Tag Archives: faqs

How to Reinvent Call Centers

The landscape for customer service is changing.

New platforms are emerging that change how consumers seek service and engage with brands. In doing so, these platforms are disrupting the traditional call center model. Today’s call centers range from the ancient and decrepit to the ultra-modern and technologically streamlined. Despite the differences in capability, though, they still rely on the telephone to call and connect with customers. As we shift into the messaging era, this is going to change.

The maturing millennial generation is sparking a mobile messaging revolution across all age groups. Text-based communication is fast becoming the most-preferred communication method. And to attract, engage, acquire and retain customers in the text-based era, businesses need a customer communication strategy that incorporates mobile messaging.

Executives are facing three key challenges:

  1. Offering a mobile-native, text-based customer service solution to keep up with changing communication preferences of consumers.
  2. Satisfying the demand for always-on, 24-7 responsive service.
  3. Maintaining cost-efficiency in the call center.

A solution comes in the form of new technology: chatbots and intelligent automation.

Chatbots allow businesses to automate the 80% of general inquiries that are repetitive. This leads to a smaller volume of inquiries requiring live assistance from agents and reduces operational costs while maintaining — or even improving — customer satisfaction ratings. It’s this combination of chatbots and human agents that can usher businesses into the messaging era while reinventing the call center model.

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The Current State of Customer Service

Every business strives to provide exceptional experiences that increase customer satisfaction and raise their Net Promoter Scores (NPS). The reality, however, is that executing an effective customer communication strategy is challenging. Often, exceptional customer service is limited by the capabilities of traditional service channels: email, social media and call centers.

By 2020, customer experience will have a such a significant impact on business success that it’s expected to play a bigger role in competitive differentiation than price and even product quality. Customer experience and NPS are fast becoming the new business battlegrounds. Providing experiences that meet or exceed the ever-increasing demands of customers could be the difference between success and failure.

Call center performance has a significant impact on a company’s NPS and customer satisfaction ratings. Given the direct and personal connection a call center enables between a business and its customers, the overall experience of the interaction can have a major influence on how that person perceives a brand on the 1-10 Net Promoter Score scale.

And while call centers work positively by enabling direct connections between businesses and consumers, there are endemic problems for both sides. Businesses are faced with high operating costs and are vulnerable to changing communication trends. Meanwhile, consumers often have to deal with long hold times, outdated Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems, inter-departmental transfers and inefficient service.

See also: 4 Hot Spots for Innovation in Insurance  

As new technology such as chatbots and intelligent automation emerges, any business that relies on strong customer service can benefit from innovation.

There is a significant opportunity to gain competitive advantage and lead the market by developing call centers that are not only technologically advanced, but also resolve issues with far greater customer satisfaction.

The ideal result is customer service that improves the relationship with customers while maintaining cost efficiency for the business.

What follows is an outline of the current state of customer service in today’s fast-moving, on-demand and customer-driven world. We also detail how the call center can be reinvented through mobile messaging and intelligent automation to deliver a win-win solution for both businesses and customers.

Connected and Demanding: Generation Z, Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers

There is a reason why there is so much buzz around millennials: Their generation is one of the largest in U.S. history, and they are maturing into their prime spending years.

Starting in 2017, they will have the purchasing power of more than $200 billion annually. The opportunity for businesses to drive revenue and gain market share with this generation is unprecedented.

The driving force for new technology and communication trends

Millennials are driving mobile and instant messaging adoption. Because they have grown up with technology and information at their fingertips, millennials are highly connected and expect 24/7, on-demand access to the businesses and brands in their lives.

Gen X, baby boomers

In addition, the millennial obsession with mobile messaging is influencing older age groups, with text-based customer service now an increasingly popular choice for generation X and baby boomers.

Generation Z

Millennials have also set the precedent for generation Z. Mobile messaging use is even higher among the first true digital natives; they place even more emphasis on personalization and relevance when interacting with companies.

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The Challenge of Delivering What People Want

The adoption of mobile messaging as the preferred communication channel is forcing companies to change how they approach customer service. Today’s call centers no longer meet customer expectations. From long wait times to frequent departmental transfers and ineffective IVR systems, customer service can be a frustrating experience for consumers.

Now, in 2016, with the proliferation of new technology and 24-7, on-demand services, the shortcomings of customer-contact centers are even more apparent.

The competition is fierce, and customers have no forgiveness for poor service. A sub-par experience can destroy a consumer’s relationship with a business.

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Key Business Challenges Affecting Call Centers and Customer Loyalty

The shortcomings of the current call center model and its inability to effectively meet the needs of today’s customer also represent a significant opportunity for businesses. There has never been a more appropriate time to dissect the call center and explore new ways to increase its effectiveness.

