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Is Customer Access Worth the Trip?

Bridging the gap between insurers and their customers doesn't always require bleeding-edge technology. More often than not, today's innovative and successful contact centers depend on tried-and-true solutions.

Despite all the hype about the benefits the Internet will provide insurers—cost savings, a new delivery channel—the bulk of efficient direct-to-customer sales and service actually is being done through call centers.

Whether the customer is an agent or policyholder, most seem to favor the telephone as their primary form of communication with their carrier—and this preference remains the same across most lines of insurance. In fact, even companies with successful Web sites are finding that the call center is a vital complement to customer service.

For example, at e-business leader Progressive Insurance ($10 billion in assets, Mayfield Village, OH), the personal auto carrier has marketed to consumers directly since the mid-1980s, first by phone, and then by Web and phone. The company's goal, according to Frank Holowach, IT executive in charge of contact center technology, "is to be the number-one choice for consumers when it comes to insurance. In order to do that we have to do business in the way the customer wants to do business," either through an agent, the call center or the Internet, he adds.

"We've found that ever since we've been promoting the Internet, customers started on the Net and then would call the call center," Holowach adds. This common log-off-and-call practice led Progressive to develop technology for its call center representatives (CSRs) that would allow them to locate the customer's Web interaction by phone number or policy number—for instance, a partially completed application—when they call the contact center.

Progressive's experience with its customer contacts is not unique, notes Raymond Hicks, senior consultant, Kowal Associates (Boston), a CRM consultancy. "People will use the Web to find information and to validate things," he says. "But when it comes to actually doing something," or completing a transaction, "the customer tends to pick up the phone. A contact center is a much more personal way to do business and that is why people prefer to use the phone."

Seeking the Personal Touch

However, the personal connection a customer receives when interacting with a contact center can be a double-edged sword for insurers. The direct contact with the policyholder can increase efficiency and give carriers a better handle on what is concerning customers, but it also places carriers in an unfamiliar position where customers will measure customer service with other contact center experiences—including those with retailers and other financial services organizations.

"The insurance industry is really not noted for its customer service," says Richard Sousa, executive vice president, service, Zurich Life (Schaumburg, IL, $403 billion in assets). "When it comes to service, we compete with other marketers. People can get approved for a mortgage in 48 hours, but it takes two months to get a life policy? Not to mention, our customers are comparing us to the experiences they have with other companies, so we are also up against the Eddie Bauers of the world." (Editor's Note: See related article—Names In The News.)

Despite the challenge, surprisingly it doesn't take bleeding-edge technology to match or even surpass the call-center expectations of customers. "The channels and the technology are not new," says Roy Schuster, vice president, CRM strategy at Akibia Consulting, a Westborough, MA-based CRM consulting services provider. "Almost everything that is needed to run an integrated contact center is proven technology."

For instance, Progressive successfully implemented live Web chat—one of the newer Web-based technologies. But customers didn't use it all that much. "We have tried things like Web chat," Holowach says. "We even developed a feature named 'Call Me Now' that would launch an outbound call from our call center" when the customer clicked on the option on the Web. But, "I'd have to admit, that because we are such a technology innovator, sometimes we do get ahead of ourselves."

The reality of running an effective contact center comes down to business processes, not cutting-edge tech. "I hesitate to say getting a contact center up-and-running iseasy, but the hard part is not the technology," says Akibia's Schuster. "The really hard part is getting people on the same page."

Greg MacSweeney is editorial director of InformationWeek Financial Services, whose brands include Wall Street & Technology, Bank Systems & Technology, Advanced Trading, and Insurance & Technology. View Full Bio

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