The old saying, “Who knows what tomorrow may bring?” is prophetic and accurate most of the time. But in the case of insurance companies devising customer service plans to deal with the changing shape of their consumer base, the saying isn’t as mysterious as many people may think. Most carriers have a pretty good idea of the shape of their customers to come; it’s just developing the proper service vision that remains the mystery.

“We see most of the companies we work with struggle with determining what it is their customers want,” says Kimberly Harris-Ferrante, research VP at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. “When they phone the call center—when they’re interacting with us—what are their expectations? And, more important, what are the customers of the next 10 years going to look like?”

It’s this last question that’s the key, as there is likely to be a seismic shift in the level of technological knowledge and expertise as the newest generation of customers begins to purchase insurance across all lines of business.

“If you look at some of the demographic research out there, where younger people—individuals who’ve grown up with technology and it’s part of their normal life—become insurance consumers, their customer service expectations are going to be very different than what you have as your average insurance policyholder today,” Harris-Ferrante says. “And, what we see lacking is a general understanding of how to develop a customer service strategy for the customers of 2015. How do you start making good decisions—both in business process as well as in technology — to meet the needs of the multi-channel, highly technology-savvy consumer of 2015?”

I CAN SEE CLEARLY

Employees at Farmers Insurance Group, Los Angeles, are aware of this customer shift and have already begun to adjust their claims strategies in response.

“We recognize that, over the next decade, we’re going to have an influx of tech-savvy customers in the marketplace,” says Rob Howard, assistant VP of national operations, “and their needs are going to be different than our existing customers. We have to anticipate what those needs are going to be and proactively build out our claims capabilities and claims technologies to meet them. Our future vision for claims is about transforming the ways claims are worked and connecting with insureds in a way that fosters collaboration.”

Farmers drilled down deeper into the issue, conducting research to determine what its Generation X and Y customers currently expect in terms of service.

“We commissioned a study late last year to focus on the next generation of customers and how they deal with claims,” Howard says. “The key moment for us in the study was when it came to a claim, 85% of our Gen X and Y customers still preferred to do the initial communication on the telephone as opposed to e-mail or on the Web.

“When we dug into that,” Howard continues, “the reason was that this is such a rare occasion for the customers, they’re completely unfamiliar with the process, and their comfort level is much higher with that initial communication being done over the phone.

Once they had communication over the phone and got into the claim itself, their preference was overwhelmingly to conduct all future communication through e-mail or on the Web. Because of this, we don’t see the call centers diminishing in importance even with the next generation.”

SERVE YOURSELF

Farmers believes their future customers will be looking for a variety of self-service options. Currently, its claims operation’s service vision revolves around customer choice, and the carrier is committed to providing choice options to all customers who meet their individual needs and circumstances.

“Customers are going to demand more self-service options,” Howard says, “as well as real-time interaction with their insurance company that’s currently outside of traditional means—today it’s a phone call and potentially voicemail and waiting for the return call. But in the future, it’s about instantaneous communication through e-mail, text messaging and the Internet.”

Self-service, as well as education on the Web, also is part of Liberty Mutual Group’s vision. The Boston-based insurer has already begun to utilize this technology with the focus on interacting directly with customers to allow them to make more informed, intuitive choices about their coverages.

“With the Internet self-service capabilities and quoting capabilities we’re developing—and with all the technologies we’re developing today—we’re trying to make them much simpler,” says John McKenna, CIO of personal markets. “We’re trying to better educate the customer about what products we’re offering and what insurance means to them in terms of the coverages, limits and deductibles. We’re also trying to monitor some of the behaviors and interactions online so we can more quickly adjust our flow and the information we’re sharing to improve that overall experience.”

Wells Fargo Insurance Services, a Chicago-based provider of global insurance, risk management and employee benefit solutions, offers CyberSure, an interactive customer e-services information and resource portal, to commercial customers. The portal enables customers to self-administer routine transactions, including issuing certificates of insurance, vehicle ID cards, applications for coverage and filing of claims reports.

“Our philosophy has always been high-end, high-touch service,” says Jann McCully, national director of customer technology solutions for Wells Fargo, whose CyberSure portal expects to service more than 50,000 customers in the next 18 to 24 months. “What we’re really doing with the portal is combining high-touch service with a bit of a ‘serve yourself’ model.”