Executives and business owners need to address the following three business challenges to ensure the future success of their contact centers:

  1. Offering a mobile-native, text-based customer service solution to keep up with the changing communication preferences of consumers.
  2. Satisfying the demand for always-on, 24-7 responsive service.
  3. Maintaining cost-efficiency  in call centers.

Each of these areas needs to be explored to maintain, or even improve, customer loyalty and Net Promoter Scores.

Challenge 1: Offering a mobile-native, text-based customer service solution

One of the drawbacks of telephonic customer service is the limit imposed by the phone on call center agents; they can only answer one customer inquiry per call. This limit drives costs up. In comparison, using mobile and web-based chat, agents can effectively manage as many as five inquiries simultaneously. This significantly reduces operational costs while providing a better experience for customers.

Fortunately, thanks to mobile messaging’s rapid rise in popularity, it’s now easier than ever to incorporate mobile chat into an existing customer communication strategy to better engage consumers. Mobile messaging is the modern vehicle for businesses to deliver great customer service at significantly lower costs. The result is a better customer experience that drives loyalty while improving the bottom line.

See also: How Chatbots Change Open Enrollment  

Using an intuitive interface familiar to more than two billion people, businesses can effectively engage with customers and fans using simple decision trees for fast and convenient issue resolution.

Benefits of mobile messaging solutions:

  1. On-demand customer service that allows consumers to get the information they need, when they need it, without having to look for it.
  2. Faster issue resolution thanks to an agent’s ability to manage more inquiries simultaneously.
  3. Reduced, or potentially eliminated, hold times.
  4. Real-time conversational connections with customers.
  5. Improved customer experience with greater omni-channel service capability.
  6. Secure identity authentication and user verification.

Challenge 2: Satisfying the demand for always-on, 24-7 responsive service

The role of automation, bots and artificial intelligence in customer communication has become an increasingly popular topic. And as the technology continues to develop, more businesses are starting to realize the benefits of automated customer service and how it can drive customer service ratings higher.

Chatbots are virtual agents that operate through natural language processing, meaning they are able to absorb, identify and react to a number of different queries. These sophisticated programs and targeted automated strategies provide an efficient solution to handle the high-volume, repetitive inquiries that overwhelm call centers. Businesses are then freed to devote more time and resources to customers who need one-to-one conversations. They can deliver a far better customer service experience at a far lower cost.

As with any emerging technologies, automation and chatbots need to be approached with tact. Currently, the best strategies use both human agents and chatbots. Businesses can test bot technology and assess what’s right for them without drastically affecting customer satisfaction.

A good starting point is a website’s frequently asked questions. Today, people are more inclined to seek information themselves than engage with a human agent. Using chatbots to automate FAQs is a cost-efficient test that can form the foundation for larger automation plans as the technology develops.

Chatbots can be used as the front-line customer service interface to answer the majority of repetitive inquiries. This combination helps businesses improve efficiencies without compromising customer satisfaction ratings.

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Challenge 3: Maintaining call center cost efficiency

Businesses can improve customer communication and drive customer satisfaction ratings by following a simple five-step process to automation:

1. Opportunity Analysis

  • Review customer service data
  • Examine IVRs and CSR scripts
  • Conduct Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis
  • Identify all opportunities for automation

2. Chatbot Design

  • Sketch blueprints including flow designs for all areas
  • Identify integrations needed to enable bots

3. Engineering and Integrations

  • Receive blueprint approval
  • Develop bots for intuitive user experience.

4. User-Acceptance Testing

  • Demo bots in test environment
  • Adjust as necessary

5. Activation and Optimization

  • Conduct marketing efforts for Phase I onboarding
  • Track usage analytics and fine-tune
  • Benchmark performance against key performance indicators.

With this approach, businesses are able to automate as much as 80% of low-level, repetitive inquiries, saving call center agents for the complex and uncommon issues that require the nuanced knowledge of a live agent. This results in faster issue resolution and more efficient service.

Chatbots: An Emerging Technology

Other technologies may help improve call centers incrementally, but chatbots offer the best, most revolutionary opportunity to scale their capacity and ensure future success. If archaic call center models can’t innovate and keep up with changing consumer trends, they’ll fast become obsolete.

See also: Mobile Messaging: How to Meet Rules  

As with any emerging technology, chatbots are still experiencing growing pains. They’re not perfect; key development issues must be overcome to improve the flow of conversation. Increased investment in chatbots and NLP will help the technology mature fast. And as it does, chatbots will increase in capability and become more common, providing new opportunities for businesses across all industries.

Private Exchanges: Panacea or Problem?

