In an April 14 LinkedIn Pulse post, I quoted an excerpt from Seth Godin’s blog that was related to the issue of online insurance buying. I got so much response to that LinkedIn posting excerpt that I asked, and received, Seth’s permission to reprint it here in its entirety. You’ll find it below.
More recently, he blogged about “When Time Catches Up.” Here is an excerpt from that post:
Bad decisions happen for one of two reasons:
You’re in a huge hurry, and you can’t process all the incoming properly. But more common…
The repercussions of your decision won’t happen for months or years. This is why we don’t save for retirement, don’t pay attention to long-term environmental issues and, tragically, tolerate (or fall prey to) irrational rants about things like vaccines. It might be engaging or soothing to promote a palliative idea now, but years later, when innocent kids are sick and dying, the regrets are real.
A bad decision isn’t only bad because we’re uninformed or dumb. It can be bad because we are swayed by short-term comfort and ignore long-term implications. A bad decision feels good in the short run, the heartfelt decision of someone who means well. But there’s a gap when we get to the long run.
This is related to what many of the insurtech start-ups refer to as the “customer experience.” Their solution for what can be a painful process (purchasing insurance) is to just reduce it to a phone app with a two- to three-minute processing time. The problem is, as Seth puts it, we are often swayed by short-term comfort and ignore long-term implications. As an insurance professional, your responsibility is to educate consumers that shortcuts like this can result in financial disaster if they do not take the time to ascertain their exposures to loss and address them.
Seth characterizes himself as someone who “writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything.” I find that much of what he blogs about can be applied to our industry.
If you don’t subscribe to Seth’s daily blog, I encourage you to do so. It is almost always interesting and often very insightful.
Now, on with the original blog post I mentioned at the start above….
Sort by price is the dominant way that shopping online now happens. The cheapest airline ticket or widget or freelancer comes up first, and most people click.
It’s a great shortcut for a programmer, of course, because the price is a number, and it’s easy to sort.
Alphabetical could work even more easily, but it seems less relevant (especially if you’re a fan of Zappos or Zima).
The problem: Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s as useful as it appears.
It’s lazy for the consumer. If you can’t take the time to learn about your options, about quality, about side effects, then it seems like buying the cheapest is the way to go–they’re all the same anyway, we think.
And it’s easy for the producer. Nothing is easier to improve than price. It takes no nuance, no long-term thinking, no concern about externalities. Just become more brutal with your suppliers and customers, and cut every corner you can. And then blame the system.
The merchandisers and buyers at Wal-Mart were lazy. They didn’t have to spend much time figuring out if something was better, they were merely focused on price, regardless of what it cost their community in the long run.
We’re part of that system, and if we’re not happy with the way we’re treated, we ought to think about the system we’ve permitted to drive those changes.
What would happen if we insisted on ‘sort by delight’ instead?
What if the airline search engines returned results sorted by a (certainly difficult) score that combined travel time, aircraft quality, reliability, customer service, price and a few other factors? How would that change the experience of flying?
This extends far beyond air travel. We understand that it makes no sense to hire someone merely because they charge the cheapest wage. That we shouldn’t pick a book or a movie or a restaurant simply because it costs the least.
There are differences, and, sometimes, those differences are worth what they cost.
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.
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.
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.
So much is said these days about enhancing the customer experience, “delighting” customers and delivering customer service that goes “above and beyond.” For large enterprises, particularly in the insurance industry, this focus on customer experience is fast becoming a key competitive differentiator.
Disruptors in the e-commerce, retail and hospitality industries have set the standard for new-age customer service. Amazon, Zappos and AirBnB are notable examples. This standard is spilling into other industries. In fact, 89% of companies expect to compete on the basis of customer experience vs. only 36% only four years ago, according to Gartner.
But the question remains: Should every company try to be an Amazon or Zappos with their “whatever it takes” approach to customer service? I argue they shouldn’t. And, quite frankly, they can’t.
Know what your customer REALLY wants
Insurance, for example, is a low-interest, low-involvement category in that people rarely get excited about paying a policy premium or filing a claim. Can insurance carriers and providers delight policy-holders? Do policy-holders want to be delighted? I think about it like a visit to my dentist. My dentist is a great guy, very professional and takes great care of my teeth, but I always dread going and am glad when it’s over. The reality is, no matter how personable he his, how comfortable the chair is or how new the magazines are, I simply can’t be delighted. It is the dentist, after all.
In the context of insurance, customers focus more on utility than on the extraneous features. It’s just like going to the dentist. Customers want to get in, get it done and get out as quickly and as painlessly as possible. The same is true for customer service. Customers just need the basics to run smoothly. They want processing their claim to be easy, and they want to move on. Everything else — any extraneous features — comes second.
Despite this attitude, the insurance industry is in desperate need of innovation. In fact, it’s a $1.2 trillion dollar behemoth that’s begging for disruption. The proliferation of technology and innovation across other industries, such as retail and banking, means consumers are expecting the same level of innovation elsewhere — and insurance is in their sights.
How can insurance companies approach innovation without overhauling the customer experience and over-complicating things in the process? The answer is simple: focus on utility over features.
Utility over features
Insurance companies need to determine what their customers’ most basic demands are and must seek to fulfill them before exploring any transformative technology, additional features or new processes. When exploring new ways technology can improve business, it’s easy to get swept up in the sexiness and promise of innovation — the dreaded technology-for-technology’s-sake initiative!
