Tag Archives: customer experience

Become a Brand Behemoth — Locally

Suppose you walked into a store to look for a new television. If the store only carried one brand, would you shop there? Of course not, but that’s just what today’s insurance behemoths want you to do when you buy insurance.

With an abundance of information just a few key strokes away, today’s consumers demand choice. From automobiles to zucchini, consumers do research online before they make a purchase. Today’s policyholders no longer accept a single company quote. It’s hard to satisfy this consumer demand if you’re an agent who can only offer one product. It’s why the era of the captive agent is coming to an end. Only independent agencies that “meet” their customers online by leveraging their customers’ desire for information and choice will succeed.

The rise of digital media—the web, social media, the smartphone and other mobile devices—has leveled the playing field and even tilted it toward independents. Independent agents can now compete against the industry’s brand behemoths by making their brand even more powerful in their area. They can become local brand behemoths.

Digital tools enable you to provide a better experience to existing clients. Online lead generation allows you to more efficiently find new clients.

Improving customer experience

In a commoditized industry like insurance, the only way you can differentiate yourself is to provide excellent customer service. In the digital age, that means providing your customers with the opportunity to interact with your agency whenever and however they want. From policy changes to evidence of insurance, customers today would rather do things themselves online than have to wait to call your office when it’s open.

One of the most surprising things is how much people love self-service. Surveys show that companies of all types, including insurers, consistently get better service scores when they let consumers manage their account themselves.

Does your website allow customers to make policy changes, track their claim, get a quote or review their policy limits? Consumer tastes also require that your website be mobile-compatible. The smartphone has replaced the computer as the device of choice for consumers. A mobile-compatible site must be clean, because smartphone screens are small. Users must be able to navigate and read your site quickly on a smartphone. Is your company’s website easy to use on a smartphone?

Your website can’t be static and one-dimensional. People don’t want to read gobs of copy online. Your site should give visitors interactive experiences. For instance, display the icons of the companies you represent instead of listing them.

Attracting new customers

Use online resources to expand the reach of your marketing efforts.

LinkedIn provides a great example. Start by identifying people on LinkedIn whom you are connected to indirectly (i.e. through an existing contact but not directly) or are members of the same business group as you. These are your LinkedIn prospects. Next, go through your existing business network and identify a service provider like an accountant, photographer or other small-business owner. Ask if they would be willing to provide a discount to customers you refer to them. If they agree, send an email to your prospects identified from LinkedIn letting them know they can receive a discount. This creates a win-win for both of you.

Here’s a real-life example: I received an email from an executive coach introducing herself and offering me a 75% discount on professional executive photographs. All I had to do was contact the photographer, mention the promotion and schedule a time for my photo shoot. At the end of the email, the executive coach asked me to add her to my network on LinkedIn. While I didn’t need a professional photo taken, I was intrigued by this online joint venture.

It turns out that one of the executive coach’s referral sources is a professional photographer, and they created a photo day for the executive coach’s clients and prospects. The photographer could give a deep discount because he only had to set up once for all of the photos that day.

Thirty people set up appointments. Existing customers of the executive coach were impressed with the value she brought in addition to her coaching. Prospects were introduced to the executive coach in a positive way – you just saved me a lot of money and introduced me to a quality photographer. The executive coach attended the whole day and used the time in between photo shoots to introduce herself or reacquaint herself with past clients. It was a win-win situation for both the coach and the photographer.

Digital giveaways

No one gets excited about a birthday card from his agent. Instead, how about giving away a mobile app so your business can stay top of mind? An app that gets your name on a client's phone is a great way to stay in touch—and provide something of real value.

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and more….

You need to be on social media. Although engaging with social media takes time, what you learn online provides you with valuable customer insights. It’s like getting the questions to a test in advance. You have a real advantage.

Social media isn’t just about following people. Post or tweet information about how to prepare for catastrophes unique to your area so people can prepare for them. The more you engage digitally, the more relevant you become online.