Employers trying to continue offering affordable health and welfare benefits amid the expanding costs and regulations enacted under the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA) often are encouraged by some consultants and brokers to consider offering  coverage options pursuant to a “private exchange.”

While these options sound attractive, not all work for all employers.

The consumer-driven healthcare and other private exchange lingo used to describe these arrangements often means different things to different people. Some “private exchanges” are little more than high-tech online cafeteria enrollment arrangements. (See, e.g., A ‘Cynical’ Look at Private Exchanges.)

Employers need to scrutinize proposals both for compliance and other legal risks, affordability and cost and other suitability. When considering a private exchange or other arrangement, it is important to understand clearly the proposal, its design, operation, participating vendors, the charges, what is excluded or costs extra and who is responsible for delivering what.

Agencies have issued a long stream of guidance cautioning employers against paying for or reimbursing premiums for individual policies or the cost of enrolling in coverage under a public health insurance exchange. (See, e.g., DOL Technical Release 2013-03IRS Notice 2013-54;Insurance Standards Bulletin, Application of Affordable Care Act Provisions to Certain Healthcare Arrangement; IRS May 13, 2014 FAQs available here. )Most recently, the new FAQS About Affordable Care Act Implementation (XXII) (FAQ XXII) published by the agencies on Nov. 6, 2014, reiterates agency guidance indicating that tax basis for purchasing individual coverage in lieu of group health plan coverage.  FAQ XXII, among other things, states:

  • Health reimbursement accounts (HRAS), health flexible spending arrangements (health FSAs) and certain other employer and union healthcare arrangements where the employer promises to reimburse health care costs: are considered group health plans subject to the Public Health Service Act (PHS Act) § 2711 annual limits, PHS Act § 2713 preventive care with no cost-sharing and other group market reform provisions of PHS Act §§ 2711-2719 and incorporated by reference into the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (Code) but
  • HRA or other premium reimbursement arrangements do not violate these market reform provisions when integrated with a group health plan that complies with such provisions. However, an employer healthcare arrangement cannot be integrated with individual market policies to satisfy the market reforms. Consequently, such an arrangement may be subject to penalties, including excise taxes under section 4980D of the Internal Revenue Code (Code).

FAQ XXII reinforces this prior guidance, stating, “Such employer healthcare arrangements cannot be integrated with individual market policies to satisfy the market reforms and, therefore, will violate PHS Act sections 2711 and 2713, among other provisions, which can trigger penalties such as excise taxes under section 4980D of the Code. Under the departments’ prior published guidance, the cash arrangement fails to comply with the market reforms because the cash payment cannot be integrated with an individual market policy.”

Another potential issue arises under the various tax and non-discrimination rules of the code and other federal laws.  For instance, Code sections 105, 125 and other Code provisions against discrimination in favor of highly compensated or key employees could arise based on the availability of options or enrollment participation.  Historically, many have assumed that these concerns could be managed by treating the premiums or value of discriminatory coverage as provided after-tax for highly compensated or key employees. However, IRS and Treasury leaders over the past year have made statements in various public meetings suggesting that the IRS does not view this as a solution. Of course, FAQ XXII also highlights the potential risks of underwriting or other practices of offering individual or other coverage in a manner that discriminates against disabled, elderly or other employees.

In addition to confirming that the arrangement itself doesn’t violate specific Code or other requirements, employers and others responsible for structuring these arrangements also should critically evaluate and document their analysis that the options offered are suitable. Like other employee benefit arrangements, ERISA generally requires that individual or group products offered by employers, unions or both be prudently selected and managed. Compensation arrangements for the brokers and consultants offering these arrangements also should be reviewed for prudence, as well as to ensure that the arrangements don’t violate ERISA’s prohibited transaction rules. Eligibility and other enrollment and related administrative systems and information sharing also should be critically evaluated under ERISA, as well as to manage exposures under the privacy and security rules of the Health Insurance & Portability Act (HIPAA) and other laws.

As a part of this analysis, employers and others contemplating involvement in these arrangements also will want to review the vendor contracts and operating systems of the vendors that will participate in the program for legal compliance, prudence for inclusion, prohibited transactions and other legal compliance, as well as to ensure that the contract holds the vendor responsible for delivering on service and other expectations created in the sales pitch. In reviewing the contract, special attention should be given to fiduciary allocations, indemnification and standards of performance, business associate or other privacy and data security assurances required to comply with HIPAA and other confidentiality and data security requirements and the like. The contractual commitments from the vendor also should cover expected operational performance and reliability as well as legal compliance and risk management.

Important Guidance on ACA Health Plans

The new FAQS About Affordable Care Act Implementation, published Nov. 6, 2014, confirm that employers can’t reimburse employees for purchasing individual coverage, even though various vendors are promoting that approach in lieu of group health plan coverage.

