Customer Service Focus
By Kathleen Fraley, CIC, CPIW
REACHING FOR THE TOP: SURVEY SHOWS CSR PRIORITIES
Customer service employees seek to improve their skills and grow professionally
During my 30-plus years in the industry, I have been involved in many discussions regarding how to improve the business and servicing skills that account managers and customer service representatives believe will make their jobs less frustrating and more rewarding.
As a past board member of the Society of Certified Insurance Service Representatives, I’ve always been interested in the data collected for the CSR Profile, a benchmarking study that has been conducted since 1995. The latest edition, newly published as The Pulse of Customer Service, helps identify which business and servicing skills account managers and CSRs would most like to improve.
How can a supervisor help employees balance the desire for variety and freedom with the need for organization and the efficient use of time?
Handling stress. Customer service involves many stressful situations. From dealing with clients, producers, and carriers to operating effectively in a fast-paced work environment, many account managers and CSRs say that dealing with stress is the business skill they would most like to improve. Research confirms that knowing how to handle stress increases personal happiness, career satisfaction, and productivity. To this end, your agency should identify the top three stressors in your office.
One of the biggest stressors can be dealing with difficult clients. Agency owners and department leaders need to be aware of this issue and find viable solutions. Why did the client’s concern turn into a difficult and stressful call? The account managers or CSR’s answer to this question will show what needs to be addressed, up to and including the possibility of “firing” a client. Clients often take their frustration out on staff because it’s easy. You must protect your employees from these bullies, just as we instruct clients on how to prevent third-party employment practices liability claims. If you don’t know what difficult clients are asking of your account managers or CSRs, how can you help them?
Just say “no.” The second most important business skill that account managers and CSRs want to improve is the ability to say “no.” What does that mean in your agency? Agency owners and managers can make a difference by explaining responsibilities and emphasizing the need to set boundaries. The workload of every account manager or CSR should be reviewed at least once a year. As accounts grow with new business, they change, becoming more complex and problematic. Agencies are busy, and managers may not realize how much an employee’s workload has increased, so there must be an outlet for discussion.
Handling criticism. Service personnel say that the ability to give and take criticism is an important business skill—it ranks third for them. Agency owners and department leaders should be aware that employees use them as models for this behavior. Employees need to be able to foster a team environment by offering constructive criticism, thereby improving agency effectiveness. Criticism always should be constructive and, in most cases, should be given in private. It’s important for agency leaders to use positive words in handling situations that call for criticism. When suggesting a behavior modification, approach employees by first pointing out what they are doing well. An effective method I’ve discovered is to preface a needed workplace change with: “We know this is a change/new process; however, we also know you can make this change and do it well. It is critical to our success to make these adjustments. Can I count on you?”
Freedom, variety, and time management. Most experienced account managers and CSRs express their desire for change and a diverse set of duties. They want a challenging job with a degree of autonomy. I love this about service personnel. The best employees take the initiative to learn every aspect of the job and then some, so it’s no wonder that time management is a major problem. In fact, the survey shows this is fourth on the list of business skills that need attention. How can a supervisor help employees balance the desire for variety and freedom with the need for organization and the efficient use of time?
With experienced employees, part of the problem goes back to learning how to say and mean “no.” It’s different for new employees. As a supervisor, I always asked new employees what they were struggling with. Frequently they had difficulty putting the whole job together and seeing the big picture. New employees are trying to learn everything all at once, and they may have difficulty with tasks like completing applications or answering coverage questions from clients.
One of the most useful training strategies in an agency is a mentoring program. Mentoring is effective for both new and seasoned employees. It fosters teamwork, balances the workload in a smart way that helps employees develop, and ensures that time management becomes less of an issue for everyone.
Another helpful strategy, especially for newer employees, is to develop standardized letters and emails for different business situations, such as requesting additional information from a client. The opening and closing of a letter should be standardized to include a listing of information needed and the date by which it should be returned. Employees can then insert into the body of the letter a brief description of needed information and the reason it’s required. If specific questions need to be asked during phone calls with clients, an online checklist can ensure that all the appropriate questions are asked; this also can reduce E&O issues.
Effective listening and questioning. Acquiring better questioning skills was number one on the list of servicing skills that account managers and CSRs want to upgrade; and although active listening was further down the list, improving both skills can make a big difference when it comes to providing excellent service. Strong listening and speaking skills lead to client satisfaction and retention, effective cross selling, and a more confident staff.
In the call centers, we worked with our service personnel—listening to their calls with clients and reviewing as a team the individual account manager’s and CSR’s side of the dialogue. Doing this can help your team recognize opportunities for improvement. Did they listen attentively to the caller? Can they relate key points made during calls? Often account managers and CSRs talk over callers or put words into their mouths. Worse, they may interrupt or ignore important statements. Service employees may “home in” on certain aspects of a call and then, when they review a recording, are surprised to realize they never addressed the issue the client was describing.
Most account managers and CSRs don’t believe they fail to listen and ask appropriate questions, and listening to the recording of a call with a group can be a learning experience. “Tone” takes on a whole new meaning when it’s apparent that it’s not what you say but how you say it that makes the critical difference. Interrupting the customer often means that vital information is missed. Reviewing calls with service personnel is an effective way to help if constructive feedback is given. It also helps employees learn to “control the conversation” with clients, which is another servicing skill that account managers and CSRs want to develop.
The heart of the agency
We have looked at some concerns and improvements that are important to service personnel. Have you had an office or team meeting to review how your employees feel and identify their concerns? If not, why not? Knowing the issues that concern account managers and CSRs is important for any agency that wants to increase business and promote the satisfaction and well-being of its employees. Customer service personnel are the heart of the agency, and their happiness is a bellwether for the health and future of the business.
To learn more about what surveyed service personnel are saying, find The Pulse of Customer Service: A Profile of Insurance Industry Customer Service Personnel (formerly CSR Profile) at www.nationalalliancebooks.com. n
Kathleen Fraley, CIC, CPIW, worked as the service center director for Travelers Select. Her teams were responsible for providing direct service to insureds and agents in all states. Before that she retired from Propel Insurance as vice president of commercial lines. Fraley has more than 35 years in the agency and carrier ranks, has served on the CISR board of governors, and is an instructor and educational consultant for several National Alliance programs.