You’re probably thinking: “I don’t have time for this!” You’re right! Find someone who uses these tools everyday – a student or a young person in your office and put that person in charge.

All the pieces have fallen in place for independent agents. Seize the digital moment now and prosper!

Reimagining Insurance: More on AXA-Facebook

The reactions to the Strategy Meets Action blog “The Shot Heard Around the Industry: AXA and Facebook” have been enlightening. The blog has drawn polarized reactions … from some who envision the potential, and from others who only see today’s view of Facebook and insurance. The responses of this latter group explain a lot. They see the industry as risk-averse, steeped in tradition, lacking in creativity and slow to change, labels that inhibit an insurer’s ability to be imaginative. This time-worn outlook will need to change if insurers are to survive and thrive in this fast-changing environment.

Like it or not, the increasingly rapid pace of change is because of modern and major influencers: the customers' being in control; the new business models used by other industries and companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon; and next-gen and emerging technologies that are converging and challenging decades of business traditions and assumptions.

A new perspective is required that can inspire new directions for insurance.

Industries — including retail, books, travel, entertainment and pharmaceuticals — have found the very foundations of their long-held business and operational models challenged, necessitating innovation. Those that have not innovated … well, they are no longer the market leaders in their space, or maybe even no longer in existence. Just consider the iconic brands of Kodak, Blockbuster, Circuit City, Time magazine, Borders, the Boston Globe, CNN or JC Penney. Their inability or unwillingness to see and act has cost them greatly. Even companies that were recently considered innovative are challenged. Look at Yahoo, Blackberry and Nook.

Yet other companies are embracing innovation, new technologies and outside-in approaches. As noted by one response to our blog, automotive companies like Ford, BMW and GM focused on the “connected car.” Companies offering “shared car services” like Uber, Zipcar and Lyft are recognizing the importance of being customer-driven. And Facebook and Google keep expanding the realm of possibilities to grow and strengthen the customer relationships and experiences through acquisitions such as Facebook’s Instagram, Face and Oculus, or Google’s Nest, Titan Aerospace and Zagat, to name a few.

What separates those who innovate from those who don't? It’s the vision of leadership. Leaders who can innovate can define a future vision, create a culture of innovation, identify and understand the influencers of change and embrace an outside-in approach.

The insurance industry must learn and respond fast, because it is facing the same types of challenges that have reshaped other industries. The strategic partnership of AXA with Facebook is a game-changer, distinguishing their leadership and their willingness to take an outside-in approach. We are not likely to see the inner workings for competitive reasons, but AXA has taken a bold step toward becoming a next-gen insurer. By leveraging a company like Facebook with massive expertise in understanding the digital experience and the changing expectations of customers, AXA is being transformed to a digital insurer in terms of brand presence, customer experience and customer loyalty.

Being a digital insurer is so much more than just having a website, more than using channels like social media to sell or advertise and more than having a mobile app to report claims. A digital insurer is a powerful integration — of the website, mobile platforms, social media, mobile messaging, location services, crowdsourcing, business and customer applications, online video, content management, customer communications, sales enablement, branding and marketing – that creates a seamless, engaging customer experience. And the digital insurer is underpinned with sophisticated data and analytics that know, influence, anticipate and engage the customer in a way that creates a next-gen customer experience.

After all, in today’s world it really is all about customer experience and customer loyalty. AXA’s bold move in taking an outside-in approach — by partnering with a company that has been a leader in redefining the customer experience, redefining the digital experience, embracing new technologies, and using data and analytics — has created an opportunity for AXA to do different things that will position it as a leader in this new digital world.

The coming years hold the promise of unparalleled opportunity for insurers to increase their value to their customers. Those that remain tied to tradition and the past, choose to ignore the key influencers or wait too long to react will risk losing relevance. Those that are willing to take the bold steps forward will stand to gain the greatest rewards.

