Customer Service Focus
Meet regularly with service staff to gain their insights into problems and opportunities
If you ask an independent agent what sets his or her agency apart from competitors, the answer often will be “our customer service.” Delve deeper, and an interesting paradox will emerge: How do you know that you are exceeding your customers’ service expectations if you don’t know what those expectations are to begin with?
Customer service expectations vary from agency to agency, depending on the clientele, each customer’s history with the agency, and his or her experience with other businesses. From an agency perspective, an important measure that is often used to justify current service practices is client retention. That is, if retention is good, our service must be good. The definition of what constitutes “good customer service” at that agency, however, is rarely established in a manner that is measurable. In addition, methodologies for tracking correlations between specific improvements in customer service and increased retention often are lacking.
One of the simplest methods of identifying ways to improve customer service is to conduct customer satisfaction surveys and/or exit surveys. Some agencies are using Net Promoter Scores, which basically establish the percentage of customers who would recommend the agency to others. Unfortunately, the response rate on customer satisfaction surveys is often low, the return rate on exit surveys is even lower, and these instruments rarely provide constructive recommendations for changes in servicing practices that would increase retention.
Customer service personnel often hold the keys to knowledge that can be used to improve customer retention.
Customer service personnel often hold the keys to knowledge that can be used to improve customer retention. Why are the employees who interact with clients more often than anyone else in the agency so rarely asked to share their insights regarding actions that could be taken to improve customer service, which ultimately will affect client retention? More important, how do you achieve agreement to ensure that changes in servicing practices are implemented, once the problems have been identified?
Meetings between agency owners or leaders and customer service personnel to specifically address customer service issues can be effective if a few guidelines are followed. The meetings need to be regular, to ensure that everyone understands that his or her active participation is essential on an ongoing basis. Holding meetings in six- to eight-week cycles will ensure that new ideas can be introduced, follow-up reports can be delivered, and revisions to the action plan can be made. What seems to be a great idea in theory does not always work so well in practice, and regular meetings provide an opportunity for feedback and course adjustment.
These meetings can generate valuable insights. Customer service personnel can provide a wealth of information to agency leadership, if the ground rules are set in advance. That is, the environment must be collaborative to achieve buy-in from everyone. These sessions cannot involve endless complaints from customer service personnel regarding things that cannot be changed, and management must listen with open ears to good suggestions that can enhance customer relationships and productivity, as well as promote teamwork across the agency.
Once the ground rules have been set, everyone needs to realize that often it is easier to identify problems than it is to fix them. Customer service personnel should arrive at these meetings with solid evidence to document their observations, concerns, and recommendations. Sometimes there are easy fixes that are apparent to service personnel, but that may be completely overlooked by management. More often, both the problem and the solution are more complex.
When customer service personnel present a problem, they should be able to clearly explain what the problem is, how significant it is, how often it happens, and how it detracts from the customer experience. For example, although call-servicing volume is a major consideration at most agencies, how often have customer service personnel been asked to keep a tally of the calls or questions they received over a period of one week?
When a CSR says, “I received 26 calls last week regarding an item that could be easily addressed on our website,” agency leaders immediately multiply 26 by the number of customer service personnel. It becomes a problem to which productivity and customer frustration figures can be attributed. It then becomes necessary to initiate action that will reduce or solve the problem. “I get a whole lot of phone calls” does not elicit the same reaction. In other words, frame the problem correctly if you would like to see a solution. Better yet, present a potential solution while describing the problem, as illustrated in the example above.
In many cases, customer service personnel expend additional time because they did not clarify everything in the first phone call. For example, they forgot to ask for driver information, lender details, and so on. Maybe the client mentioned going to the lake with a new boat that afternoon, and it is only after the conclusion of the conversation that the service person wonders if the boat that is insured by the agency is the old boat or the new boat. Everyone misses things now and then, and time management can be improved with the use of checklists and/or additional training.
Until time is tracked, it can be spent ineffectively; the notion of requiring customer service personnel to track their activities, however, is rarely received well. With appropriate ground rules in place, time tracking can allow customer service personnel and agency leaders collectively to gain an understanding of improvements that could be made to increase customer satisfaction, agency efficiency, and job satisfaction.
It is important for everyone to realize that the best ideas often come from newer employees who do not have tunnel vision regarding the way certain things have always been done. “Why?” and “Have you ever thought about such and such?” can launch a fruitful conversation, and often it is the newbies who ask those questions. Veteran service personnel are often able to recount a history of things tried and untried, which may mean that there are good reasons for the policies and procedures that are in place. Some combination of new and old often emerges as a viable solution.
For these meetings to be effective, agency leaders must listen attentively to what customer service personnel are telling them. From experience, I can tell you that they are often surprised by what they learn. Sometimes they are absolutely astounded at what has been occurring on a regular basis without their knowledge.
An example is when agency leaders begin to understand how much time service personnel are spending on each account. Although it is essential to use good servicing skills with all clients, there is a point at which service personnel can spend too much time on accounts that are of limited value to the agency.
This presents a dilemma, especially for agencies that pride themselves on providing exceptional customer service. It is very hard for service personnel who have been trained to go the extra mile to know when the ROI mile marker has been passed. Making that marker clear is the responsibility of agency leaders, but often these individuals do not realize how much time is being spent on activities related to specific clients, until they begin holding regular meetings with service personnel.
Even in the best agencies, there is always room for some degree of improvement in customer servicing standards. As a result, all agencies have an incentive to facilitate communication between customer service personnel and leaders in a thoughtful manner. Once the ground rules are in place and everyone is on board, the collaboration that can occur is often the defining characteristic that may take the agency to the next level in servicing standards. If you want to know what’s happening with your customers, ask the people who speak with them on a daily basis. Then watch what happens!
Kathleen A. Fraley, CIC, CPIW, recently retired as the service center director for the Travelers Select Service Center in Spokane, Washington. Her teams were responsible for providing direct service to insureds and agents in all states. Before joining Travelers, Fraley retired after 28 years as a partner in Propel/Bratrud/ Middleton Insurance. She is an instructor in various National Alliance programs and is immediate past chairman of the Society of Certified Insurance Service Representatives (CISR) Board of Governors.