Tag Archives: call center

Using AI for Customer Experience at Allstate

Imagine having an expert mentor at your fingertips at all times. Someone who could answer questions, provide advice and move you in the right direction. For customer experience representatives at Allstate, that dream is a reality with Amelia, an AI-powered cognitive agent trained in the language of insurance. It’s just one way the company is using AI to power customer experience and lead the charge in a changing insurance industry.

As customer expectations have changed, Carla Zuniga, senior vice president at Allstate, has worked to modernize how the company interacts with customers. The goal is to make more out of everyday interactions with customers and to move more interactions to automated channels, including chatbots and AI-augmented human roles.

One of the major players in the AI game at Allstate is Amelia, a cognitive agent trained on more than 50 unique insurance topics and regulations across all 50 states. Allstate employees can quickly chat with Amelia to get concise answers about complicated insurance questions from customers. Not only does it allow customers to get the answers they need right away, but it allows employees to be ready to work much sooner by cutting down training time. Instead of having to sort through numerous articles and resources and make customers wait, representatives can now chat with Amelia while the customer is on the phone to get the most accurate information. In an industry where regulations and compliance are incredibly important, Amelia helps make sure every customer’s needs are met and are in compliance. Amelia provides the best of both worlds—the quickness and accuracy of AI mixed with the personal touch of human interaction.

See also: Why AI-Assisted Selling Is the Future  

Amelia handles more than 250,000 conversations each month and is used by more than 75% of Allstate call center employees. Allstate has plans to increase her workload and expand her scope to eventually interact directly with customers. Paired with other AI programs like automation and big data, Amelia has helped Allstate reduce its talk times and increase its first call resolution rates.

Zuniga believes AI will continue to grow and transform over the next five years as the technology becomes more robust. As Amelia and other AI services become more customer-facing, employees will be able to focus more on case management and the human aspects of customer experience.

No matter how the technology grows, personalization is still a key element of insurance companies. It can be easy for customers to just feel like a number when they get a new policy, file a claim or contact their insurance agent. To combat that, Allstate relies on data and creates detailed profiles of each customer. By leveraging this information and using AI to highlight trends and the most important data points, the company can help interactions feel more intimate.

See also: Strategist’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence

As the digital transformation continues and AI changes how insurers interact with customers, innovating and staying ahead of the curve is incredibly important. Modern customers want to feel empowered and engaged, and the best insurance companies must innovate to stay relevant. A major part of that innovation must be centered on AI, just like what is being done at Allstate.

You can find the article originally published here.

We Need to Talk About Our Call Centers

I started my career in insurance at the same place where most of our millennials are starting theirs, in the call center. In my case, it was a Farm Bureau claims call center in the beautiful suburban campus in West Des Moines, Iowa. I didn’t know it at the time, but I got really lucky. That call center was very well run by enlightened leaders who realized they were training the future leaders of the company.

As early as the interview, managers told me that this call center was different. They understood that most of the new talent coming into the company would start in this department, and they had been instructed to engage and train those young professionals, so they would grow into productive employees not only during but after their time in the call center.

They said they wanted me to spend two to three years in the call center, while learning as much as possible about the company and the insurance industry in general. After that, I’d be expected to start applying for positions beyond the phones. The department also required each individual to obtain the Associate in General Insurance (AINS) and the Associate in Claims (AIC) within the first two years. Failure to comply with the educational requirement could lead to termination.

The way the call center functioned on a day-by-day basis was also quite engaging. Reps were trained well and supported in their efforts to grow their career (even when it meant time away from the phones for a class). The call center answered all first notice of loss calls for both personal and commercial lines claims, so it was not overly specialized; there was lots of variety on the day-to-day work. You’d get to keep the simple claims and work them to completion, acting as real claims adjusters. This resulted in great customer service, as roughly 40% of all calls would be answered by the person ultimately handling the claim. The approach also resulted in lots of employee growth.

Even the way that managers measured performance was not bad at all for a call center. While they did measure the amount of time you spent on “After Call Work” and “Unavailable,” it wasn’t the main thing they cared about. To the best of my knowledge, they didn’t measure the dreaded “Time on Call” that most call centers use as their main measure of productivity. The main thing that counted in this particular call center was the number of new claims you took and the percentage of those that you kept.