Yes, there are lots of details to be defined, piloted and implemented over the next few years in the AXA-Facebook partnership. And there will always be naysayers. But this bold move and others like it are ushering in the dawn of a new future that is full of possibilities. This is transformation and innovation. This is what will define winners and losers. And that is what is so exciting!

Go on Offense Using Social Media

The plane pushed back as I settled into the sports section of my local paper. Just as I was getting comfortable, the pilot made an announcement that our flight was going to be delayed for a short time. We ended up sitting on the tarmac for two hours.

I missed my connection, and, to make matters worse, the customer service personnel at the connecting hub airport were anything but service-oriented. Frustrated beyond belief, I posted a message on Twitter, my Facebook page and on several travel sites, “ABC Airlines SUCKS!”

Much to my surprise, less than an hour later I got a post to my rant signed by the airline's customer service department, with a link to their website. The link led me into a chat room where I described my experience. A service representative apologized and offered me an upgrade on my return flight home the next day. My frustration ebbed. I even posted another Tweet: “Thanks, ABC Airlines Customer Service!!”

The experience taught me two valuable lessons: (1) With the advent of social media, unhappy customers can do real damage to a company's reputation; and (2) companies can no longer wait for their customers to call and complain. They must engage their customers in real time.

Since that experience I've been focused on how our company can leverage social media to improve our customer service. The effort required me to better understand all that social media entails. Fortunately, we have a lot of experts – the young people who work for us. They use social media like a second language. It's incorporated into their lives.

The same approach applies to a successful social media strategy for a business. The organization must incorporate social media into its day-to-day operations. Most companies make a common mistake: They set up accounts on the popular social media tools like Facebook and Twitter but don't do much after that. In effect, social media gets treated as an outlier.

Opportunistic social media

Many people think of social media as Facebook and Twitter—but those are just tools. I view social media as the ability to engage in social interactions online with people you know and don't know. You engage with social media through a series of websites and applications. But it’s the collective power to communicate that makes it so powerful.

Imagine if you could “communicate” regularly with an existing policyholder. You wouldn't need to wait until some triggering event like a problem with a bill or frustration with a claim occurs. Research shows that such regular contact would increase an insurance company's retention rate.

Here's an example of opportunistic social media: When there’s a potential major weather event, use social media sites to offer tips on how to secure a home and inventory personal holdings. The information will come up on searches and drive traffic to both your social media sites and website. A company can even change its homepage temporarily and put up a splash page: If you’re in this area, click here; if not, click a different button for the homepage.

People don’t think about insurance often. That’s why opportunistic use of social media is effective. People will be more inclined to read something from an insurer when they’re concerned about their immediate safety and security.

Going on defense

Social media poses challenges and dangers for any company serving the public. Consumers now have power to wreak havoc. Anyone who feels, rightly or wrongly, abused by an insurer can use social media to post an angry screed: “ABC Insurance Co. stinks.”

That can do real damage to your brand. Negative reviews get aggregated, and, if there are enough of them, they’ll show up at the top of an online search of your company.

Customers tend to post only when they’re angry with their insurer. Happy customers typically remain silent. How can you find out about problems customers are having before they are angry enough to call? Establish a team dedicated to scouring all social media for comments about your company.

If I had any doubts about the impact of social media, the view out my window provides ample evidence. Located in the middle of Silicon Valley and just a short walk to Facebook’s headquarters, I'm surrounded by start-up companies bringing new services and tools to the digital world. The social media revolution is here to stay.

Facebook-Axa: Reimagining Insurance

What a stunner and brilliant outside-in move by AXA – to position itself as a dominant digital insurance company by partnering with Facebook! You baseball fans will know the phrase, “the shot heard 'round the world,” which was said about the game-winning home run by a New York Giants player against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 to win the National League pennant. Just like that home run, this shot is a game-changer for insurance, propelling AXA ahead of the competition and redefining the customer experience.

