By Cyril Tuohy
Financial services industry leaders say that in the next five years, contact center agents will be expected to service more complex inquiries and manage more efficient selling techniques.
Suddenly, the stakes surrounding the importance of the contact center — not long ago referred to as a call center — have jumped as contact centers handle cross-selling, upselling, direct sales and routine inquiries through a phalanx of channels: the telephone, the Web, email, texting, social media, blogs and online ratings.
“Trending within the organization as a whole, contact centers are going to be at the forefront of the customer touchpoints,” Norah Denley, LIMRA senior research analyst, told InsuranceNewsNet.
In the recent past, contact centers mainly handled simple inquiries — a change of address on a policy or changing the frequency of premium payments, for instance — and contact center agents did so mainly over the phone.
Answering more complex inquiries was left to financial advisors and agents in the field who owned the relationship with customers.
But for millions of young policyholders in the 21st century, the relationship with their carrier takes place through the contact center.
One question now is how complex contact centers will become as carriers scramble to adapt their centers to handle more complex transactions through more channels. Another question is how serious companies will be in improving the customer experience with the contact center.
LIMRA earlier this month found that 68 percent of executives from 46 financial services companies said they expect contact center agents to service complex inquiries over the next five years.
The researchers also found that 61 percent of executives said they expect the contact center agents to cross-sell, 57 percent expect the agents to upsell and 55 percent said they expect agents to get involved in direct selling.
Only 7 percent of executives said they expect an increase in the servicing of routine inquiries, the LIMRA researchers found.
Conclusion: the importance of the contact center is on the rise, and companies need to turn the contact center into a “relationship platform.”
Robert McIsaac, principal at the insurance consultancy Novarica, said that contact centers have done a 180-degree turn. Agents and service representatives used to move queries through as fast as possible to customer service representatives who were able to pick up the next call.
“Now you don’t want to do that. You want to keep them on the phone for cross-sell and upsell and high value function,” he said.
In a recent report titled “State of the Contact Center,” published in conjunction with the Future Contact Center Summit to be held in January, the authors write, “If there is one word the defines the financial or insurance contact center, it is ‘stakes,’”
Years ago, contact centers weren’t the first choice for the company’s best and brightest, and there’s no shortage of research documenting the decline of customer service over the past 20 years.
Contact centers — back when they were labeled call centers — may have offered a temporary respite for the moderately-skilled, on-the-mend, career jump-starter who answered phones and took orders on his or her way to middle management.
That cliché faded long ago.
Even now, the “siloed, statistic, scripted approach of phone, video and Web that is the call center of today” must evolve, said Forrester Consulting in its 2011 report on the evolution of next-generation contact centers.
As the phone channel matures and makes way for other channels within the contact center, agents must listen, communicate, prospect, and close calmly and professionally through a multitude of channels.
Insisting on a graduate degree as a requirement to work in a contact center might still be a stretch, but it’s the range of new skills that will be needed, “that’s what executives are saying is going to change,” Denley said.
Contact centers quickly are becoming data collection points, as policyholders communicate with carriers through three or four different channels within the course of a single day - email in the morning, a text in the afternoon and the website in the evening.
Feed all that data into a warehouse and analyze it with predictive and next-best-offer algorithms, and it’s easy to see why insurance executives seem to think contact centers are becoming a focal point for more complex inquiries and higher-level sales.
“It’s really about the contact center shifting services to channels that are preferential for the customer and freeing contact center reps so that they are not bogged down with as much routine as before,” Denley said.
Even Scott Adams, creator of that wry and astute observer of office life “Dilbert,” might want to return to the drawing board and revamp the story lines as contact centers raise their profiles within the company.
Cyril Tuohy is a writer based in Pennsylvania. He has covered the financial services industry for more than 15 years. Cyril may be reached at email@example.com.
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