Our Wired World

Channeling Clients Into Opportunity

Transforming the contact center to meet changing customer expectations

by Kevin Paulson and Tina Hammeke

Mr. Paulson is Chief Operating Officer and Ms. Hammeke is a business management executive for SE2, a leading third-party administration company for the North American Life and Annuity insurance industry. Visit www.se2.com.

A well-functioning and efficient contact center can go a long way in boosting customer experience, loyalty and satisfaction, all leading to a competitive edge. For several years, life insurance organizations have recognized the need to optimize their customer experience to meet increasing customer demands if they want to stay competitive. Most have made great strides toward improving service across all touch points and channels, concentrating on creating seamless and frictionless interactions online, at an agent’s office and over the phone.

Digital capabilities are enabling these new capabilities. Potential and existing policyholders have an increasing number of channels with which to contact their insurers and they want a consistent and tailored experience regardless of their preferred combination of contact channels. At this point, most insurers are at some stage of cross-channel integration to meet expectations for multi-channel interaction, which not only facilitate communications but provide the insurer and its reps with a 360-degree customer view and enables a personalized experience.

For today’s insurance organizations, the contact center is more of an opportunity center with the potential to drive meaningful customer experience improvements and growth. Today’s insurance contact centers are emerging as a strategic tool for insurers to demonstrate responsiveness to customer queries, deliver a satisfying customer experience, and increase the “stickiness” of relationships. While they are communicating with insureds over the phone or online, they ask strategic questions on life changes to elicit information that can get the insured thinking, encouraging insureds to examine and re-evaluate their policy and to reach out to their agent to discuss purchasing additional coverage.

Emerging Technologies Can Optimize Contact Center Effectiveness

It sounds counterintuitive, but life insurance contact centers are only increasing in importance as digital channels proliferate and more current and potential customers are choosing to apply for or perform self-service for their life insurance policies online. While always important, the contact center has become an even more critical customer touchpoint for life insurers. In fact, live agents have become more important than ever.

Long-sighted carriers are working to optimize their contact centers, while many short-sighted insurers aren’t yet investing in technologies to increase capabilities. The initial total cost of ownership (TCO) for technology to improve contact center operation and effectiveness is typically high and carriers are unlikely to gain any real benefits right away. However, focusing on the life insurance contact center is absolutely necessary in today’s market environment. Unfortunately, insurance organizations are lagging behind other industries in contact center optimization projects.

The role of the insurance contact center is changing. Only a few years ago, policyholders would reach out by phone to get human assistance in everything from changing their address or beneficiary and confirming a premium payment to reporting first notice of loss (FNOL) and tracking down claims payments. Today, most digitally savvy customers can handle their banking and make retail purchases online, only calling the contact center when they have an issue they can’t handle on their own.

However, insurance organizations are so highly regulated, and these regulations vary from state to state, so many carriers don’t offer extensive online self-service options for policyholders. Still, customers are able do the more routine tasks online like change a beneficiary or address or updating banking information for monthly premium payments. Now, policyholders typically only call the contact center when they have a more complex problem so reps now handle a much higher proportion of difficult calls. And because customer experience has become such a critical competitive differentiator for insurance organizations, the reps must provide great service, expertly responding to queries and resolving policyholder issues.

Customer expectations are high

Carriers are faced with several make-or-break moments during live customer interactions. They have the opportunity to delight customers with stellar service. They also run the risk of disappointing policyholders by providing an experience that’s less than optimal.

Policyholders expect a lot from their contact centers. Life insurance policyholder expectations are shaped by the experiences they have with online retailers, many that are known for providing seamless customer service across channels. According to Microsoft’s 2017 State of Global Customer Service Report, 72 percent of customers expect call center reps to already know who they are, know their purchase history and see how previous contacts have played out. And 75 percent of callers have already used a search engine to find answers to service-related questions before contacting a live agent.

The initial total cost of ownership (TCO) for technology to improve contact center operation and effectiveness is typically high and carriers are unlikely to gain any real benefits right away. However, focusing on the life insurance contact center is absolutely necessary in today’s market environment...

And customers will take their business elsewhere if they don’t get great service. According to Microsoft, 56 percent of global respondents said they’ve stopped doing business with a brand due to a poor customer service experience. There are plenty of reasons call center contacts don’t go well. Reps can take too long to answer policyholder questions, frustrating the caller. If a rep can’t provide a satisfactory response, he or she might have to hand off the call to another agent. Then the policyholder likely would have to repeat the questions, causing further frustration – and frustration leads to churn.

On the other hand, a great contact center experience can go a long way toward improving policyholder satisfaction, increasing customer retention and improving cross sell and upsell success. In fact, according to Microsoft’s study, 96 percent of respondents say that customer service plays a role in their selection of and loyalty to a brand. The study also reveals that 30 percent of customers globally say the most important aspect of a good customer service experience is dealing with an agent who’s both knowledgeable and friendly.

Novarica says that insurers can overcome some challenges through transformation, including process redesign and systems integration. “Other challenges should be resolved by relying on new technologies reaching a level of maturity that supports deployment in production environments,” Novarica points out.

Carriers can address many call center issues with a variety of sophisticated, emerging technologies, which they can use to bridge some of the gaps in functionality while giving them new capabilities to reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction. Some of these technologies include:

  • Robotic process automation (RPA), which uses software to simulate human actions in existing systems,
  • Cognitive computing, encompassing a range of different analytic strategies used to learn about specific business functions,
  • Predictive analytics, which can be used for data mining,
  • Natural language processing, a cognitive technology that gives users a way to interact with the system using verbal or written language, used in conjunction with chatbots, programs that simulate conversations with users.

Emerging technologies

Artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies like interactive voice response (IVR), Web chat, email management, chatbot virtual customer assistants (VCAs) and messaging. Insurers are currently using these technologies in many areas of customer service and support.

AI can certainly help enable self-service options for customers in general, but its benefits are more far-reaching for insurance organizations. Even as recently as a few years ago, AI solutions were considered a means to reducing full-time employee (FTE) headcount. However, emerging AI technologies in the form of sophisticated chatbots can boost call center efficiencies, enable seamless and productive contact center experiences and facilitate customer self-service. These applications can handle the more mundane and routine policyholder questions at any hour of the day or night, extending service hours and sending only the more complex questions to reps when human interaction is required. AI and other technologies can also provide reps with the tools they need to perform their jobs more easily, boosting employee satisfaction and productivity, and leading to a more pleasant customer experience.

Insurers might be tempted to apply AI quickly to get rapid benefits. However, says Gartner, it’s not actually AI itself that organizations need. Instead, they need to approach AI as part of a solution to a business problem. Insurers have to plan their AI journey carefully. Right now, 53 percent of organizations across industries have only a limited understanding of AI technologies, strategies and markets, according to Gartner data. As a first step, insurers need to carefully identify the ways AI investments can enhance the customer experience, benefit the business and how the technology fits into the company’s overall technology framework.

For maximum impact and optimal results, contact center transformation must include more than just the newest technologies. As they transform their new contact centers, life insurers must consider input from their business organizations, policyholders and partners, in addition to their IT departments. And perhaps most importantly, the contact center design must fit with insurers’ overall customer experience strategies. ◊