AXA and Facebook plan to leverage the scale of both businesses via ground-breaking innovation and access to research, training and capabilities, particularly on mobile. The power partnership of the world’s top insurer and the dominant social media company has the potential to completely innovate, transform and redefine AXA’s customer experience, customer engagement, digital presence and growth potential to levels not yet seen in insurance.

AXA’s game-changer move has the potential to establish a new bar for customer excellence, loyalty and engagement that many insurers talk about, but that few have actually taken the bold actions to make happen. This move goes well beyond having a presence on social media, to embracing the power of a social media platform as the foundation of a new customer engagement model.

What is it that makes this so fascinating and game-changing?

Facebook’s mission to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected – by building a network of more than 1.23 billion (and growing) monthly active users. The influence and pervasiveness of Facebook's platform continues to grow. It is used by 57% of all American adults – and 50% of those adult users have more than 200 friends in their networks, according to the Pew Research Center.

Facebook started 10 years ago on a U.S. college campus, and it expanded across all demographics around the world, creating a powerful network of relationships that influences decisions, other relationships and outcomes. We all have seen or experienced Facebook’s power from making possible the most basic of connections with childhood friends and family to its expansion across the U.S. and the world. Beyond its original purpose of social connection, the platform has grown to have the power to save lives, influence buying behaviors and customer loyalty and motivate social and political change. And it gets more impressive.

In announcing 2013 fourth-quarter financial results, Facebook reported even more milestones that highlight the potential for AXA to turn the insurance model on its head. Consider these:

  • On a daily basis, 757 million people were active users as of December 2013, representing an increase of 22% from the previous year. Even more astounding was that 556 million people were mobile active daily users, an increase of 49% over the previous year.
  • Most impressive was a monthly average of mobile users totaling 945 million, an increase of 39%, and representing nearly 76% of the base.

Facebook’s vision, reflected in its milestones and influence, emphasizes why this partnership opens up a whole new model of customer engagement for insurance:

  • It can create a modern customer experience, like the ones people have every day with companies like Facebook, Amazon or Zappos, where there is a new level of engagement beyond the three common areas of quote and buy, bill payment and claims – the things that are not necessarily delightful! Imagine a new experience where the customer is getting more value through new services, offerings and knowledge sharing with an insurer that is offering a more omnipresent relationship.
  • Customer loyalty – and our typical manner of measuring this through a net promoter score (NPS) – is transformed through a branded customer network of relationships that share experiences, recommendations, costs, product ideas and much more.
  • Imagine leveraging the Facebook platform as a means of managing the customers' portfolios of assets, products and policies, offering life and P&C product recommendations based on their life stage or activities, or helping them during a claim or catastrophic event. Customers can also use mobile technologies in a self-service manner to find assistance with claims or to access information to help protect themselves and their assets.
  • Consider the explosion of new data that will be available and valuable in understanding the customers better so as to personalize their experience, provide insights, uncover new needs and identify new products and services that they may be unaware of.

Most insurers today are using Facebook, mobile and data to just do the same things differently within their operations. This powerful partnership that is leveraging next-gen technologies has the potential to do completely different things– going well beyond what has already been done today, creating a digital strategy and experience that will reinvent AXA and, subsequently, the insurance industry.

Game on! What will your next move be?

Who Owns the Customer Experience?

Who owns the customer? For insurance companies that work through intermediaries, it’s a controversial question that often stirs spirited debate between carriers and producers. But there’s another question that’s even more important: Who owns the customer experience?

Regardless of who insurers think owns the customer, the reality is that key parts of the policyholder experience are shaped by external parties—the agents, brokers and financial professionals who distribute insurers’ products.

This presents a difficult challenge for insurance companies, many of whom have kicked off customer-experience improvement initiatives in recent years. After all, how do you holistically manage the customer experience when you don’t control it in its entirety?

