Customer Service Focus
By Mary Katherine Henderson, CIC, CPIA
CUSTOMER SERVICE FROM HOME: NO LONGER A PERK
CSRs were equipped for this long before the pandemic hit
Few would argue that excellent service to insurance clients is essential. After all, without satisfied clients, retention would tank and agencies would fail. For years this excellent service was dispensed from the local agency office. Customer service reps were stationed at desks, tethered to phones, with access to files—paper at first and now largely digital.
Over the years, technology and other factors fed a shift away from all service professionals being housed at the office all the time. During this shift, independent agencies—those that would even tolerate the idea—struggled to adopt measures for a remote workforce. For the most part, working remotely was a luxury or a perk, and it happened only on occasion.
Having me work from home gives my customers an insight into my crazy world and an outlet for them to discuss their own.
Things have changed. The global pandemic of 2020 has brought about new ways of thinking after the forced closure of many businesses. By and large, agencies across the nation sent home anyone who could work remotely. And here we are in the fall of 2020 and workers have been slow to return to the office.
In many agencies they’re just not coming back. Yes, they’re still employed by the agency, but they’re not working where they did a year ago. Nor will they. Instead they’ve developed and now manage alternative workplaces. In most cases this shift to remote work has brought with it a thoughtful adaptation of customer service standards and procedures.
That’s good, because customers expect us to conduct business as usual and may even demand greater attention because they too have been forced to adapt to a changing or changed environment. I think we are able to respond to evolving customer demands because in many ways we were equipped to work from home long before the pandemic forced us to do it. Today’s tech makes it seamless.
At the core of agency customer service is an agency management system that maintains client information and drives interactions. So even as our seat locations were moved, standard operating procedures likely didn’t change too much. Agencies that were not using a cloud-based management system had to put in place remote connections so team members could log in and access their system and carrier systems to conduct business. That’s about it from a tech standpoint.
But what about the human element? When developing a long-term approach to customer service, there are several things to consider—in terms of both customer needs and those of agency employees.
It makes sense to think first about “non-remote” service. When determining the ideal office setting, you have to look at your client base. One benefit of an office is that it allows for walk-ins. For some agencies, walk-in business is the heartbeat of the operation. If that’s the case, maintaining a central office presence likely is necessary.
While I love to see my customers, I’m not necessarily a big fan of walk-ins. An unannounced walk-in can interrupt your train of thought—and work you’re doing for another customer—and it takes more time out of your already busy day.
Of course, face-to-face contact with clients is an important part of building and strengthening relationships and boosting retention, but I’d much prefer a scheduled meeting or an email or phone call. So maybe appointments should become the norm—or at least a target—for office-based service.
Having a physical office also allows an agency to establish and nourish a workplace culture and relationships. I happened to switch employers mid-pandemic; for me, the hardest part of the move to another agency was the fact that I haven’t gotten to meet my new co-workers face to face.
An insurance agency operates as a big team, and making sure that team members get along is important. I’ve always been a big fan of team spirit, and I’d like to think I’m a good agency cheerleader; having a physical office makes it a little easier to show that spirit.
But there are positive elements to the alternative. I’ve noticed that with people working from home, everyone is a little more forgiving and perhaps even friendlier. If you call me, you might hear my three-year-old having a meltdown or my baby crying or my cat meowing. That just makes me human. And it gives me and the person on the other end of the line something to chat about—even laugh about. Having me work from home gives my customers an insight into my crazy world and an outlet for them to discuss their own.
In a standard agency office setting, team members are highly focused. When the phone rings, we need to address the client’s needs right away and then get off the phone as quickly as possible so we can get back on track with what we were doing.
When we work from home, expedient workflow is still optimal. When I changed employers, I moved from a paper agency to a paperless agency. Being paperless has certainly made working from home much easier.
Before the pandemic, we may have neglected making time to engage with clients on a personal level. Such personal connections boost retention. Your client is more apt to work with you and stay with your agency when they know you aren’t just another phone jockey making commission off them, but rather that you’re a person with kids underfoot who sometimes loudly express their requests. That said, I suspect that most people I interact with throughout the day don’t know whether I’m working from home or an office.
I’ve found that, for the most part, parents are making the most of this environment. Some of my colleagues at The National Alliance had a fun conversation on a podcast titled “Working from Home with Kids.” They discussed kid-related joys and sorrows, ups and downs, and other brutal realities of life at the beginning of the pandemic. Check it out here: bit.ly/RNwKids.
Working from home has had another beneficial effect on me and countless others: it’s relaxed working hour restrictions. I get to work on time every day because there is no traffic to fight. I can take a 10-minute lunch break because lunch is in my kitchen. I may even work past 4:30 because I don’t have to get to daycare by 5:00 to pick up my kids. I can get started and focused more quickly, and I also have flexibility if needed throughout the day.
Of course, we have faced challenges along the way—like slow internet service. Speeds at home aren’t up to what I’m used to in the office. Sometimes I drop calls and sometimes my computer freezes up, but folks are experiencing the same issues everywhere and everyone has been very understanding. I don’t have a fax machine at home, so when someone calls from the 20th century and needs something faxed, I have to get a little creative.
Also, some clients want to have an in-person insurance proposal meeting, so my producer has had a few patio lunches to sell new business while we’ve been working from home.
Communication may be one of the bigger challenges. It’s important to have open and frequent interaction with your team. My producer and I talk every day—multiple times a day. We keep detailed lists of all that’s currently on our plates.
I know that it takes a self-motivated and dedicated person to succeed at working from home. A lot of trust is put into this situation, and it’s important for management to have a way to measure expectations and review employee performance. I’ve had several discussions with friends throughout the pandemic and we all agree that, while our working days look very different, what matters is that the work is getting done.
We still need to pay close attention to workflows and procedures. These are important from a customer experience standpoint as well as an E&O perspective. Having a paperless system in place made the transition from office to home fairly seamless.
Embracing technology has always been a key to success, but that’s especially true in today’s circumstances. Our agency uses several services that make operating in the digital age much more efficient: DocuSign, ePayPolicy, and Dropbox, to name a few. Using these tools and our agency management system are crucial in minimizing E&O exposures.
Technology and cultural shifts prepared us to work from home long before we were required to do so amid the pandemic. I know some agency principals still struggle with the concept, and they may lose valuable team members if they choose not to adapt.
No longer is working from home a luxury or a perk, but rather a way to help employees balance work and life and let them deliver fantastic customer experiences from wherever they happen to be.
Mary Katherine Henderson, CIC, CPIA, is an account manager at Cross Pointe Insurance Advisors, LLC, in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She was named 2019 CISR of the Year by The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research, which coordinates this column, and also was recognized as the 2019 Arkansas PIA Young Insurance Professional of the Year.