Customer Service Focus
What's happening to customer service in the digital age?
It's easy to buy insurance online…but what if you have a question or a problem?
By Jaye Kasper, CPCU, CPD, CRM
Ever since the song "It's a Small World" made its first
appearance at the 1964 World's Fair, the title has become the theme for what
appears to be a shrinking universe. Getting around the world in 80 days used to
seem like a wonder; now you can do it in less than 80 hours. Letters from
relatives overseas used to take weeks or months to arrive. The telegraph and
telephone were fantastic improvements—but now we can Skype in real time
with anyone who has a compatible computer connection.
Like many industries, a large and growing segment of the
insurance business uses today's high-tech tools to sell products and provide
customer service via toll-free numbers with automated voice prompts and
"contact us" links on Web sites. People who are looking for a personal auto
policy have literally hundreds of options to choose from and can obtain quotes,
make payments, and request a policy and ID cards, all within a few minutes from
the security of their home—or even on their smart phone! Homeowners policies
and life insurance are equally streamlined and automated, and many other
coverage lines are going in the same direction.
Skype, social networking, and instant messaging have made the
world much smaller—but in this super-charged, technology-driven
environment, what has happened to customer service?
Is it—like the black rotary-dial telephone of old—a
quaint relic of previous centuries? Are insurance professionals doomed to
dwindling importance and eventual removal from the sales and service process?
Surprisingly, the answer is a firm "No!" Instead of quoting facts
and figures to prove the case, I'll offer a real-life demonstration.
Caught in the "Web"
Wondering what benefit there was to eliminating the human aspect
of a simple transaction, I spent some time wandering through the online
universe. Using my bank and credit card providers as test cases, I called each
one of them at the "immediate" contact number listed. Of 11 calls, only one
actually got me through to a real person—who had to refer my call to a
manager, even though all I was doing was checking a balance. In every case,
there were many buttons to press and responses to give—and in some
instances, the system response time actually caused my cell phone to drop the
connection due to inactivity on the line. Did I feel closer to any of those
institutions? Actually, no. I felt like a tiny little goldfish in a huge pond,
surrounded by giant barracudas.
Gritting my teeth, I went onto a competitor's Web site to look at
auto insurance quotes for my elderly mother. Comparisons were fairly simple to
get—although they didn't all give me the coverage I asked for, and some
didn't "save" the information I entered beyond the first screen.
When I goofed and accidentally purchased a policy, the huge pond
suddenly expanded to an entire ocean. First, I frantically looked for an "undo"
button. Like life, however, there wasn't one. Then I tried to find company
contact information. Investments, opportunities, our history; where on Earth is
the "help" option? Half an hour later, I located the phone number—by
Googling the company—and then sat through another hour of transfers and
button pushing to connect with a human being.
From half a world away (India, in fact), a kind gentleman told me
that I couldn't cancel the transaction until the policy had been processed.
When he finally understood that I wanted to stop the processing, he regretfully
informed me that he could handle only technical questions. When I asked who
would be able to respond to my request, I was given a number for customer
Another call, more button pushing, more transfers—and I
learned that until the policy was issued, I actually wasn't a "customer" and
the company couldn't help me. (The understanding lady did chat for a moment,
however, and I learned that she was at a call center in Mexico that also
processed incoming Internet sales/purchasing requests.)
Giving up on the Internet, I called my local credit union.
Surprisingly, it took only two button presses and one transfer to find a real
person I had actually met before. At this point, though, I was not surprised to
learn that she couldn't help me with a "stop payment" request. Why? Because the
credit union had recently outsourced processing to a facility in the Far East,
where it was now the middle of the night.
Instead of a goldfish in an ocean, I now felt like a sandflea on
an island in the Bermuda Triangle, which had itself disappeared into some
mysterious vortex that might actually turn out to be a black hole. And no one
cared or could help, because no one knew I was there.
Although I'd like to say this experience was atypical, just about
everyone has a similar horror story about trying—and failing—to get
timely and helpful customer service.
How did I resolve my dilemma? I'm glad you asked!
Enter the independent agent
Leaving the vast universe of uncaring, distant and unhelpful
people, I called a familiar number—my local independent agent. No "press
1 now," no waiting, no mechanical voice repeating that my call was important.
My agent answered the phone on the second ring (he was actually eating a
doughnut and had to swallow, he said, or he'd have had it on the first one). I
told him my problem, he put me on hold (after laughing at my predicament for a
minute), and was back on the line within two minutes to say he had contacted
the company in question and had gotten it to stop the processing, reverse the
automatic payment deducted from my account, and even requested that a
termination notice be sent showing that no coverage had been in effect and no
The point of my story is to show that we, as independent
insurance professionals, play a vital role in the industry. We filter oceans of
information, provide useful information to our clients, help them understand
policy terms and conditions, offer guidance in making good coverage decisions,
and run interference if the process goes haywire. We do all the things a Web
site or toll-free call center can't do: give a clear, quick answer to a
client's question, offer advice when appropriate, correct mistakes on a timely
basis, and hold ourselves accountable to our clients. We gather information and
present recommendations in a face-to-face meeting where handshakes and smiles
replace system errors, frozen search engines, and music on hold.
Thanks to technology, the world may be getting smaller—but
it will always have room for top-notch independent agency professionals!
Jaye Kasper recently celebrated
25 years in the commercial insurance industry. With both agency and company
experience, she is able to understand conditions on both sides of the desk.
Jaye has earned several awards and holds 14 professional designations.
For information on the
Certified Insurance Service Representative (CISR), CIC or CRM programs, go to: