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03:25 PM
Phil Britt
Phil Britt
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Hearing the Call

Natural-language solution helps Humana Military Healthcare Services improve call center capacity while providing service levels needed for customer acquisition and retention.

The call center is a critical customer touch point, but Humana Military Healthcare Services, a subsidiary of Humana ($6.9 billion in assets) that provides health benefits, support and services to 2.8 million active duty military and retired military personnel and their families, was challenged to keep up with increasing call volumes, according to John Jones, senior systems manager for the carrier. Yet increasing staff didn't always mean that the Louisville-based insurer could maintain service levels.

Training new staff took time, Jones explains, and was costly. Further, even seasoned agents might not be able to answer every question. "The costs of agents handling customers' inquiries are high," Jones says. "And the challenge to deliver precise answers to complex questions is not easy." In addition, unsatisfactory service also threatened to hurt customer acquisition and retention, according to Jones.

To improve responsiveness, in 2003 the insurer added AnswerCenter, a Web-based common knowledge base application from Spanlink Communications (Minneapolis), a provider of customer interaction solutions. But most customers still turned to the call center for help, Jones relates. "Even though a lot of people go to the Web to get information, people still tend to go to the phone first," he says.

To boost call center capacity, Humana Military chose to leverage its existing relationship with Spanlink to augment its interactive voice response (IVR) system with natural-language-based, speech-enabled questions and answers. A natural-language-based system allows callers simply to voice common words (e.g., "child" or "dependent" for dependent coverage questions) rather than respond to a menu of items. The Web portion of AnswerCenter was answering 16,000 questions a month in 2005, with a 99.1 percent satisfaction rate, conditioning Jones' hopes for similar success with the new IVR system. Still, Jones adds, he examined other vendors in mid-2005, but none offered a system that met the insurer's needs.

Humana Military signed a deal with Spanlink in November 2005 for the IVR portion of the AnswerCenter technology. Like the Web portion of AnswerCenter, the IVR component searches the Humana Military knowledge base -- including PDF files, HTML documents and third-party applications -- for answers to customers' inquiries. The solution's speech recognition engine is from Nuance (Burlington, Mass.).

Spanlink began the implementation in January 2006, installing four HP (Palo Alto, Calif.) Proliant DL 380 servers and a Cisco (San Francisco) 3825 router, which serves as a voice gateway between the IVR and the speech-recognition server. The servers run Spanlink AnswerCenter Speech; Nuance OpenSpeech Recognizer, an engine that converts audio to text; and Nuance RealSpeak, which creates audio responses to callers.

Initial development of the linguistics took about a month to determine the appropriate questions, answers and vocabulary. Enhancements based on analysis of customer interactions with the system are ongoing, Jones explains. Employee training took approximately one week, and the solution went live in July.

Jones expects the new IVR system to reduce the 340,000 calls per month that agents were handling before the installation by 15 percent, providing significant savings. He estimates that agent-handled calls cost the insurer about $5.25 apiece, compared to less than 10 percent of that for IVR-handled calls.


Humana Military Healthcare Services; Louisville (a wholly owned subsidiary of Humana; $6.9 billion in assets).

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AnswerCenter for Speech from Spanlink Communications (Minneapolis).


Reduce the number of agent-handled calls.

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