If anyone can claim possession of the `90s, it is the customer. The past decade has seen the importance of the customer rise to proportions never witnessed before, a phenomenon that financial services companies have been forced to acknowledge. And private medical insurers are no exception to this trend. As a result, in the group market, employers want to know that their staff will be treated with both efficiency and sympathy by their insurers.
“Things have changed,” reflects Philip Fowles, sales and marketing director at BCWA. “You cannot rely on customer loyalty anymore and you have to be proactive in terms of the ownership. There is a lot more customer focus and business is not so process driven.”
Dated, bureaucratic processes have been replaced by emphasis on clear, comprehensive service. “All customers want to know is if they are covered and if they are covered in full – they don’t want to be embroiled in the hospital administration and so on,” says Tessa Webster, healthcare director at Legal & General. “We have a strong desire to look after customers. Delivery and giving advice is very important and that gives us a competitive edge.”
The mammoth improvements to customer care services have been facilitated in great part by technological advances. Most insurers have had to update their systems to cope with progress. Prime Health, for example, has considerably enhanced its customer services systems. As it receives 7,500 invoices a week, it has updated its systems and processes for administration, with a data interchange system to cope with the surge of customer correspondence. BCWA has also improved its systems. “We installed the most up-to-date tele-system in the UK,” says a proud Fowles. “Our call centres are installed with automatic call distribution systems and we have invested a lot of money doing that.”
Call centres are a function that providers throughout the industry are developing and, as Tim Baker, commercial director at Norwich Union observes, are part of the huge, ongoing, technological change.
He explains: “They require very sophisticated systems. We use mainframes with front ends attached. Windows programmes are also incorporated, so they are user-friendly and efficient. We also use a Mercury telephone system which has features enabling us to monitor call length and how many calls are answered.”
While much has been done to react to customer demand, in the area of customer retention, insurers have shown a proactive response. Retention methods, such as contacting the customer with regards to their policy, particularly at the renewal stage, have proven a successful means of maintaining business. It gives consumers the opportunity to discuss the status of their policy, ironing out any problems and learning about other options before making a decision.
Prime Health is particularly emphatic in terms of retention. Shelia Berry, is manager of Prime’s reactive rentention unit. “Anyone about to cancel a policy is contacted by telephone,” she explains. “The reason why is established, and then we try to offer an alternative. We make sure that they are contacted three times – giving the customer as much attention as we can.” Prime has experienced favourable results through its system, proving it an effective means of maximising retention potential.
Baker too is aware of how successful a proactive approach to customer care can be: “I’d argue that retention begins before the signing of a new contract, but we do have a policy advice line and we also contact customers, particularly at the time of price rises, so we are as active and up-front as possible.”
He continues: “We also have a customer magazine which is sent out three times a year and a GP helpline. We see intermediaries as customers and so our intermediary service is very important, especially in the group market.”
Recruitment and training
To achieve all this, employing and training the right customer service staff is crucial. To many policy holders they are the voice of the provider, so empathy, competence and efficiency are equally important. Prime Health is insistent that its high standard of recruitment is maintained. “We have many staff with previous claims or customer care experience,” says Anne Cope, national customer care manager. “Personalities that complement existing staff members are important and it is obviously essential that our recruits have numeracy and good English.”
She adds: “The calibre has dramatically changed. Staff are now more mature, perhaps because of downsizing in other financial services. There is more word-of-mouth recruitment, and, since the decision to keep our Stockport office open, we have gained around 25 new staff.”
Thorough training is a critical part of ensuring that customer care is kept at an optimum level. At NU, a specially designed accreditation service has been introduced for claims handlers, as Baker explains: “ After six months, when training is completed, the employee will be accredited. Additionally, we have on-going technical and customer service training in place.”
As the consumer-centred culture evolves, the industry reacts. Constant innovation is a necessity if the healthcare sector is to keep up with technological advance and client demand for supreme service standards. It is crucial, as Fowles emphasises, that providers keep their eyes and ears open to consumer requirements: “We ask for opinions, particularly from brokers, and we take notice, adjusting products to the market’s needs.”