With a variety of workflow functions, computer-telephony integration helps carriers improve customer service and productivity.By Steve Dwyer, Associate Editor

Customers who typically use call centers understand that when it comes to settling an inquiry quickly and efficiently, something is often lost in the translation-if not the transmission.

The perils of call center operations can include a lack of readily available customer data or inefficiency embedded within the system itself, such as routing inbound calls to an agent who's experiencing high volume while another agent sits idle at a work station.

Farmer's Insurance Group, a multiline carrier based in Los Angeles, is trying to avoid call-center inefficiency at all costs, but realizes that even the most meticulous carrier can fall prey to missteps. That's why Farmer's earlier this year explored ways to take its customer service infrastructure to a higher level of sophistication, while also optimizing the performance of its call center agents.

In November, after months of internal testing, Farmer's plans to roll out the first phase of computer-telephony integration technology. CTI functions as middleware that enables a company to link its private telephone exchange system at the call center with its back-end systems that house customer data.

For example, when a customer calls Farmer's to investigate a claim, CTI technology compiles the personal data, and under a "smart routing" process, transmits the incoming message to the most appropriate customer service agent, based on that customer's needs.

Smart routing takes into consideration an agent's availability and expertise in handling the nature of the call.

Computer-telephony integration software transmits an audio feed to an agent's headset, while simultaneously importing all relevant customer summary and account data to the agent's PC terminal. The audio feed and the customer data arrive at the agent's workstation at the same time.

The main difference between computer-telephony integration software and traditional call-center call-routing technologies is CTI can be linked to the Internet. So in addition to placing a call, a consumer can use the Internet to interact with a customer service agent via Web chat or e-mail.

When customers log onto Farmer's Web site, www.farmersinsurance.com, for instance, they can click on a messaging area to send e-mail to the call center indicating when they want to be contacted.

A module embedded within the CTI middleware enables connectivity to a Web server so that an e-mail message intended for a customer service agent is linked back to the company's legacy system, where customer data is stored before delivering the message to the appropriate agent. The entire process can be done in the time it takes to route a phone call to a call service agent.

Farmer's computer-telephony integration system is just one of several options that insurance carriers are exploring to better manage customer relationships throughout the entire customer life cycle, and across multiple customer contact points, including the Web, call center, field organization and other distribution channels.

CTI enhances CRM

Industry observers say that it's imperative for insurance companies to implement CTI technology.

"The need for CTI has accelerated because it's going to be an integral part of a company's customer relationship management program," says Shohreh Abedi, senior manager of information technology for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, based in El Segundo, Calif. "CRM is driving the adoption of CTI."

But as many insurance company IT executives will adamantly admit, CTI is plagued with operational obstacles, starting with the vast integration that's required within a company's IT infrastructure.

"For years, voice and data technology have been mutually exclusive," Abedi says. "To combine these two disparate technologies requires a great deal of integration of individual modules, such as e-mail, routing, inbound/outbound call blending, voice mail and the Internet. It's not easy to do, so that's why CTI is not yet prevalent in the insurance industry."

Mental Telephony

When Farmer's rolls out its CTI program next month, it will include two call centers-in Oklahoma City, Okla., and Kansas City, Kan.- encompassing 1,000 seats.

The company would not break out the expense associated with the rollout, but most carriers that implement a comprehensive computer-telephony integration program, which would entail such modules as outbound/inbound blending, skill routing, voice mail, e-mail and the Internet, can expect to pay about $4,000 per seat in a call center, Abedi states.

However, based on those projections, the Farmer's CTI initiative could run in the neighborhood of $4 million.

To Farmer's IT executives, the investment is worth it.

"We regard ourselves as a customer-centric company," says Vince Donofrio, director of support services for Farmer's. "We understand the importance of connecting a customer to a `live body' as quick as possible. From a customer service agent perspective, computer-telephony integration maximizes an agent's skill level and also makes optimal use of their time, and promotes multitasking.

"To a consumer trying to settle a claim, CTI enables us and the customer to begin the restoration process that much quicker."

Farmer's plans to roll out the program conservatively before introducing additional CTI modules. For instance, a customer won't initially be able to participate in a Web chat with a Farmer's call center agent, but will be able to visit the Farmer's Web site and then send an e-mail to a customer service agent, indicating that they want to be contacted by an agent (see "Answering The Call," page 52).

Most customers are expected to contact an independent agent, who can relay customer requests back to the call center. Agents are hooked up remotely to Farmer's mainframe customer data base, which was built by e-business software application provider Siebel Systems Inc., San Mateo, Calif.