Some carriers skirt the issue by focusing on what they do control—customer touchpoints such as billing, correspondence, 800-line interactions, etc. That’s a reasonable approach to start with, but it has its limits.

Consumers don’t always know where the lines are drawn between carrier and agent, where the handoffs occur between the two parties. Their experience, and overall brand impression, is shaped by a wide array of touchpoints spanning pre-sale to post-sale, field office to home office.

For this reason, it’s neither practical nor prudent for carriers to ignore those elements of the customer experience that are administered by their field producers.

But how can a carrier insert itself into aspects of the customer experience that are clearly overseen by the producer? How can the insurer propagate customer-experience best practices beyond the walls of its headquarters and into its field offices, where so many significant consumer interactions occur?

Whether the company works with captive agents or independent brokers, this can be a thorny issue. Many financial professionals consider themselves to be entrepreneurs, and they have strongly held opinions about how to run their businesses.

Overcoming that sentiment requires some diplomacy. If producers sense that the carrier is encroaching on their territory, dictating the “right” way to do business, then friction will ensue, and the insurer’s customer-experience improvements will be relegated to the home office—a poor outcome for carrier, distributor and their shared customers.

So, if you’re an insurer looking to engage your field force in a constructive effort to improve the customer experience, consider these five tips:

1. Acknowledge shared ownership

Disarm territorial sensitivities by readily acknowledging that you don’t own the whole customer experience. Neither the carrier nor the distributor can claim such ownership, because each plays an instrumental role in shaping policyholder impressions.

Such an admission by carrier executives sends an important signal to the field, opening the door to a more collaborative approach for shaping the customer experience, from pre-sale to post-sale.

2. Make the case for action

Demonstrate to field partners, in a vivid and compelling way, why focusing on an improved customer experience is smart business.

The field may acknowledge that happy, loyal customers are good for business —but do they truly grasp how powerfully the customer experience can influence the top and bottom lines? Particularly in the insurance industry, given the economics of up-front commissions and long product tails, small improvements in retention can have a surprisingly significant impact on profitability. Even just from a sales standpoint, an increase in qualified referrals from positive word-of-mouth can be a game changer for any insurance agent/broker.

Perhaps one of the most convincing illustrations of how a great customer experience drives business results is an analysis of stock market performance for customer-experience “leaders” and “laggards”: For the past six years, customer-experience leaders generated a total return that was three times higher on average than the S&P 500.

This is the kind of head-turning data that insurers should put in front of field producers who are skeptical about investing time, energy or money into improving the customer experience.

Whether you’re a public or a private company, the message here is clear: A great customer experience pays off, paving the way for higher revenues, lower operating expenses and better overall financial performance.

3. Educate and equip

Given their entrepreneurial disposition, most agents and brokers won’t take kindly to having the mechanics of their organization’s customer experience dictated by some far-removed insurance company.

Instead of prescribing solutions, carriers would be better served providing tools and education to their field offices. In this way, the insurer can help equip its producers with the knowledge they need to effectively diagnose, and then differentiate, their organization’s customer experience.

That’s a much better solution over the long term, as it helps the field office embed customer-experience management best practices into its operations, as opposed to just tweaking a few isolated customer touchpoints.

Note that this is about more than just traditional “customer service” training. It’s about giving the field office a strategic understanding of the operating principles that customer experience legends rely on to create raving fans.

What great companies like Amazon, Apple, Disney and Costco have in common is an ideology around the design and delivery of their customer experience (see the sidebar that follows). Help your field understand and embrace a similar ideology, and you’ll influence their business practices for years to come.
4. Open the feedback spigot

One example of an ideological component that customer-experience legends share is a commitment to soliciting and acting on customer feedback.

Oftentimes, there is an arrogance in organizations— a belief among executives that they know what delights and what frustrates their customers, what will strengthen their brand experience and what will weaken it.

But as J.C. Penney learned during its recent meltdown, businesspeople can have a myopic view when it comes to understanding what truly makes customers happy.

