking at the simplest transaction-based options first. The essential act of obtaining premium payments from the policyholder readily falls in this category.

Numerous payment options

With the advent of electronic banking and the ability of consumers to make other types of payments such as utilities, telecom and mortgage directly via a service provider's Web site, expectations for electronic alternatives are on the rise.

Automated telephone systems and secure public Internet payment pages serve the needs of the pure do-it-yourself consumers.

Unfortunately, building and maintaining all of these interfaces individually, particularly if a wide variety of payment options are provided, can be a complex and time-consuming task.

Using a third-party user-interface hosting and payment processing service can greatly simplify meeting the diverse needs of the customer base and the agent population. Payment options can include credit cards, ATM debit cards or ACH/electronic checks.

Many consumers are looking to maximize "reward points" opportunities to pay for goods and services using a their credit cards, but the interchange fees (set on a percentage of payment basis and paid to the card issuer) and the shifting requirements from some of the card associations add significant complexity to electronic payment programs.

Debit cards are an increasingly popular transaction method for consumers, limiting customers to spending to the only funds available their account.

These transactions also benefit the insurer, who in real-time can verify that sufficient funds are available to cover the premium payment.

Many insurers have long offered recurring ACH debit programs. Offering a one-time ACH/electronic check is an additional way for the carrier to capture the cost-effectiveness of an ACH, but meet the timing control and convenience needs of the customer base.

When multi-layered verification methods are used, the on-demand ACH option forms an essential part of an electronic payment program that can readily increase cash flow and maximize the number of good payments that can flow through the automated system.

One of the challenges in building so many channels to accept payments is in the creation of additional inputs to the remittance and reconciliation process.

Using a third-party hosting and payment processing service will consolidate all payments made across every channel into a single remittance, backed up by a simple report on all transactions made.

The technology to support these self-service applications uses Web services-based messaging for both telephone and Internet channels to perform real-time verification of data.

As the customer enters all account and payment information via voice or keyboard, the information is checked against the carrier's systems of record, ensuring that no payments are received on lapsed policies. The transaction is processed and the payment authorized, providing the customer with a confirmation number.

Continuously updated

The company's internal systems are fully updated, including the accounting systems, completing an electronic transaction that does not require human intervention.

The continuously updated data is then available for on-line querying to support analysis of payment trends and research on specific account activity.

These self-service technologies complement existing lockbox, recurring and cash payment processes.

Insurance companies that focus on improving the customer's experience with every interaction can meet the rising expectations of the self-service customer segment without giving up the high-touch channel of the agent.

Leveraging the expertise of third-party service providers in integrating with legacy systems, meeting regulatory requirements and addressing the needs of both consumers and agents can simplify delivering self-service channels for electronic payments.

Offering insureds a variety of alternatives to "serve themselves" should be a vital part of your company's overall customer service strategy.

Jerry Portocalis is senior vice president of sales and marketing for BillMatrix, a Dallas-based provider of consumer automated payments technology.

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