In the highly competitive European insurance marketplace, Paris-based Groupama Insurance Co. Ltd. has built a reputation on the personal touch and close relationships it develops and maintains with customers. However, the carrier, which has been in business for more than a century, needed more efficient ways to work with its growing roster of customers. For decades, Groupama relied on customer support and contacts provided through its network of agencies. As business grew, the carrier sought to better capture and provide information in a more consistent and automated fashion, while still retaining the important relationships that had been built between agents and customers.Through business growth and mergers, Groupama became a leading mutual insurance company in France, with eight million customers and annual revenue of close to 13 billion Euros. The company now has more than 26,000 employees across France alone, as well as an additional 4,000 across nine other countries.

Groupama provides personal health insurance to local authorities in France, and also provides auto and group life insurance.

Groupama recognized that significant changes-in both workflow and technology-were required to improve the responsiveness of its contact centers. "Growth in the business created a need for more specialized call centers, and this entails intelligent call center technology," says Patrick Hinschberger, manager of system and network infrastructure for Groupama Rhone-Alpes Alvergne.

For example, two of the company's 11 regional divisions-Groupama Loire Bretagne and Groupama Rhone-Alpes Alvergne-dealt with customers via networks of field agencies. Loire Bretagne has 230 such agencies, while Rhone-Alpes Alvergne has a network of 400. These agencies were normally the first point of contact for customers, with whom they had developed highly personalized business relationships. However, these field agencies were becoming overwhelmed as the volume of Groupama's business increased. Agents found it difficult to maintain required standards of service quality.

Direct calls to Groupama's regional centers were also rising in volume. Calls to the Loire Bretagne unit, for example, were averaging more than 35,000 a month. All calls had some level of urgency; some were general inquiries from customers requesting information about policies or claims, while others were asking questions related to damage claims caused by storms or automobile accidents. With more and more customers to attend to, the organization was increasingly incurring delays in answering queries, as well as subjecting callers to longer and longer waiting times on the phone.

Of particular concern to Groupama's managers was the ability to handle, as quickly as possible, sudden spikes in call volumes that follow disasters or other incidents.

"We had no dedicated disaster platform in place, and we clearly had a significant load-balancing issue and couldn't react quickly enough in times of crisis," says Cédric Strugeon, technical operations manager at Groupama Loire Bretagne.

The company's goal was to migrate incoming calls to its corporate contact centers, and in the process, reduce waiting times and manage requests as quickly as possible though all major communication channels. At this point, about 95% of customer contact to Groupama came via phone, while 5% came via e-mail, Hinschberger says.

ENTERPRISE ROUTING

To respond to this challenge, Groupama put a networked solution in place to automate many of its call center processes, as well as be able to apportion call center staff as situations dictate.

"The answer was to introduce an automated customer response capability and dedicated disaster platform that would be brought into action when the agencies overloaded, without having to pay the additional communications costs of re-routing calls to extra customer service cells," Strugeon says. "This made it essential for us to have a networking solution."

Groupama consolidated its customer contact centers into an integrated network based on IP technology. In an effort to replace the aging private branch exchange (PBX) systems scattered across the company in 2005, Groupama rolled out Genesys SIP, an IP telephony solution from Daly City, Calif.-based contact center software provider Genesys Telecommunications Labor-atories Inc.

Groupama's contact centers can facilitate enterprise routing based on SIP, or session initiation protocol, an open protocol for Internet telephony first developed under the aegis of the Internet Engineering Task Force. Instead of being routed through a traditional PBX-as business calls have been for decades-calls are digitized and routed via Web interfaces to representatives' workstations. A virtual IP contact center was established in Lyon, France, to help improve customer relations across Groupama's multiple sites. The system runs on Microsoft Windows platforms, and is supported by both Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle databases. All contact information is managed within Siebel 7 CRM application.

At the same time, by embracing SIP open IP standards, Groupama gained business benefits by enabling its contact center to use the Internet and "softphones," which, when used with headsets, are applications that turn PCs into phones.