Help your field offices avoid that pitfall by supplementing internal views with external ones. Carriers can use their purchasing power to bring robust “voice of the customer” survey programs to their affiliated agents and brokers. At the very least, they can offer field offices tutorials about feedback instruments.

Armed with these feedback instruments, your field offices can cultivate customer insights that will help them first shape, and then continually recalibrate, their experience improvement efforts.

5. Co-create the experience

For some parts of the insurance customer experience, field and home office interactions are so intertwined that it makes sense to tackle them with a united front (application and underwriting being a classic example).

This is perhaps the highest step on the customer-experience management maturity curve, where manufacturer and distributor work together to shape an experience that’s impressive and seamless.

Assuming all parties have been educated in the same customer-experience engineering principles, it can be valuable to bring field producers and home office representatives together to dissect, diagnose and redesign a particular piece of the policyholder journey.

By incorporating field and home office perspectives up front, a joint experience design effort is likely to yield a better outcome for all involved.

In today’s social media-connected, information-rich marketplace, customers are more empowered than ever. Nobody truly “owns” them.

But ownership of the customer experience is a different matter altogether. Great companies do take ownership of that, by very deliberately managing the many touchpoints that shape customer perceptions. Great companies even seek to influence parts of the experience that, on first blush, might seem out of their scope. (Consider how Amazon famously obsesses over the experience of physically opening a package once you receive it from their shipping partners.)

For insurance companies that don’t sell directly to consumers, the path to a differentiated customer experience must cross through their field offices—hence the importance of involving and influencing that key constituency. By deftly engaging distributors in the customer-experience improvement effort, insurers can make progress on two important fronts—creating a more positive impression not just on their policyholders, but also on their producers.

The 'Secret Sauce' of Customer-Experience Legends

Companies that do customer experience well tend to use a specific set of operating principles to help shape their customer interactions, from sales to service. The principles that elicit customer delight are remarkably consistent across industries and even demographics.

Below are three examples of such principles, which fans of Amazon, Disney and Ritz-Carlton are sure to recognize:

1. Make it effortless

Be it at point of sale or point of service, the less effort customers must invest to accomplish something with your company, the more likely they are to be loyal to your firm. Look for opportunities to minimize the amount of physical and mental effort that people must expend to, among other things, understand your value proposition, navigate your product portfolio, interpret your customer communications and secure post-sale service. (Case in point: Amazon’s patented One-Click purchase button, which makes it absolutely effortless to buy from them.)

2. Capitalize on cognitive science

Customer experience is about perception, and there are proven ways to leverage principles of cognitive science (i.e., how the mind works) to improve people’s perceptions about their interactions with your business. One example of this is giving customers the “perception of control,” because it’s human nature that we feel better when we’re in control of things and ambiguity is removed from our lives. Something as simple as clearly setting expectations for customers can make all the difference—e.g., how long will I be standing in this line, how many steps are in this purchase process, when will I next hear from you? (Case in point: DisneyWorld’s FastPass, which lets park guests avoid standing in line for popular attractions, making them feel like they’re more in control of their vacation.)

3. Be an advocate

It’s rare that people see companies paying more than lip service to the concept of putting customers first. For this reason, when people come across a company that truly advocates for its customers in a very tangible way, it cultivates stronger engagement and loyalty. One decidedly low-tech but highly effective way to accomplish this is by fostering a workplace culture of exceptional ownership. When your front line—the people actually delivering the customer experience—take personal accountability for owning every request that comes to them, it projects a refreshing sense of advocacy that will distinguish your firm from the “not my job… pass the buck” mentality that customers typically encounter. (Case in point: Ritz-Carlton, whose staff, when asked for directions within the hotel, will refrain from pointing guests in the right direction—instead, they personally escort them, to ensure the guest gets exactly where they need to be.)

This article first appeared in LOMA Resource.