Lee Gladwell says call centres deserve serious attention

' For most insurance customers, a voice at the end of a telephone is all that they will ever experience of our industry. No amount of brand advertising can compete with two minutes of crackling Vivaldi. And while it's clear that companies continue to invest in the scripts and call handling skills that drive process efficiency, it's also clear that what the customer really wants is the feeling that they are talking to someone who knows what they are talking about.

Call centres are now a fact of life in the insurance industry. There are well over 800 financial call centres in the UK employing more than 125,000 people. There are also a growing number of offshore centres, serving UK customers. Pressure on cost and the need for streamlined, consistent service have fuelled their growth, and they can bring real benefits in terms of service efficiency and customer access.

Reputation is still an issue for the insurance sector. We suffer public misconceptions and media antipathy despite many initiatives to improve service. Many insurance buyers, however, only ever interact with call centres, and any effort we make to further improve the industry's reputation must include elevating their performance and stature.

How many of the senior managers in the industry started off life in a call centre? The industry must somehow break the cycle of regarding call centres as being about cost and process, and start regarding them as an important source of competitive advantage.

What makes for a good customer experience? Call centres obviously need to be adequately resourced and properly managed, to handle calls quickly and efficiently. Most companies have also seen the benefits of investing in effective systems and in developing good customer skills through training and coaching in customer care.

But although it's important to deal with routine processes efficiently, a customer's impression of service is often influenced much more by how a company handles exceptions. Dealing with exceptions requires real knowledge of the business. And making spectacular recoveries when the process breaks down requires knowledge and the confidence that comes from it.

Many companies are now are increasingly aware of the need for people in their call centres to have better technical knowledge as well as being customer friendly and efficient, in order to have the technical competence to deliver a first-class service.

Investing in the development of those who work in contact centres also turns jobs into careers. Those people can fulfil their potential and progress to other positions, either within the contact centre environment or elsewhere in the industry. It helps to reduce staff attrition. And the industry will also benefit from a general increase in the skills level of those who work in it.

Call centres are a valuable and thriving element of the insurance mix. We should treat them with the respect they deserve so that they can help boost the respect given to the industry as a whole. IT

' Lee Gladwell is group sales and marketing director at CII