We’ve all seen the popular “Jake from State Farm” commercial in which a contact center employee is answering a customer’s questions from a cubical at 3:00 a.m. From an industry perspective, the ad is particularly interesting because it highlights some of the changes that we’ve seen in contact center operations in the last three decades.
Some of us are old enough to remember the days when all insurance issues were handled directly through an agent. Because nearly everything was handled at this local level, most customers formed strong relationships with their agents and didn’t switch insurance companies unless there was a very compelling reason to do so.
Shifting from Local to National Customer Care
The introduction of insurance contact centers came in the late 1970s and 1980s with some of the agents’ responsibilities shifting to regional and national customer service representatives. Using automatic call distributors (ACD), calls could be routed to different desks and even to multiple contact centers. These early hubs for customer service typically operated during normal business hours and were designed to enable policyholders to ask questions about their policies and to get help with common issues such as filing a claim or making a change to a policy.
Entering the Internet Age
With the introduction of the Internet, the insurance contact center began to shift from the traditional image of a room full of people on the phone to a center with specialized teams managing a variety of communication channels. In the 1990s, insurance companies launched their first websites, which also led to the development of self-service capabilities such as online ordering and FAQs, along with email.
With customers’ increased ability to access information and communicate online, those within the insurance industry, as well as nearly every other industry, realized that customer service was not something that could be managed on the phone only during traditional office hours. The dawn of the 24/7 contact center had begun.
Along with delivering new channels of communication like email, the Internet also brought substantial innovation to telephony. Insurance companies could see the tremendous opportunity of incorporating voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology into their contact centers.
To cut costs and to be able to deliver around-the-clock customer service, nearly all of the major players in the insurance industry began switching to computer-based VoIP phones. Because of the flexibility and low cost of VoIP, some insurance companies began to move some of their contact center operations offshore to countries that offered low price solutions, including English-speaking customer service agents. Those insurance companies that tried offshoring had varying degrees of success with this cost-cutting strategy. Some continue to have segments of their contact center operations managed in overseas offices while others have returned to solely domestic operations to maintain a higher level of control and customer support.
VoIP technology also opened the door for insurance companies to create distributed workforces that could either work from home offices or in smaller regional offices, as opposed to from one central, corporate location. This flexibility has opened up new opportunities for managing call flows.
Managing Multi-Channel Customer Engagement
In the last five years, the social web and mobile devices have dramatically changed how customers engage with insurance contact centers. Policyholders are nearly as likely to contact their insurance provider by web chat or a mobile app as they are by calling. Changing insurance companies can be handled in a matter of minutes all from a mobile device. Customer complaints can be broadcast widely across social media channels like Facebook and Twitter. And there is increasing customer expectation that all of the various communication channels used today will work together.
In other words, customers don’t want to have to repeat their issue each time they switch channels. In fact, many customers now use two or more channels at once to resolve a problem or to get an answer to their question. Today’s insurance contact center management teams are now realizing that having multiple siloed channels doesn’t create a better customer experience. In fact, it can lead to increased customer frustration and higher churn rates.
The Future Is Integration
The new goal of insurance contact centers is integration between these channels. Customers want flexibility, personalization, and fast, accessible service. This is requiring contact centers to explore new technologies to support these expectations and to develop new strategies for delivering them. Training is a big part of the picture. Contact center professionals are no longer just individuals who take phone calls. They now have to field inquiries coming from a variety of channels and orchestrate ways to deliver a superior customer experience at every touch-point.
With new communication channels coming on board and more customers expecting service to be consistent across each one, an integrated approach to enhancing the customer experience will be the way to differentiate from the competitors.