Alf Saggese explains how a common knowledge-base system can help brokers to better understand the needs of customers

Customer service is firmly in the spotlight with. the FSA's 'treating customers fairly' initiative, and the industry's move to raise professional standards, a key theme of the recent CII conference.

These initiatives are well timed, and should place insurance in the vanguard of customer service best practice.

The dynamics of the broker market - particularly for retail products - does, however, create particular challenges. First, the provider of the service does not own the customer relationship, even though it may well be in direct contact with them. Second, customers may only make contact once or twice a year, if that: so the scope for developing a profitable customer relationship is limited. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, customers don't actually care who they speak to, so long as they get the answers they need.

This multi-faceted relationship makes consistent advice and communication absolutely critical. It would be unacceptable for a broker to give a customer advice which is subsequently contradicted by the insurance provider, and vice versa.

By the same token, there's nothing more frustrating for a customer than calling the insurer direct about altering its policy, only to be told that they need to process their request through their brokers. This adds unnecessary complications to the process, and doesn't do anything for the customer perception of either the intermediary or the provider.

Identical information
The information that brokers use when advising their customers, and the processes they follow, must be identical to those used by the providers. Providers must in turn work more closely with brokers to ensure the information they make available is used effectively. The web is the perfect means to enable this.

Sadly, existing web-based tools have a poor reputation within the broker community. By and large, end users see them as counterintuitive, and inferior to actually speaking to providers' representatives directly.

But insurers are themselves finding that their helpdesks, phone lines and communications campaigns aren't working. In spite of these initiatives, many find that intermediaries often file paperwork that is incomplete, and frequently make unreasonable requests of their support staff. While this state of affairs may not be a surprise, it does suggest that providers need to rethink the manner in which they make information available.

The simple fact is that the web can be a great self-service tool. Using online systems, intermediaries and providers can resolve customers' queries while they are on the phone. So the time and cost of resolving issues can be dramatically reduced for brokers and providers alike.

For example, each call to an insurer's contact centre costs around £10 - and that's just to lift the receiver. Escalating calls to other departments, or - horror of horrors - taking a message with an undertaking to return the call, can rapidly push costs higher.

This is the vital role the web can play in driving the customer experience. While application forms and processes have been available online to brokers for some years, actual support information, set out in a usable, easy-to-retrieve manner, is relatively scant. As we've discussed, however, it's just this information which intermediaries and customers need most.

The online knowledge bases outlined above are relatively easy to set up and populate. Each piece of content can be time-stamped, so it can't be used once new information supersedes it. And with sophisticated search tools the information needed - no matter how arcane - is always just a few mouse clicks away.

Compare this online version of the world, with the practical realities of keeping on top of vast libraries of printed information, some of which might be several years out of date.

Prompt response
A centralised information store such as this - managed by the insurer but accessible to every intermediary in its network - would bring an end to frustrations over semi-completed paperwork, and slash call volumes at a stroke.

The customer will also benefit: they'll be guaranteed the same, prompt response, regardless of whether they speak to their IFA or the insurer directly.

Let us now take this vision one step further. Every broker prides itself on its own approach to its customers, such as special procedures in place for dealing with the particular needs of their customer base.

As information like this relates more to the intermediaries' approach to business as opposed to the products they sell, 'ownership' of this information remains with them.

Rather than running a separate in-house system to keep tabs on this proprietary information, however, brokers ought to be able to search through it from within the insurance knowledge base described above.

Now, when a customer calls, the broker can call up the right information from the provider, as well as any relevant internal documentation, simultaneously. Our complex relationship map has become a lot simpler.

There's no risk of brokers giving away their secrets to competitors, as the actual documents physically remain on their own systems. All we're doing is extending the search tool on the insurer's knowledge base, to cover information brokers may keep on file locally. Technically, this is perfectly feasible, and the end result is an ever-richer customer experience.

The dynamics of customer service continue to change. More than eight million homes are now connected to broadband internet, making digital channels ever more important to customers.

In an 'always on' world, truly successful brokers will be able to offer secure email, and even web chat-based support. These new channels offer the opportunity for brokers to develop ever-closer relationships with customers.

The growth of new service channels, and the increasing complexity of the insurance market itself, places a stronger onus than ever on the need for a consistent, compelling customer experience. As unlikely as it may seem, effective information management holds the key to success. IT

' Alf Saggese is a senior vice president at Kana, a provider of service resolution management applications