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Functional Evolution

No longer just facilities that answer consumers' questions, today's contact centers leverage self-service and voice technologies to improve customer loyalty and retention, and even boost profits.

Q: How is the role of the insurance company's contact center evolving? What are its key functions today, and how are they different from in the past?

A: Sharon Ritchey, The Hartford: The contact center has evolved over the past decade from an expense center to a customer loyalty profit center, and the focus on service and efficiency has also shifted from important to critical. Done well, they create a bond with customers who'll then view the company as their provider of choice. Studies show that customers who have no issues with a company have an average 76 percent customer satisfaction rating, but those who had a problem the company solved the first time around have a satisfaction rating of 89 percent. Smart companies identify any barriers to customer loyalty and remove them.

A: Elio Evangelista, Cutting Edge Information: The best call centers are strategically positioned to grow profits for insurance companies. Rather than providing solely customer service, which will always remain an integral part of call center operations, customer issues should be swiftly addressed and call center reps should be trained to recognize where other services might be more appropriate for the customer.

By far, the most effective call center activities to focus on are ongoing training and career path development. Call centers will only improve as their personnel gains experience. Turnover is one of the top issues facing any call center. With proper career paths in place, call center reps gain a sense of direction for their careers, staying on board longer and learning how best to serve customers.

A: Robin Goad, Datamonitor: The main difference is the shift from the contact center being thought of as a cost center to it becoming a revenue or profit center. Insurance companies now realize that just answering calls as quickly as possible isn't the right approach. By improving the quality of the technology and employees in the contact center, an insurer will improve its customer satisfaction levels.

A: David Holmes, Jacada: We see a continuously changing environment in the insurance contact center. In the past, contact centers grew by creating specialized groups to handle different products, either obtained through acquisition or developed in-house. Today, that growth has caused contact centers to reach a point of inefficiency in scheduling and call routing, with multiple processes required to support a variety of products and services.

Now, support for key functions and activities is moving from specialized customer service groups into a "Virtual Call Center" environment, where a universal agent can handle a variety of call types, regardless of complexity, product type or required skill set. To make this move away from specialization more cost effective, we see a trend toward a "minimum touch" training environment. It is generally accepted that the human touch rather than automation is needed for great customer service. Today, we see companies undertaking projects geared toward giving CSRs the right tools and the right environment to focus on serving the customer versus being inundated with processes.

Q: How are current data-privacy regulations affecting insurance companies' contact centers?

A: Ritchey, The Hartford: That would vary depending on how companies use their centers. Although regulatory issues do arise from time to time, and companies need to keep on top of things to make certain they are complying with laws and regulations, we have not seen a real impact. For one thing, our contact centers involve inbound calls and the Do Not Call regulations focus predominately on outbound calling.

A: Evangelista, Cutting Edge Information: Most call centers field incoming calls more often than they place outgoing calls. In such circumstances, the customers permit companies to access their personal financial records. The increased regulatory restrictions will affect those call centers trained to move mid-level priority accounts toward a company's highest status, where the individual customer may control multimillion-dollar accounts. The best way to continue providing strong customer service is to implement an account management system where service reps can build long-term customer relationships.

A: Goad, Datamonitor: New regulations are forcing insurers to be smarter about how they use their customer data. The Do Not Call regulations, in particular, are forcing insurance companies to focus more closely on their existing customer base and use outbound calling and telemarketing to improve customer relationships rather than cold calling to win new customers.

A: Holmes, Jacada: Do Not Call and CAN SPAM legislation dramatically affects contact centers across all industries. Insurance contact centers are faced with even greater compliance issues with HIPAA. The main regulatory impacts Jacada has seen consistently are the requirements and restrictions around documenting and validating identity during calls. Documentation requirements have reached the point of dominating the call and interfering with the CSR's ability to focus on delivering quality service. Copy/paste procedures (redundant data entry) employed to facilitate documentation compliance have increased average call handling time.

Q: What emerging technologies could improve the performance of insurance companies' contact centers?

A: Ritchey, The Hartford: Contact center technology is evolving at a fast pace, and the main challenge is to choose the right technology to move an organization toward its ultimate vision. Customer Experience Management System (CEMS) technology is a wonderful tool to monitor, poll and improve customer satisfaction. Speech recognition software quickly and efficiently routes a call to the appropriate person. E-learning is a boon to train knowledgeable customer representatives. One challenge is to choose tools that bring up customer detail to personalize inbound calls. Another is to move to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

A: Evangelista, Cutting Edge Information: The greatest impact technology will have is that it will more easily solve customer issues on the first call. Insurance customers quickly grow concerned the longer their issues go unsolved. The sooner a call center can identify a customer problem and fix it, the more comfortable the customer will feel dealing with the insurance company in the future. Technologies such as voice-response systems and computerized call routing systems are a tremendous step in the right direction.

Q: Will the trend of outsourcing insurance company contact centers continue? What are the pros and cons of an outsourced contact center?

A: Evangelista, Cutting Edge Information: The trend should continue for basic call center operations. Until the costs and turnover rates for U.S.-based employees decrease, companies will turn to other countries where customer service jobs are more highly regarded to source their call center operations. For high-priority accounts, however, insurance companies will continue operating primarily from their headquarters.

A: Goad, Datamonitor: The cost savings of moving offshore are significant, but not as great as many make out. Once all of the costs have been taken into account, the actual savings from moving to India or Mexico are about 50 percent. With insurers still under pressure to reduce costs, the benefits of moving offshore will seem irresistible to many. However, moving offshore is not the only way to reduce costs. Insurance companies will increasingly offer self-service channels - primarily the Web and speech-recognition systems - in combination with both onshore and offshore agents as a way of controlling costs.

The Experts: Contact Centers

Sharon Ritchey
Senior Vice President, Property-Casualty Service Operations, The Hartford, (Hartford)

Elio Evangelista
Senior Analyst, Cutting Edge Information, (Durham, N.C.)

Robin Goad
Senior Analyst, Contact Centers, Datamonitor, (London)

David Holmes
Executive Vice President, Jacada, (Atlanta)

Peggy Bresnick Kendler has been a writer for 30 years. She has worked as an editor, publicist and school district technology coordinator. During the past decade, Bresnick Kendler has worked for UBM TechWeb on special financialservices technology-centered ... View Full Bio

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