If you think your contact center (what used to be your call center before e-mail and Web chat were added to the customer service mix) doesn't do much for sales, you might have a look at a new study from Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories Inc. The Daly City, Calif., maker of contact center software recently surveyed 500 consumers in the United States, and found that almost half placed more importance on customer service than product quality, price or the vendor's reputation when it came to loyalty. A full 40% said they'd stopped doing business with a company solely because of a bad contact center experience.Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting, a West Orange, N.J., company that specializes in helping clients build contact centers, says the centers should be playing a more significant role than just keeping customers happy and loyal-especially for insurance carriers.

"Insurance companies have an opportunity a lot of other organizations only touch on," she says. "The opportunities to up-sell and cross-sell are tremendous in the insurance industry." So far, though, "it's an opportunity waiting to happen."

One reason insurance industry contact centers lag behind some other industries when it comes to exploiting that opportunity, says Fluss, is that many carriers lately are the products of mergers and acquisitions, and they're still busy consolidating all the systems and processes they've inherited. "They've had to integrate many different operating environments, businesses, systems and processes, and they're still working in that direction," she says.

Although he might not agree that his company's contact center lags behind anyone's, Bill Maurer, assistant vice president and head of a 110-employee center at AEGON USA's Annuity Products and Services (APS) Customer Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is certainly wrestling with the challenges mergers and acquisitions have brought.

"Right now, my staff is being trained on four different systems," he says.

AEGON's annuities business uses the Vantage-One policy administration system from El Segundo, Calif.-based Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC). When it acquired Providian Life and Health in the 1990s, it also acquired Providian's system. And, when AEGON acquired Transamerica in 2000, it got not only Transamerica's system, but another system that went back to a third carrier Transamerica bought some years earlier.

Eventually, says Maurer, all the systems will be consolidated, but meanwhile, he's cross-training some of his more experienced customer service reps on the other systems in order to handle needs of pre-acquisition annuity holders.

COSTS OF THE CONTACT CENTER

Although customer service reps at AEGON don't do any selling, there is a small group of 13 licensed sales agents under Maurer's purview. Their job is to try to retain annuity customers brought in by agents who no longer sell AEGON's lines.

But although the group is profitable, it doesn't make enough to pay for the contact center, and although it reports to Maurer, organizationally it's not even in the same group.

"Primarily, we are a post-sale, reactive service center," Maurer says. "We are not at this point turning those customers around to sell them additional products. We do not get in the way of our banks and wire house agents [AEGON's sales channel for annuities] to do that."

At Jackson National Life Insurance, a Lansing, Mich., subsidiary of Prudential PLC in the U.K. that sells annuities and life policies, the contact center plays a similar support role. Where AEGON's service reps answer calls from both its sales channel and its end customers, Jackson's contact center concentrates on its agents and brokers.

"Our focus is to be efficient, to make it easier for the sales reps to spend more time selling," says Laura Prieskorn, Jackson National's vice president-policy owner services.

MEASURING SUCCESS

Without sales and profits to consider, both AEGON and Jackson work with customer satisfaction and contact center performance metrics. Jackson recently won "world class service provider" recognition from the Service Quality Management (SQM) Group, a designation that requires at least an 80% "very satisfied" rating from contact center users. Jackson scored 84%.

"Several of the metrics that are presented in the SQM results are aligned with goals we have in the service center," Prieskorn says. "We recognize the producers as our customers and we recognize that their time is more valuably spent with their end customers versus with us. We want to make sure that when they're calling, we're on the phone with them as little as possible; we want to make sure that our call times are short, but efficient."

Customer service goals tend to collide with budget restraints in contact centers, and AEGON uses a mix of technology and training to keep customers happy and contain costs.

Back in 2005, Maurer recalls, AEGON's service level goal-75% of calls answered within 30 seconds-was getting costly. "I was given the challenge of adjusting our service level to optimum rates while decreasing head count through attrition," he says.

One response to that challenge was a virtual queuing system from Virtual Hold Technology in Akron, Ohio. Virtual Hold uses algorithms to estimate wait times to speak with call center agents. When the wait time exceeds a threshold set by the user, Virtual Hold offers callers the option of a callback, and holds their place in the calling queue. Instead of having to stay on the line for, say, five minutes in order to speak to a rep, the system automatically calls the customer back when the next available rep can speak to him.

Customer reaction to Virtual Hold has been "incredibly positive," Maurer comments. Use of the system depends on how often calls queue and how long those queues last, but Maurer estimates that customers opt for a callback on seven to 12% of all calls to the contact center, and that 98 to 99% of those have been called back successfully.

"In the six months after we put the system in, our staff declined by 3%, our calls handled increased by 14%, but our average speed to answer remained steady," he says.

AEGON also uses a product called Advocate from Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Avaya, its switch maker, to help keep head count under control. In addition to its full-time reps, AEGON has a pool of part-timers it uses to carry it through peak calling periods.