FAQ XXII makes clear that the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Treasury object to this practice. FAQ XXII makes clear that the departments consider ACA’s market reforms to outlaw any arrangement pursuant to which an employer provides cash reimbursement to employees for the purchase of an individual market policy, regardless of whether the reimbursement is paid on a pre- or after-tax basis.

This position is consistent with previous guidance that the departments have published, that health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs), health flexible spending arrangements (health FSAs) and certain other employer and union health care arrangements where the employer promises to reimburse health care costs are: considered group health plans subject to the Public Health Service Act (PHS Act) § 2711 annual limits, PHS Act § 2713 preventive care with no cost-sharing and other group market reform provisions of PHS Act §§ 2711-2719 and incorporated by reference into the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (Code).

HRA or other premium reimbursement arrangements do not violate these market reform provisions when integrated with a group health plan that complies with such provisions. However, an employer health care arrangement cannot be integrated with individual market policies to satisfy the market reforms. Consequently, such an arrangement may be subject to penalties, including excise taxes under section 4980D of the Internal Revenue Code (Code). (See, DOL Technical Release 2013-03; IRS Notice 2013-54; Insurance Standards Bulletin, Application of Affordable Care Act Provisions to Certain Healthcare Arrangement; IRS May 13, 2014 FAQs.)

FAQ XXII reinforces this prior guidance, stating, “Such employer health care arrangements cannot be integrated with individual market policies to satisfy the market reforms and, therefore, will violate PHS Act sections 2711 and 2713, among other provisions, which can trigger penalties such as excise taxes under section 4980D of the Code. Under the departments’ prior published guidance, the cash arrangement fails to comply with the market reforms because the cash payment cannot be integrated with an individual market policy.” (See, DOL Technical Release 2013-03; IRS Notice 2013-54; Insurance Standards Bulletin, Application of Affordable Care Act Provisions to Certain Healthcare Arrangements, Sept. 16, 2013.)

FAQ XXII also confirms the departments’ view that arrangements where a vendor markets a product to employers claiming that employers can cancel their group policies, set up a Code section 105 reimbursement plan that works with health insurance brokers or agents to help employees select individual insurance policies, and allow eligible employees to access the premium tax credits or other HRA dollars to pay for Marketplace coverage are illegal.

According to FAQ XXII, these arrangements are problematic for several reasons, including:

The arrangements themselves are group health plans. Therefore, employees participating in such arrangements are ineligible for premium tax credits (or cost-sharing reductions) for Marketplace coverage. The mere fact that the employer does not get involved with an employee’s individual selection or purchase of an individual health insurance policy does not prevent the arrangement from being a group health plan. Department of Labor guidance indicates that the existence of a group health plan is based on many circumstances, including the employer’s involvement in the overall scheme and the absence of an unfettered right by the employee to receive the employer contributions in cash.

Under DOL Technical Release 2013-03, IRS Notice 2013-54 and the two IRS FAQs addressing employer health care arrangements, such arrangements are subject to the market reform provisions of the Affordable Care Act, including the PHS Act § 2711 prohibition on annual limits and the PHS Act § 2713 requirement to provide certain preventive services without cost sharing. Such employer health care arrangements cannot be integrated with individual market policies to satisfy the market reforms and, therefore, will violate PHS Act §§ 2711 and 2713, among other provisions, which can trigger penalties such as excise taxes under Code § 4980D.

FAQ XXII also confirms the department’s position that an employer violates the ACA provisions of PHS Act § 2705, ERISA § 715 and Code § 9815, as well as the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) nondiscrimination provisions of ERISA section 702 and Code § 9802 prohibiting discrimination based on one or more health factors if it offers selectively only to employees with high claims risk a choice between enrollment in its standard group health plan or cash.

FAQ XXII clarifies that while the departments’ regulations allow more favorable rules for eligibility or reduced premiums or contributions based on an adverse health factor (sometimes referred to as benign discrimination), in the departments’ view this position does not extend to cash-or-coverage arrangements offered only to employees with a high claims risk. Accordingly, FAQ XXII states such arrangements will violate the nondiscrimination provisions, regardless of whether (1) the cash payment is treated by the employer as pre-tax or post-tax to the employee, (2) the employer is involved in the selection or purchase of any individual market product or (3) the employee obtains any individual health insurance.

Beyond these concerns stated in FAQ XXII, employers and others contemplating offering such a choice also should discuss potential exposures under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and, depending on the nature of the condition, Medicare law.

In light of this new guidance and previous guidance published by the departments, employers and others sponsoring or contemplating engaging in these arrangements are encouraged to contact competent counsel for assistance in understanding the potential concerns raised by involvement in these practices and their resolution.