Seamless routing

Computer-telephony integration technology enables an independent agent to seamlessly route the customer message and specific personal data back through the call center and to a waiting PC of a customer service agent.

While communicating to a call center by phone may still carry a stigma of inconvenience and inefficiency, Farmer's vows that the efficiencies of CTI will greatly enhance phone inquiries throughout the cycle.

For example, when a customer contacts a Farmer's call center, an integrated voice response system features only three menu options: new claims, pending claims and non-claims, says Donofrio. Many integrated voice response systems give a customer so many options they eventually get frustrated and hang up.

CTI then recognizes and prioritizes these three menu options, and if it's a new claim inquiry that's coming through, that inquiry is "routed to the head of the line," says Donofrio. It's not that pending claims are neglected, but there's more of an urgency to begin processing a new claim, he adds.

Expert routing

After a customer has selected whether they wish to communicate with an agent in either English or Spanish, the call is routed to a skill group.

"Skills-based routing allows the call to be routed to the agent who can best handle it," notes Donofrio. "The middleware tells the PBX [private phone exchange] to send the call to this agent."

At the same time, CTI links with Farmer's legacy data base to extract customer data that an agent will need during the phone conversation. "A `screen pop' on the PC occurs where the data is displayed at the very same time the agent's phone rings," Donofrio explains.

Computer-telephony integration has several other modules that can enhance productivity and better serve customers. Within the Farmer's CTI program, a screen transfer enables data to be imported to a second or third agent's PC at the call center if the initial agent can't fully accommodate the customer.

Screen transfer within CTI prevents a customer from having to repeat the same information to the agent who inherits the call. "This enables the receiving agent to seamlessly pick up the inquiry where the first agent left off," Donofrio says.

Another element of CTI that is revolutionizing call center operations is a process referred to as "blending" technology. For years, Farmer's call center agents-within a narrowly focused philosophy based on skill group silos-were empowered to either accept inbound calls to customers or place outbound calls.

With the adoption of CTI, a call center agent will handle both at any given time. CTI helps determine which time is right for which agents to take or place what calls and, eventually, which Web-based requests to answer.

"Blending will enable our CSAs to vary their tasks so they can now accept both inbound and outbound calls. It also minimizes agent idle time and automatically moves agents between inbound and outbound campaigns, which reduces monotony," says D'Onofrio.

CTI lite

Those carriers that want to implement best-practices for customer relationship management may be compelled to holistically adopt computer-telephony integration.

On the other hand, those who don't want to cope with the significant level of integration may re-evaluate their strategies, Abedi predicts.

Short of full CTI adoption, carriers may implement technologies that use perhaps one computer-telephony integraton module, believing they can keep their expenses down while still serving their customers. They can do this in conjunction with a non-CTI software technology known as workforce management, which is being explored by some carriers for its ability to spur call-center efficiency.

CUNA Mutual Insurance Co., which specializes in selling both individual and group life insurance coverage, is among them.

"Our company has a CTI infrastructure in place, but we have not written many applications for its use," says David VandeVoort, senior manager for voice communication systems at Madison, Wis.-based CUNA Mutual.

"Over the last few years, CTI has been more talk and hype than substance in the insurance industry," VandeVoort emphasizes. "But CTI may start to become viewed as a business imperative for companies that understand the value of an e-mail interface and a Web chat as part of their overall customer service strategy."

Via the workforce process, CUNA Mutual has streamlined its call center operations, while at the same time averting the high costs associated with full CTI implementation, VandeVoort declares.

With CTI playing a minor role in the process, CUNA Mutual, through workforce, is able to measure and improve call abandonment rates, speed-of-call answering, duration of calls and even measure how helpful agents are in assisting customers.

Calls can be routed to appropriate agents to expedite inquiries.

The process has also assisted CUNA Mutual in personnel scheduling. "Over a week or a month, workforce can produce a report revealing when the busiest call volumes occur-what time of day, which days of the week-so that a call center manager can take that data and do a staffing adjustment," VandeVoort notes. "This helps reduce call abandonment rates."

Cautious approach

Overall, insurance companiess are expected to proceed cautiously as they explore computer-telephony integration due to the obstacles that accompany building the system's architecture-and also because carriers have identified other less-costly options that may suit their needs as they cultivate call center management.

As Abedi notes: "CTI can end up being the best thing that ever happens to a carrier's call center or its worst nightmare. It all hinges on the vision of the company combined with the approach they take integrating the technology."

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