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Insurers' contact centers are evolving into integrated facilities that provide both policyholders and partners with improved service and convenience, and offer revenue-generating opportunities.

Q: Where do contact centers fit into insurers' customer service and distribution strategies?

A: Sharon Ritchey, The Hartford: The contact center provides an important piece of the customer experience that comes through all touch points: sales people, call center agents, advertising, correspondence and Web sites. This experience -- good or bad -- helps build the company's reputation in the mind of the customer and is a primary influence for future customer behavior.

A: Brad Cleveland, International Customer Management Institute (ICMI): Different insurance organizations have, in the past, represented polar opposites in terms of how they run and portray their contact centers. Some advertise services instantly accessible by phone or other contact channels, while others tout in-person representatives. But great service comes from cultivating an ecosystem of service alternatives. All channels -- self-service capabilities, call center agents, in-person representatives -- have a place. Ignore any one at your peril.

A: Joseph Heinen, Genesys Labs: Contact centers can help balance multiple customer-facing activities -- customer service, sales and claims management -- while supporting field distribution partners. Customer service, which the contact center can directly influence, also is key to growth. A recent book from the Harvard Business School Press actually showed that insurers with the highest customer satisfaction had two to three times the premium growth of their competitors.

A: Mike Sheridan, Aspect Software: The contact center often represents the primary voice of the company to its customers, including healthcare providers and consumers. Interactions are wide and varied, from sales to claims servicing to policy coverage inquires. In addition to handling the range of interactions, insurers also have to manage the evolving methods of communications -- from calls, e-mails, faxes or even Web chats to incorporating self-service applications. Mandated regulations also have made a tremendous impact on how the contact center manages confidential customer information. Insurers have to focus on maintaining customer satisfaction and agent efficiency, and managing increased contact channels while enhancing security and compliance.

Q: How can insurers measure the performance and maximize the value of their contact centers?

A: Ritchey, The Hartford: Traditional call-center technology and call-handling statistics may help an organization handle more calls more quickly, but they also may create an unpleasant, impersonal experience. In 2001, The Hartford shifted its focus from cost to customer, developing a system to record 100 percent of the voice and screen activity across eight separate call centers and 3,500 agents. By recording the sound and visual cues of how those agents were serving their customers, and tagging this with data about the customer and about the agent, we could review efficiency, effectiveness and customer impact of calls. Our Customer Experience Management System captures, evaluates and analyzes customers' experiences for continuous measurable, sustainable improvement.

A: Cleveland, ICMI: Contact centers have the potential to create value on three levels. First is efficiency. Because call centers pool information, people and technology resources, they are a highly efficient means of delivering service. At the second level, research is beginning to reveal the connection between levels of satisfaction and profitability; and smartly run call centers notably impact customer loyalty. At the third level, the call center has the potential to capture information that can transform an organization -- for example, intelligence that helps other departments improve quality, further research and development, and focus marketing campaigns. Delivering significant strategic value -- the sum total of hitting all three levels well -- requires a thoughtful customer-access strategy with supporting objectives, processes and technologies that help you align and achieve all three possible levels of contribution.

A: Heinen, Genesys Labs: By seamlessly tying the contact center with company databases, productivity and service can be improved simultaneously. The right contact center technology can allow insurance companies to segment customers and use real-time data to capitalize on valuable up-selling opportunities. It's not just about cutting costs. For example, you might see that a caller is a prime candidate for an up-sell and then route them to a specialized sales agent -- maybe even someone outside the contact center. Self-service linked to agent-assisted service is also being used to improve performance while improving service.

A: Sheridan, Aspect Software: To help deliver an exceptional customer experience, insurers can look to performance optimization applications to monitor interactions, analyze agent performance and educate agents as to what quality customer interactions sound like. They also can utilize self-service applications to automate routine interactions. And by automating specific interactions, such as providing claim status information, agents are freed up to work on other revenue-generating interactions. Performance-optimization solutions balance service-level goals against business objectives, establish qualitative performance targets, provide a unified view of performance and increase campaign productivity.

Q: What are the key workforce-related issues and challenges insurers face in maximizing the performance of their contact centers? Where does outsourcing fit into an insurer's contact center strategy?

A: Ritchey, The Hartford: Given the growing scarcity of talent, the increasing customer desire for ease of use and account access, and the maturity of self-service technologies, the time is right for automated processes and increased customer self-service. Interactive Voice Response (IVR) is an easy and obvious answer to contact centers' challenge to lower costs and improve efficiencies. While various outsourcing, insourcing and cosourcing models are gaining popularity, we view our customer experience management system as a core competency that differentiates us in the marketplace, so we have no plans to outsource our contact centers' customer-facing processes.

A: Sheridan, Aspect Software: Consumers want knowledgeable and informed agents more than anything else when contacting companies. Insurers need to meet that objective while still giving agents autonomy over their schedules, increasing retention rates and maintaining high customer satisfaction. Technology plays a significant role in addressing these issues. Automatic call distributors can route customers to the most-appropriate agents, performance optimization applications can ensure quality interactions with the right resources while still empowering agents, and self-service applications offer increased security and customer satisfaction through automated inquiries and surveys to gauge overall interaction quality.

Outsourcing can potentially play an important role in an insurer's contact center strategy. It is key to segment interaction types and possibly limit outsourcing to routine tasks, at least in the beginning phases of an outsourced program. It is also helpful to have an outsourcer available during unexpected spikes or peak times to provide important backup resources.

Q: Were lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina that helped shape the current insurance contact center?

A: Ritchey, The Hartford: After a severe hurricane, contact centers may see an increase in call volume from homeowners and businesses reporting a loss, but generally those calls are no different from other first-notice-of-loss reporting. The Hartford has processes in place to handle hurricanes, and we continue to improve. For example, we can automatically shift inbound calls when volume grows too heavy at one contact center.

A: Cleveland, ICMI: Many contact centers found themselves overwhelmed at the magnitude of the disaster. These problems must be addressed -- things such as flexible and scalable staffing plans, reinforcements, escalation plans, disaster prevention and backup policies, for example.

The Experts: Contact Centers

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

Brad Cleveland
President, International Customer Management Institute (ICMI)
(Annapolis, Md.)

Joseph Heinen
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, Genesys Labs
(Daly City, Calif.)

Mike Sheridan
Vice President of Strategy, Aspect Software
(Lombard, Ill.)

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