At the end of every week, management would send out a list of the top 10 reps who answered the most calls and kept the highest of those calls. I was almost always in the top two for both categories, and enjoyed the friendly competition. Because the list only included the top 10, not the bottom ones, people weren’t offended by it; it was a very positive thing. Management also included in the weekly newsletter a congratulatory mention of everyone who had passed an insurance designation test.

While at times the call center could get hectic, the overall environment was very supportive of employee growth, and nobody seemed to hate the job. Eight years later, most of the people I worked with in that call center are still in insurance, and none of them are still call center workers. Many stayed in claims. Many are still in the same company. That’s a successful insurance call center in our book! It was such a great place that I was sad to leave when I got an offer for a better claims position at Nationwide, which ended my call center days.

Sadly, I would find out as I met many other young insurance professionals that great insurance call centers that focus on developing their people are rare. Most are simply awful places to work, and, while nobody seems to be keeping statistics publicly, we have found 20 horror stories for every positive one.

There are many conferences about insurance, and none seem to be talking about our call centers. The CPCU Society Annual Meeting and Leadership Summit has not had a single session about call centers in at least the six years I have been involved. It’s almost as if those call centers didn’t exist! Or, more likely, the leadership just doesn’t view them as really being insurance.

It’s like the call centers are the black sheep of the insurance family that nobody wants to talk about!

A huge portion of young insurance professionals in the 2010s started their insurance careers in a call center type environment. Most of them already had college degrees (and the associated student loans). Like previous generations, they fell into insurance by accident, but, unlike previous generations, they won’t stay out of loyalty or out of having found great careers. If we do our job right and engage them in the industry, they’ll grow. If we don’t, they’ll leave the industry, and we’ll continue having a huge talent gap.

We’re not saying that we should close all the call centers and go back to doing business exclusively in the old-fashioned way. We understand that our expense ratio will not allow us to do that in the age of price transparency and incredible competition for every insurance customer. What we are saying is that we need to realize that, in many cases, the call center is our only touch-point with the customer, and we should be making them love their time with us. Maybe even more importantly, the call centers are our new entry level point for new talent, and given the talent crisis, our bad reputation with younger generations, and the high expense of replacing any employee, we need that talent to grow with us.

See also: How to Reinvent Call Centers  

Based on the horror stories we’ve collected from conversations with fellow young insurance pros who survived some time in the call center and lived to tell the tale, here’s what many (but  not all) of the insurance call centers are like to work in:

You have to be logged in to the phones every minute you are in the office and are not allowed to even be in the office outside of your work hours. There are rows after rows of grey cubicles, packed with unhappy 25-year-olds with their college degrees hanging precariously from the cubicle wall and the headset making a semi-permanent mark in their ear.

Engagement is so low that it could better be measured in level of desperation. Turnover is high, with the great majority leaving not only the company but the industry and swearing they’ll never work in insurance again. The reps who haven’t quite given up on the industry yet are applying desperately to any open entry-level position that’s not a call center. It doesn’t matter if it’s claims, underwriting, processing or subrogation. Anything will do just to get off the phones! There’s so many applying for the same jobs with essentially the same resume, college degree and one to two years of insurance call center experience, that’s it’s very hard to differentiate among them, so hiring managers mostly just reject them without an interview. Some have been told directly that “we don’t hire from the call center.”

They are measured on 50-plus different characteristics, so many that it’s impossible to actually focus on improving. Who can control that many different minor factors during each phone call? The most important measures tend to be Time-on-Call and Availability. The first one measures the length of the average call, with the goal of keeping it as low as possible, and the second one measures the percentage of the time they’re available to take calls. In some extreme cases, even mandatory team meetings count against you the same as time spent in the restroom counts against you.

Performance evaluations are focused 100% on metrics and very little on your own growth or what you need to do to get out of the call center. Most of the supervisors are former call center reps themselves who only know the call center life. They often don’t know anything else about the company or the industry and can’t serve as good mentors even if they wanted to.

