HIGH TECH, LOW TOUCH: WHAT’S HAPPENING TO CUSTOMER SERVICE IN THE DIGITAL AGE?

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 manage even though all I was doing was checking a balance. In every case, there were many buttons 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 service. 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 termi tion notice be sent showing that coverage had been in effect and premium charged.

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 our clients, help them understand policy terms and conditions, offer guidance in making good coverage decisions, and run interference if 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, music on hold. Thanks to technology, the world may be getting smaller— but it will always have room for top-notch independent agency professionals!

■ by Jane Kasper for the February 2012 of Rough Notes Magazine. The author Jaye Kasper recently celebrated 25 years in the commercial insurance industry.

 

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