DOUBLE THE VOLUME

Hinschberger estimates that his company's newly outfitted call centers can handle up to 500,000 more calls a year, or almost double the company's current call volume. Training requirements to transition call center representatives has been minimal, he adds. "It only took about a half day and some existing employee assistance in the business unit during the first week to ensure we got up and running smoothly." He notes that the move to the new IP-based system will be incremental, and the older system will be maintained as a back up "in case of a network breakdown." He adds that "we will grow the IP system at our own pace, and the new open IP system is connected with our former system," he says.

Genesys' own survey of 400 contact center technology managers finds that IP-based technology is gaining a foothold, with 27% of enterprises in the midst of an IP-based contact center implementation, and 57% planning or investigating the technology.

The new technology enables Groupama to divide its call centers into functional areas that can handle either customer service or after-sales service and claims issues. If needs were to suddenly shift, and the carrier needed more staff to handle disaster-related calls, the system could instantly be reconfigured, with more agents' screens supporting current customer information. The carrier has more flexibility or agility to expand or reorganize its call center operations, as circumstances require. "For example when there is a storm, we can transition quickly to have after-sales specialize in taking calls specific to 'house' damages," says Hinschberger.

Groupama's Lore Bretagne disaster reception platforms and customer service centers include four contact centers, two of which are dedicated to disaster reception, and two dedicated to customer service. At Rhone-Alpes Alvergne, disaster calls are routed to two call centers that normally handle after-sales service for auto insurance. Rhone-Alps Alvergne currently has a total of 450 agents now handling 650,000 calls a year, Hinschberger says. "We use Genesys in two areas of our company-at our after-sales services contact center with 300 seats, and at our sales and customer relationship contact center with 150 seats."

The new system allows Groupama customers to reach the company by using a shared cost number, the so-called 'Numéro Indigo' phone number. Customers are invited to select one of only two options (disaster assistance or other) via an interactive voice service. The call is then directed to the appropriate response platform, with a further refinement to match the caller to the service that has a responsibility for the geographical area from which the call originates. If the disaster assistance option is chosen, the call is directed to the agents operating within the disaster platform.

Those selecting the second option are routed toward a customer-service operation. All agents are trained to handle either type of request to enable shifting between the two types of platforms as needed.

In the case of a disaster, a repeat call from a previously identified number is routed back to the agent who dealt with the original call. This is made possible by the software's historical reporting, statistical analysis and routing features. This provides a greater sense of continuity of service at a time of crisis.

Groupama piloted its open IP telephony platform for three years, from 2002 to 2005, Hinschberger says. As a result of the new technology, "we've seen our efficiency go from 60% to 95%" at pilot locations, says Hinschberger. He adds that his division's "call abandon rate declined from 20% to 4% within a three-year period." Agent productivity also increased by about 10%, he also observes.

DROP IN COSTS

In addition, Hinschberger points out, since the solution is network based, it does not carry all the typical hardware costs and licensing fees associated with traditional PBX systems. Along with the increased productivity, lowered costs and responsiveness within the call center operation, Groupama is also seeing notable business benefits as well, Hinschberger adds. "By using these solutions, we are able to know exactly what happens in the call center, which allows us to act fast to meet customer needs and resolve their queries. As a result, we are able to make better and faster decisions." Quality of service is an important benefit, and Groupama executives can now view such data that is published via a secure Web site, says Hinschberger. This data includes statistics on the average amount of time required for sales, as well as disaster claims processing.

Groupama plans to expand its IP-based telephony system over the coming years to enable new forms of media and interaction, including videophones in sales agencies and kiosks, as well as click and phone directly off of a Web page. The advantage of the IP-based system is that it can be deployed at any employee location as required. Ultimately, at some point in the future, Hinschberger predicts, "contact centers will probably disappear. All Groupama employees will focus on the customer relationships and use Genesys."

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