Professional development is encouraged by the company, but development time allowed by the department is very limited or completely non-existent, leaving it to  the employee to do all growth activities outside work hours. A case could be made that a motivated employee can grow by investing his own free time into activities like insurance designations, Toastmasters and networking, but most have no previous insurance experience and no advice on what they should be spending their time doing to grow with the company. The only thing they know is that they don’t want to be on the phones, and they don’t want to become call center supervisors either.

We have even heard stories of call center employees being denied support in getting their basic insurance designations because they’re not required for the call center job the employees are doing. Some are denied even the ability to participate in activities such as Toastmasters or a young professional group because those meetings are in the office, and Human Resources doesn’t want employees to be in the office outside of work hours.

There are better ways to run a call center. Not only should others learn from the example of the Farm Bureau Financial Service center where I worked, but there’s even more that we can learn from the best-run call centers outside the industry.

Look at Zappos, which was founded on the crazy idea of selling shoes online. Think about that one: Shoes are the kind of thing that absolutely has to be tried in person, and, when you go shoe shopping, chances are you try multiple shoes before you find a pair that fits just right. Zappos succeeded selling shoes online by doing two things differently: The company will ship you as many shoes as you want, and then you can try them and keep the ones you want, returning the rest. Zappos will cover the shipping both ways.

The second thing Zappos does is provide amazing customer service. To provide that service, Zappos runs large call centers staffed by very happy employees. How does it keep call center employees happy? By doing things diametrically differently from most other call centers (including insurance call centers).

The hiring process consists of several interviews, mostly looking for personality fit. The HR rep conducting the first interview tries to simply figure out if this is a person he would want to work next to for 40 hours a week. Skills are much less important — skills can be taught. During the hiring process, Zappos makes it very clear that the great majority of positions are at the call center, and, if you take the job, you’ll be answering the phones for a long time.

Every new employee, regardless of position, must go through the call center training. You can be hired for a vice president role and on day one you get to go to your new office to set your stuff down, and then you come back down to train for the call center with everybody else. After finishing training, everyone gets to work the call center for a couple of weeks before going on to the job they were hired for. This guarantees that all the leadership knows what the call center is like. Currently, in insurance, there are very few, if any, senior executives who came from the call center, partially because those call centers didn’t exist or were much smaller when those executives were starting their careers.

After their first couple of weeks on the phone full time, all new Zappos employees get called into a huddle room with their manager. The conversation includes giving the employee real feedback about her performance in the call center. Then the manager reminds the employee that most jobs at Zappos are at the call center level and that it’s hard to move to a different area. Finally, the manager says something like “Charlie, I’ve got  a check in your name for $2,000. I want to pay you to quit. If you don’t love the job, take the money, and we can part ways, no hard feelings.” Zappos does such a good job in hiring, orientation and training that only 2% of people take the offer.

The way Zappos measures performance is very different from others, too. It doesn’t measure Time-on-Call at all. All Zappos cares about is making the customer happy. That may mean ordering a pizza for a customer who is traveling and doesn’t know where to get a pizza or chatting for seven hours with a customer about which shoes to buy for her prom.

Zappos understands that happy employees lead to happy customers, and that, in a world where your only interaction with the customer is when she visits your website or calls your call center, a call is a huge opportunity to connect with the customer. Zappos understands that a call center is NOT a cost center; it’s a key touch-point with our customer. What could be more important than that?

The insurance industry has a lot to learn from Zappos. As millennials become a bigger and bigger part of our customer base, and they are not fans of visiting an agent’s office, the call center becomes our touch-point with the 95% of our customers who didn’t have a claim in any given year. Also, if the majority of your new employees are starting at the call center level, it’s our only chance to get them to fall in love with the industry and to convince them to make a career here.

See also: Insurers’ Call Centers: a Cyber Weakness?  

For more about the Zappos way, I highly recommend the book Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos. This amazing book will give you a great intro to how Zappos runs its business, especially its call centers. The company also provides guided tours of its offices in Las Vegas. The company provides training and consulting for other companies through its consulting arm Zappos Insights. You can learn more here.

We are strong believers that the first large carrier to figure out how to turn its call centers into talent mines will have a major competitive advantage in the talent wars. Combine that with student loan aid and maybe with opportunities to take sabbaticals every few years, and you’ll create an unmatched employee experience that millennials will not want to leave.

This article originally published at InsNerds.com.

Insurers’ Call Centers: a Cyber Weakness?

Two years ago, the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) released a report on cybersecurity in the insurance sector after surveying 43 insurers with more than $3.1 trillion in assets. The report revealed that 35% of these companies experienced between one and five data breaches within the previous three years. This statistic represents only confirmed breaches (not attempted attacks), and the consequences for affected insurers included actual financial losses from lost customer business, legal defense and damaged brand reputation.

Fast forward to today, and it’s no surprise that the DFS is preparing to launch a new regulation on March 1 that requires banks, insurance companies and other financial services institutions it regulates to establish and maintain a cybersecurity program. The first of its kind in the U.S., this regulation aims to protect New York consumers and financial institutions from the ever-growing threat of cyberattacks. But, like any other industry-wide regulation, this proposed mandate is not without its challenges.

See also: 10 Cyber Security Predictions for 2017  

A key provision in the proposal is the requirement for encrypting non-public information (NPI) — such as payment card numbers, Social Security numbers (SSN), drivers license numbers and other security codes, both in-transit and at-rest. For insurance companies that routinely capture and store this information in their call centers and other areas of business, protecting NPI will be especially challenging. Most insurers record customer calls, thereby housing payment card numbers and other NPI in their physical and IT infrastructure. While many insurers utilize the practice of “stop/start” to block this data from recordings, this method creates additional security and governance concerns. Insurers that need to record 100% of calls to demonstrate compliance to other existing legislation and are using stop/start are now not recording the entire call. That not only means that they are not compliant but that they are also opening up opportunities for illicit activity to occur while the call is stopped. Yes, NPI is kept out of the call center’s infrastructure, but it is still exposed to agents — further complicating the entire effort to secure customer data. Data will also still need to be encrypted, meaning stop/start isn’t enough….

The most effective way to protect sensitive information, eliminate insecure practices and resolve broken processes to avoid potentially costly penalties and a tainted brand reputation is to abide by the saying: “They can’t hack what you don’t hold.” In short, keep NPI and other sensitive data out of the call center altogether. Insurers should implement a solution that encrypts data as it is collected and in-flight, as well as reducing stockpiles of data at rest that is just waiting to become exposed in the next big breach.

Despite the undoubted challenges it will bring, the New York DFS cybersecurity regulation is a step in the right direction because it starts to create much-needed standardization in the way insurers and their call centers handle sensitive information. To emphasize this point, we recently spoke with call center agents at 10 of the leading U.S. insurance companies. We found that there is a lack of a uniform approach in data security measures, especially when it comes to how sensitive information is removed from call recordings (and those insurers using stop/start still have NPI data elsewhere in the estate and are now not recording 100% of calls). Agents gave a wide range of answers — from using stop/start, to redacting information after the fact, to deleting the full recording after 30 days. This is in sharp contrast to the U.K., where a growing number of call centers are adopting an operating procedure that uses dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) masking and a secure, separate environment for encrypting data. Shouldn’t all insurers handle their data in the same, secure manner?

See also: Data Security Critical as IoT Multiplies  

While the New York DFS regulation is the first of its kind, it most certainly won’t be the last. We will now likely see other cybersecurity regulations crop up in the coming years that help standardize how financial institutions secure their data. Because this regulation affects all who conduct business in New York, it draws parallels to the pending EU General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR). Taking effect in May 2018, the EU GDPR will affect all businesses that hold or process data pertaining to EU citizens — no matter where they reside. Indeed, we are seeing all signs pointing toward greater standardization of data security across industries and borders. Insurers in New York and beyond must begin looking at solutions — now — to help simplify their compliance efforts and protect their customers and their reputations.

How to Find, Keep Good Service Reps

The best customer service representatives (CSRs) are a rare breed. Not only do the best understand the technical details, but they also have well-developed soft skills, including communication savvy, and grit. Because let’s face it, CSRs take their fair share of abuse. It’s not easy talking with customers all day, especially when those customers are often unhappy. Yet great CSRs can make or break your company’s image. Hanging on to CSRs who “get it” and are engaged in the essential job they perform is a must.

Experienced agents and brokers know that’s easier said than done. Fewer than two-thirds of customer service employees are engaged, according to the 2015 Employee Engagement Trends Report from Quantum Workplace. That’s a lower rate than for almost every other department, including human resources and sales. A study from Bain & Co. looked at Net Promoter Scores (in part, a measure of how likely employees are to recommend their job to qualified family members and friends) and found that customer service ranked dead last among 10 common business departments.

Retention rates for CSRs in insurance aren’t much better. Our industry had a 28% turnover rate for CSRs in 2015, according to data from ContactBabel. That’s slightly better than the average across industries, which hovers around 33%. Even Zappos, with its laser focus on customer service and employee culture, suffers a 20% annual turnover for CSRs.

The high cost of losing employees and hiring and training replacements is well-established. A CallMe! survey found that the average turnover cost for a CSR is $3,500 per person.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can take three specific steps to make sure you’re bringing in the right customer service reps—and keeping them.

1. Watch for resume red flags

Not everyone is cut out to be a CSR. In fact, the top reason CSRs quit is that they were “just the wrong type of person for the job,” according to the ContactBabel report. Refine your hiring process so you’re employing only the right type of people for the job—otherwise, they’ll never be engaged.

Watch for red flags in resumes, including a lot of short stints at past jobs, especially other customer service positions. Also, keep an eye out for experience that didn’t involve a lot of communication, such as in data entry, administration and so on. Give special attention to applicants with an interest in new technology and experience working with social media channels. And that cliché interview question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” can actually give you a good idea about whether a person’s career goals align with your customer service values.

Some agencies play one or two particularly unpleasant customer service calls to measure how a prospective CSR might react to the most difficult calls he may receive. Others role-play an interaction with a customer, headset and all. You want to make sure would-be CSRs know what they’re getting into. A little extra vetting during the hiring process pays off big-time in building an engaged team.

See also: A Practical Tool to Connect to Customers

2. Treat them right

Study after study has shown that if you want to boost CSR retention, you have to keep reps engaged. A little flexibility goes a long way in keeping people happy at work. Two-thirds of female CSRs are working mothers, meaning unexpected scheduling issues are going to come up. While the job itself requires CSRs to work set hours, finding ways to give CSRs the flexibility to find a suitable work/life balance will help them stay engaged.

CSRs also want a chance to advance their careers. The International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) recently surveyed call centers on the top causes of CSR turnover. The most frequent source may surprise you: better opportunities inside the organization. But representatives don’t always see career opportunities within the call center itself. With CSR-to-supervisor ratios (known as span of control) averaging from 12:1 to 15:1, CSRs realize there’s a less than 10% chance they’ll ever be promoted to the level of their direct supervisor. That means you need to spell out the possibilities for advancement within the department. Consider adding titles—mentor, tech expert or shift supervisor, for example—so CSRs can increase their responsibility and compensation.

You can’t offer a promotion with a big cash bonus to every representative. But other small rewards, from a quick thank you to public praise for handling a particularly tough call, can make day-to-day work much more enjoyable.

See also: 3 Skills Needed for Customer Insight

3. Learn from departing reps

If you’re not picking the brains of CSRs who quit, you’re missing out on a valuable source of information that your competitors are taking advantage of. More than 80% of organizations conduct exit interviews with departing agents, according to ICMI. Make sure your exit interviews attempt to reveal specific things your call center can do differently to keep good CSRs on the job.

But you don’t have to wait until a CSR is headed out the door to figure out what she wants—instead, ask. A brief, informal survey about the perks they’d value most is an easy way to figure out where to focus your efforts. Armed with more information about the benefits and responsibilities CSRs prioritize, you’ll be better able to keep your best reps engaged and serving your customers.