Customer Service Focus

Building relationships

Customers crave a personal approach

By Linda Faulkner, CIC

Customer service isn’t about the product or service you sell. It isn’t about price, packaging, or convenience either—no matter what anyone tells you.

Customer service is all about relationships.

When you have a problem and need to make a phone call to rectify it, do you want to push a series of buttons so that, ultimately, you can listen to a mechanical voice provide you with fast, efficient, customer service that doesn’t do anything to answer your questions? Wouldn’t you rather speak with a real, live, human being?

Most of us prefer talking to another human being, even if that person can’t initially answer our question. And I’ll tell you why.

When we make a telephone call and a machine greets us, even one with artificial intelligence, we don’t feel special. We don’t feel important. The machine reduces us to its own level: unable to understand or handle anything that hasn’t been programmed into it. We can’t connect with a machine. The machine can’t offer us an apology, sympathy, or a resolution to our problem. It can’t make us feel special or important—emotions can’t be programmed into a machine.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a choice when making that phone call. Increasing numbers of businesses, including insurance companies and agencies, have machines answer their telephone calls. Once upon a time, if you hit the zero button when you heard a recorded message, you were automatically routed to the operator or receptionist— a real, live, human being. That doesn’t always happen now. Just as often as not, you’re disconnected when you try to take that shortcut!

If your company’s automated telephone answering system offers a directory, or if you are able to give your clients a direct dial option, this often mitigates your clients’ frustration and enhances their customer service experience. Why is that? Because of relationships.

Statistics show that approximately 60% - 70% of an insurance CSR’s work time is spent on the telephone. That’s an enormous figure. Different people may find this percentage to be higher or lower, depending upon the nature and location of their business and their individual personalities. Why is that? Because of relationships.

Do many of your clients visit you at the office instead of making a phone call? Do you find that particular clients always visit instead of calling? Why is that? You guessed it—relationships. They’re the warm, touchy-feely kind of people who need human interaction, who enjoy watching the expressions on a person’s face when they’re involved in a conversation, who thrive on the give and take with other people: visual, auditory, and physical. They may slow down your day, but they’re the people who’ll remain your loyal customers forever—unless you offend them and send the message that they’re no longer special and important.

When you welcome these people and call them by name, they feel special. When you ask them how their kids are doing or how their most recent business trip went, they feel important because you remembered. When you offer them a cup of tea because you remember they don’t drink coffee, they know that you care and that they matter.

You can do somewhat the same kinds of things during a telephone conversation, but the relationship has to be expressed in your voice, in your tone, and by the words you say. When you communicate your caring, you’re connecting with your clients. And that’s why they’re loyal.

When your client calls you on the phone and is upset, do you immediately get defensive? Do you get angry? Do you pass the client on to someone else? Or do you tell her you’re sorry she’s upset? Do you ask her to tell you all about it? Do you tell her you’ll do whatever you can to fix the situation?

The nature of the relationship—either the level of your caring and respect for that particular client or the level of your professionalism—will dictate your response.

In more than 30 years of working in the insurance industry directly with clients, I’ve found that the strongest relationships are those with clients who once had a problem that the CSR (or producer, or receptionist) was able to correct. Why is that? Yep—you know the answer.

Relationships are all about caring. If a client expresses that he’s upset, and you care enough to listen, you’re sending a positive message.

Once you confirm your understanding of the reason for the client’s being upset, the client knows he’s that much closer to having his problem resolved. After all, as your mother said, “How can you fix something if you don’t know it’s broken?” Then, when you tell your client what you’re going to do and not only do it, but follow up with him, he knows you’re a person of your word. You can be trusted; he’s important enough for you to care about. And he’s not ever going to switch insurance agents—because you’re the best.

Think about the personalities of most producers in comparison with the personalities of most CSRs. Producers tend to be more assertive, more direct, more forceful. On the other hand, CSRs tend to be more laid-back, more patient, and more flexible.

When a client makes a complaint, whom does she generally make that complaint to—Penny Producer or Cheryl CSR? It’s all going to depend upon her relationships with the individuals involved. She may really like and trust Penny, but if Penny doesn’t always follow through and Cheryl does, the client will probably call Cheryl. She may adore Penny, but if Penny’s calls always go to voice mail and she has to wait several hours for a return call, she may simply call Cheryl direct because Cheryl nearly always answers.

On the other hand, if Cheryl is always in a hurry when she calls and makes her feel as if she’s interrupting, the client may not mind waiting for Penny to get back to her. Especially if Penny asks how her golf game is, how her kids are, and doesn’t mind spending 20 minutes on the phone.

There will always be the occasional person who cares more about money than relationships. There will always be the person who prefers handling his insurance online at 2:00 a.m. And there will always be the majority of people for whom relationships drive them when choosing an insurance agent—or a barber, or a pediatrician, or a CPA. So, do your very best to build relationships, which generate loyalty, and are the best tools to retaining your clients.

The author
Linda Faulkner, CIC, has performed every function within an insurance agency. She has founded two insurance agencies during her career and recently started Faulkner Education Services. Linda is also a faculty member for the Dynamics of Service program. For more information on Dynamics of Service and the CISR program, go to or call (800) 633-2165.