Over the past two years, I've gained valuable insight into the workings of a call centre operation. As a loss adjuster of 15 years standing, I'd managed to avoid contact with call centres whenever possible – until I found myself heading a team tasked by an insurer with re-engineering its claims handling processes in a large domestic claims office.

The objective was to achieve maximum leakage control without damaging customer service levels – leakage being the amount by which the settlement of a claim exceeded the amount required to make a settlement under the terms of the policy.

Apart from changing the business, my new job required considerable personal adjustment. After years assessing damage and loss in the field, I was now looking at the process through the eyes of the battalions in the call centre.

It quickly became clear that there was something of a culture clash. Staff were suspicious about the appointment of an external manager. The situation wasn't improved by my failure to dress appropriately. While the call centre's dress code was casual, in true consultancy style I turned up dressed for business and was immediately dubbed “the man in a suit”.

More fundamental was a difference in approach. The call centre staff had been brought up to believe in customer care as an article of faith, while I was used to adopting a more circumspect attitude towards claims handling.

Service first – at a cost
The desire to meet service standards had clouded the claims handlers' judgment on many occasions. This was demonstrated when a man was able to take out a new policy in the morning and successfully make his first claim during the same afternoon, without any sign of a premium being paid or an enquiry being raised by the handler. I don't doubt that the claim was genuine, but routine checks should have been in place to establish this.

Telephone conversations were monitored and I was intrigued to hear a claims handler seeking to persuade a policyholder to make a claim when the policyholder was clearly disinclined to do so. Is that customer care?

Used to working “flexible” hours, the idea that there should be a cavalry charge out of the office at 5pm was anathema to me. On the other hand, the idea of being controlled by a time clock starting at 8am was equally foreign. Working within these constraints made it hard to establish a culture of collective ownership of problems and a shared desire to see them resolved.

Over the past decade, the number of call centres has increased dramatically as insurers have centralised claims handling in a drive to improve service and save money. The system is geared towards meeting the demanding service criteria the insurers set themselves.

While being fully familiar with service ethics and their importance, I found that the effort exerted to achieve service standards far outweighed the time and resources dedicated to improving the technical knowledge and understanding of claims handlers.

My previous experience of call centres was minimal, largely confined to listening to Vivaldi while on hold. It's surprising how little companies that interact with call centres know of the many real difficulties associated with operating high-volume personal lines claim operations.

The changing climate (from an intensive claims-handling process to a more customer-focused operation with the emphasis on speed, supported by the latest IT systems) has led to the near-extinction of the knowledgable claims “technician”. The “dinosaur” is, in fact, typically a person of considerable technical ability who has gained a wealth of experience over many years. Having been nurtured on technical skills, as opposed to being wholly customer-focused, such people do not fit easily into the call centre environment.

The drain of technical skills from the insurance industry gathers apace with every merger or re-organization. Significant areas of the country are now devoid of claims handling operations.

With every closure, senior management believes that a substantial proportion of technically qualified staff will relocate with the job and that any shortfall will be made up using existing staff or recruiting from the beleaguered local market. In reality, few staff seem willing to relocate – and who can blame them?

Securing staff
Relocation used to be associated with a movement up the career ladder. Nowadays, however, it becomes almost a necessity if one wishes to remain in employment. Claims staff appear to be regarded as a dispensable commodity and it requires a leap of faith on the part of some employees to commit to relocation, when in reality their future job security is questionable.

A concern for insurers must be that while they appear to have no difficulty in producing customer-focused call centre staff, they have significant difficulty in developing good quality technicians.

The environment in which call centre staff operate is largely process-driven, with little scope, or time, for critical thought. Operators are judged on the number and duration of the calls handled and anything “technical” is referred to a controller. Training can often be limited to the first few weeks of employment, tending to be focused more on internal procedures training than on an understanding of claims. Certainly, from my experience, very few of the call centre staff I worked with saw claims as a career.

A former colleague recently reminded me of the difficulties in recruiting quality technicians. He had tried to recruit two without success. The quality of the candidates, already employed in senior technical roles with other insurers, left him underwhelmed. One has to ask where the claims managers of the future will come from.

Another problem facing call centre managers is their ability to retain staff. The core skill of many claim call centre staff is not their technical knowledge, but their ability to operate in a call centre environment. They can easily adapt to working in other types of call centres and therefore movement of staff between industries is far more commonplace. Insurers no longer have to fear losing their staff just to other insurers, but to any company that chooses to locate a call centre in their vicinity.

If this de-skilling of the industry is to be averted, then senior management needs to arrest the perpetual loss of talent from the industry. It needs to create an environment within call centres where people are encouraged to learn the technical skills required and have an opportunity to use them. The alternatives are to face the prospect that these skills will have to be brought in, provided that they can still be found, or to outsource a major part of the claims handling operation.

What I learnt from my days of call centre management could be summarised as follows. Quality should not be judged solely on the basis of one's ability to answer the telephone. Leakage can be controlled, but training and technical depth must be reinforced, if necessary from the outside. And it is possible to retain customer satisfaction too, so long as the people, processes and software are working together under experienced, technical control. Smart software is not a substitute for field experience just yet.

  • Jeremy Baker is a director of Claim Analysts, the consultancy arm of The Claims People Group.

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