But to be effective, executives should approach innovation and new technology with a clear strategic and connected directive. Often, we crawl into our own heads and, with the best intentions, solve for a business problem without understanding the effect on customers. A thorough understanding from the customer’s perspective is essential, as is an understanding of how to align customer needs with the company’s overall direction. So the key is starting off small. Implement a simple process change to introduce customers to a new way of doing things and expand from there.
Because while innovation is desperately needed, we mustn’t forget that change is hard. People, and especially large enterprises, are naturally resistant to change. Inertia, complacency and “that’s the way we’ve always done it” attitudes are easy and-all-too common in the insurance sector.
Insurance customers aren’t ready for a revolution, either. Nor do they necessarily want one. Changes in technology mean a new learning curve, and if that curve is too steep or not thoughtfully executed with the customer in mind, the satisfaction plummets.
Customer satisfaction is simple
Your goal is to save customers time, save them money or simplify their experience (bonus points if you can do all three!). And at the core of any great experience is getting to the root of the customer’s problem. Customers aren’t always looking to be “delighted,” but they are looking for an answer.
So I’m not suggesting an “Amazon-ification” of the insurance industry, but I do believe all companies should be aware of companies that are raising the bar and setting customer experience expectations. Think of it as another way to manage risk in the marketplace. There is a price tag associated with increased levels of customer service. Not all customer segments are created equal, but a more granular understanding of cost to serve, customer expectations and profitability are foundational to building the best customer strategy.
As customers increasingly demand a better experience when they interact with companies, including insurers, help is coming from a counterintuitive source. It turns out that one of the best ways to be more personal is through… robots.
More precisely, the answer is turning out to be chat robots, or “chatbots.”
People don’t like having to phone call centers and wade through that phone tree — “Para continuar en espanol, oprima uno… For billing, press 2; for….” Many, especially younger people, just want to be able to text a question and get it answered. That’s how they handle everything else. So, many companies are realizing they need to have customer service reps that respond to texts, and they’re seeing an opening to use chatbots.
Using so-called natural language processing to understand a text message and then drawing on artificial intelligence to both find the answer and generate a reply, chatbots can handle perhaps 70% to 80% of queries. They can hand a conversation off to a human when necessary and can take the conversation over again, without the customer’s ever realizing that a bot has been involved or that a handoff occurred. In fact, the bots can wind up sounding a lot less robotic than the standard call center rep who is only allowed to read off a script.
The bots are so efficient about finding answers that they actually have to be slowed down, so the customer doesn’t think, “No one could type that fast,” and wonder if a computer is involved. (A certain percentage of typos can also be programmed to appear, as can emojis or lots of exclamation points, to make the bots seem more human. You can actually program the bots to have different personalities.)
With so many mundane tasks handled by bots, the call-center reps get to deal with more interesting issues and can spend more time with customers, giving everyone a better experience.
Although they haven’t shown up widely in insurance yet, they are in use in numerous other industries, with great success.
Chatbots have been around for more than 20 years. Why should companies pay attention to chatbots now?
For starters, these days just about everyone is carrying a super-computer around in her pocket. In 1991, 1GB of flash memory would have cost around $45,000. Now, most phones have at least 32GB of memory. Processors are more than 1,000 times as fast as they were in 1991. So, the technology for chatbots is lightyears ahead of where it was.
Companies have also placed an increased focus on messaging, including with bots. Facebook Messenger uses more than 11,000 chatbots to respond to messages. The chat app Kik recently said that more than 20,000 bots have been made specifically for its platform.
Perhaps even more importantly, the pendulum in the customer-business relationship has swung heavily in favor of the customer. Companies no longer control the message/brand; it’s all out there in the ether, and companies need to guard their reputations by caring for customers. Some companies, such as Zappos, have pretty much built their businesses on the customer experience, while others, including cable companies (Comcast, most notoriously), are vilified.
Insurance companies can see what’s happening in other industries and see what they need to do. Net Promoter Scores (NPS) are the insurance industry’s most consistent measurement of customer loyalty, and, despite some pockets of brilliance by individuals, most of the time the insurance industry stinks. Chatbots can help.
Chatbots create a conversational web and conversational commerce. They can even be programmed to wish the customer a happy birthday or happy anniversary or make some comment about how long the customer had been with the company.
Chatbots make a company’s behavior more consistent across the board, especially in terms of elegance and simplicity. On top of that, it’s easy to keep the bots on-message, and they only need to be trained once.
In 2013, it was estimated that it takes five screens to get a user to where he wants to go. In 2015, that number has increased to seven. Bots get the information almost instantly, even if that means going to a deep link in an app or on a site or in a corporate data center.
Bots aren’t “one size fits all.” They’re “one size fits one.” So work has to go into customizing them for a company. But simple bots such as for frequently asked questions can go live in a day, and an ecosystem of bots can be developed over time. Once a bot exceeds its ability to answer a question, it might initially pass the question to a human, but, in time, the handoff could go to another bot that has been developed.
Bots will also be able to take on more tasks, including outreach to customers. Bots could automatically alert customers of an impending hurricane and begin a dialogue with them about what steps to take to prepare, who to call if they need immediate assistance, how to file claims, etc.
In insurance, there’s nothing like the Domino’s pizza tracker, which allows a customer to follow along with an order every step of the way, from the order to the oven to the front door. But there will be, and imagine how helpful that will be with claims. Many customer calls are about where their claims are in the process, so streamlining it and providing a bot with the capabilities to respond to the customer would make the process easier, eliminate a lot of calls — and make the customer much happier.
Of course, an insurance bot isn’t going to answer “what is the meaning of life?” or “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” like Apple’s Siri can. But a bot can be tailored and trained to answer many questions, filling a gaping hole in the insurance world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.