Michael Graham says that a joined-up approach is a must for quality customer service

Service is often described as a major challenge for brokers and carriers, and is regularly touted as a key competitive differentiator. No one doubts its importance, but it is rare that service excellence and business systems efficiency are considered holistically, let alone put into practice together.

I believe that it is important for service to be treated in a context that is not solely defined in terms of the customer – it must include employees and all other key stakeholders if it expects to deliver on its promise.

All forward-thinking organisations strive to differentiate themselves from the competition by providing a better experience for customers. But customer service, purely considered as a soft skill based on interpersonal relationships, is missing part of the jigsaw.

A more joined-up approach should unite people, their processes and data through technology to create a more tangible overall proposition. This challenge of aligning operational and technical service excellence is becoming even greater in the market today and will be one of the key battles that determines the winners and losers of tomorrow.

Business definition

For every aspect of service there is a business as well as a technology definition. The business definition is about levels of customer service and satisfaction – business levels of service.

The technology definition is about technical service level agreements – applications and functions that support business processes and decisions. Excellent service is virtually impossible to achieve if the front end and the back end of the business are not in step. So what does this mean in practical terms?

Access to properly structured, secure and accurate core data is essential. How can service be anything other than a lottery if names and addresses are duplicated across multiple systems, with the risk of inconsistency between disparate sources, or worse, lost or stolen in the post with the attendant risks of theft and fraud?

Recent news reports only serve to reinforce the degrees of embarrassment such service failures create for the organisations that suffer them.

Another key building block is the interaction and communication between systems which may have distinct, but complementary, responsibilities. For example, document management systems, general ledgers and core transaction systems have discrete functions, but they should not operate in silos if they are expected to deliver customer satisfaction and value.

It is not uncommon to find a system processing risks in one place and the financial transactions related to those risks stored and processed in a completely isolated application. This makes joining information up more difficult than it needs to be.

Joined-up view

This scenario is also not uncommon in claims processing, arguably the most prominent and important service that insurance delivers. If those working on claims do not have access to, and alignment with, all of the original contract details together with any supporting information, how can organisations expect to have a joined-up view?

It is not just the internal needs of an organisation that rely on properly structured and controlled access to information.

All stakeholders have requirements in this regard including the regulatory authorities.

The FSA insists on evidence to substantiate any organisation’s systems, controls and procedures. The firm that struggles to provide evidence to the FSA of how business is processed is far less likely to be able to demonstrate service to its own clients.

Only when information has been properly structured can the cost of processing and servicing be seen. This has the double benefit of allowing organisations to not only monitor service levels internally, but also to pinpoint highly profitable or problematic accounts.

When information is ‘trapped’ or is highly frictional as it passes from one system to another, it is no surprise that something as fundamental as credit control becomes a laborious exercise.

Asking the question, ‘how long does it take to find out who are your debtors, the extent of that debt and its age?’ reveals the extent to which systems and service are in sync.

In many organisations technology is separated both physically and emotionally from the people it is designed to serve. Neither people nor technology can stand alone.

If organisations can align technical service excellence with their people and business systems, then operational excellence is an achievable goal. For organisations to deliver real customer satisfaction externally, and derive value from their business and technical systems internally, they need a smart and aligned mix of the operational and the technical.