In most contact centers, Maurer explains, the reserves are called in when supervisors notice that queues are starting to lengthen. Advocate anticipates queues and begins calling reserves when the queue reaches a certain threshold.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

AEGON and Jackson handle telephone and e-mail inquiries in their contact centers, though neither uses Web chat. In AEGON's case, Maurer says, many people suggested it be added, "but I have not up until this point because most of our customers are older, fixed annuities customers, and I really don't feel the usage would be there."

One of Fluss's criticisms of insurance industry call centers is that they lack a complete, integrated view of customers' insurance and investment portfolios from the call center's own carrier. A multi-line P&C carrier, for example, is likely to be compartmentalized, with separate contact center organizations and separate supporting systems for each line. Even if a carrier wanted to encourage cross-selling by its contact center, it would typically have to remove the organizational and systems barriers between the different lines to do so.

FUTURE PLANS

Jackson's contact center is structured with separate service reps for variable annuity, fixed annuity and life products. But as the company grows, Prieskorn is rethinking training procedures, partly with a view to handling increased volume and partly to keep morale high.

"Our structure right now is product silos, but one of the ways we can increase job satisfaction internally is to increase our associates' knowledge base," she says. "We're doing that by training across different product lines, and that's allowing us to keep morale up as well as to stay in front of the sales growth."

AEGON has a home-brewed enterprise record system that lets reps see if a caller has multiple policies with different divisions of the firm, but according to Maurer, it's used to bump callers to the right person if they have questions about other AEGON products. It, too, is cross-training its contact center reps. On the technology front, a new interactive voice response (IVR) system from Avaya, set for implementation in the fall, will connect with AEGON's workflow and imaging systems and give reps access to the status of pending transactions.

Bob Mueller is a business writer based in Grand Beach, Mich.

Four Contact Center Technologies Worth Watching

SPEECH ANALYTICS

Speech analytics is analogous to data mining. In fact, it's sometimes called audio mining, and according to Donna Fluss, DMG Consulting, West Orange, N.J., it's one of the hottest emerging technologies in contact centers. Speech analytics technology takes unstructured conversations and structures them to create metafiles that can be further analyzed to uncover customer needs and sales opportunities.

Though still in its infancy, the speech analytics market will double from this year to next, Fluss reckons, and within five to eight years, it will be a standard contact center technology. In a report on the market, DMG quotes payback times of three to 12 months, and cites anecdotal evidence of large, quantifiable annual benefits.

VIRTUAL QUEUING

Though by now a fairly mature technology, virtual queuing is gaining users in the insurance industry. The technology uses algorithms to estimate waiting times to speak with a contact center rep and, if the waiting time exceeds a threshold set by the company, it offers to call customers back. Virtual queuing keeps the customer's place in the calling queue, but lets him hang up instead of staying on hold.

Ross Murdock, senior account executive for Virtual Hold Technology in Akron, Ohio, says virtual queuing increases customer satisfaction and saves contact centers money. Because the caller isn't tying up the toll-free line while holding, there are savings in phone company charges-not much per call, but it adds up. Virtual queuing also tends to shorten conversations between customers and reps. When customers are forced to hold, Murdock says, they get frustrated and vent their frustration on the contact center rep. That adds 20 to 30 seconds to the handle time, the time the customer spends talking to the rep. The cumulative drop in handle time enables reps to handle more calls and that can mean higher service levels without increasing contact center staff.

VIRTUAL OUTSOURCING

Outsourcing contact center operations is nothing new, and redirecting customer service calls to boiler rooms in the U.S. or abroad is an everyday occurrence. Denver-based Alpine Access has a new wrinkle on outsourcing: It hires reps who work at home, rather than at a central office location, to handle customer service calls.

Apart from the usual benefits of outsourcing, the advantage of this arrangement, according to Alpine Access, are that the company can hire more mature reps whose availability isn't affected by weather or traffic. One financial services customer reported that CSR satisfaction rose from 86 to 92%, and that problem resolution rose from 90 to 94% in its U.S. operations after it hired Alpine.

CONTACT CENTER PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT (CCPM)

These systems help measure and improve contact center performance. "At the high level, they align the goals of the contact center with the goals of the enterprise," says DMG's Fluss. "At a more tactical level, they allow you to create scorecards and dashboards to improve the performance of your departments, your team and that of your agents."

Use of CCPM is still low-market penetration rate is just 1.03% in North America. That's partly due to an incomplete understanding among corporate prospects of the technology's purpose, value proposition and benefits, DMG says. But among organizations that have adopted CCPM, the reception has been enthusiastic. DMG notes that use of the technology grew at a compound annual rate of 131% from December 2004 to early 2007, and that increased marketing efforts among CCPM vendors should overcome whatever early market confusion still exists.

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