The self-service aspect has worked, according to McCully, who says customers are using the tools and are easily able to take care of the majority of their needs without requiring additional service.

“The things that used to be difficult are no longer due to the technology, so it’s benefiting the customer,” she says.

WHAT ABOUT NOW?

Given 2015 is still years away, there are still a number of customer service trends that carriers should consider to help to bridge the eventual gap in the shifting customer demographic. One of the more innovative trends, according to Gartner’s Harris-Ferrante, falls on the strategy of multi-channel integration.

“Carriers are realizing customers may want to use multiple channels for service,” she says. “They may want to start through one channel and finish in another channel, or call another channel to find out what happened. For example, when filling out an online claim form, they may get halfway through and realize they don’t have the answer so they call the agent or call center to pick up where they left off.

These single-channel deployments can’t really support that, so you have to have the multi-channel, which are more collaborative and integrated for that experience.

“This is probably the most innovative and forward-thinking trend in the industry,” Harris-Ferrante continues, “and, to a certain degree, debunking tradition in the industry because, to fulfill multi-channel integration, it’s not just a technology strategy, but it’s changes in organizational structure and changes in compensation to get individuals to be more collaborative.”

Liberty Mutual Group has begun to facilitate this type of service, offering customers the opportunity to talk with support personnel both online and over the phone.

“We also provide support for the customer so they can click on a Web chat session if they have questions and want immediate answers, or provide phone numbers if they want a live person on the phone,” says Liberty Mutual’s McKenna. “That’s part of our overall channel integration approach—to make sure whatever path the customer wants to take to interact with us, we make them easily available and accessible.”

Similar to Liberty Mutual, MetLife also offers a form of multi-channel integration customer support.

“We have multiple channels through which we provide customer service,” says Jaime Sguerra, VP, institutional service center systems for New York-based MetLife. “When the customer wants to call the call center, we have that in place, and customers, providers, brokers, etc. may also choose to call an IVR. In addition, we provide self-service tools through our Web site or portals.”

SERVICE 2.0

Along with multi-channel integration, the focus is being shifted to a Web 2.0 platform. With these tools, carriers can service the customer in a number of ways, with wikis, blogs and social networking tools being as just a small part of Web 2.0’s allure. 


“We’re looking at trying to leverage Web 2.0 tools going forward,” Sguerra says. “It’s very early in the process, but we’ve seen collaboration is a big element that is evolving on the Web, and users are becoming more mature through the use of tools such as wikis and Weblogs. Looking at those types of tools may help us offer a better experience, and leverage a better concept in terms of collaboration offered.”

Web 2.0 is something that’s been on Liberty Mutual’s radar for awhile, but the insurer has taken its time to carefully plan an implementation strategy.

“We’re trying to understand the whole concept of Web 2.0 and what it means,” McKenna says. “The behaviors of our society and what is happening in terms of social networking, blogs and peer-to-peer networking capabilities—we’re trying to understand how it affects our industry and where we need to apply our technology.”

Shohreh Abedi, VP, claims IT for Farmers, admits that fully enabling Web 2.0 service architecture is still a few years away, but says the company is deliberately taking its time to ensure it’s of the highest quality.

“We’re looking at going to a Web 2.0 services architecture so we can incorporate plug-and-play, be able to have a set of standards for our vendors and go into Web 2.0 thin client technology, which gives choices to the customers,” Abedi says. “The younger customers might not want to deal with an agent on the phone or through mail; they want to do everything on the Web. We want to give them that choice but, at the same time, we don’t want to take away from our tenured customers who would prefer to pick up the phone to call our [call center] and talk to a live human being.”

In the end, even with Web 2.0 services, multi-channel integration and all the other innovative technologies available, it still comes down to carriers’ customer service vision as the key to the future.

Just adding the “right” technology won’t mean a thing if an effective plan for the future isn’t in place to maximize its value and give the new, technologically adept customer what he wants, industry experts say.

“We’re developing a long-term strategy,” Liberty Mutual’s McKenna says. “We have an initiative underway that to better understand where our business is going over the next several years and defining the technology and infrastructure that’s going to be required to support it. We are definitely focused on this.”

(c) 2008 Insurance Networking News and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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