Contact centres have become as synonymous with scripts and targets as meerkats are with price comparison websites.
So what happens when you rewrite the rule book and take a completely different approach to customer service?
CXM spoke with Caroline King, Director of Sales and Service at insurance firm Ageas, about how challenging the status quo and switching to a systemic approach has reaped benefits for customers, staff and the company’s bottom line.
The firm won Gold in the Contact Centre Large category at the 2019 UK Customer Experience Awards last October, which topped off a three-year “transformational journey”.
Caroline said: “I’ve spent my entire professional life running contact centres and there’s always been an industry-wide perception that people are just there to answer the phones and complete the transactions. That’s it.
“I suppose there’s an element of truth in there, but we wanted to change that at Ageas. We exist to make insurance easy and actually a pre-requisite to that is really listening to the customer, to understand their needs, rather than complying with a pre-prescribed script.
“How can you truly help someone if you’re not listening, how can you truly listen if you’re confined by a set of standard questions and how can we meet each customer’s nominal value with set processes too rigid to cope with the inevitable variation humans bring to conversations?”
In a world where consumers are bombarded with more information and data than ever before, Ageas’ focus is to make insurance easy. It’s one of the largest insurers in the UK and offers a range of general insurance products to around five million customers through its direct brands Ageas and Rias, and through brokers and high-profile brand partners.
Ageas’ sales and service operation is based across three sites: Bournemouth, Gloucester, and Stoke, and its team of more than 780 deals with four million calls every year.
“We knew a transformation project of this scale would be a big undertaking,” said Caroline.
“We had to help hundreds of people understand their job isn’t to answer the phone, it’s to make insurance easy for our customers. For anyone to go from transaction to a purpose-driven function is a big change. As leaders it is our job to create the culture that allows delivery in this way to thrive. That means letting go of some of the ingrained beliefs and biases that exist in all of us, which is easier said than done.”
Ageas’ transformation programme was driven by its ambition to grow in the increasingly competitive general insurance market.
The company’s senior management team knew it needed to tackle the competitive market challenges in order to grow. But rather than taking the traditional answer to contact centre performance – setting higher targets – it set about creating a cultural change that would ultimately engage its people, improve customer service, increase income and lower costs.
“The first step was getting people on-board and ready to take that journey with us,” Caroline continued.
“We called it ‘Destination Brilliant’ and developed the ‘Ageas Way’, which states our customer purpose and focused on nine redesign principles which describe the future of service delivery – the destination if you like. We created the mechanisms for everyone to test every action against our purpose and those principles and decide if it was the right thing for the customer.
“We changed so many things that are synonymous with contact centres. When you think about it, it’s bizarre that contact centres take these vivacious, energetic people then train them to follow a script and turn them into robots. Consumers don’t like robots, they like other humans.
“So we threw away the rulebook and started to trust our people to have more open conversations with customers. We removed unnecessary complexity, measured the outcomes in a different way and allowed them to really listen to what the customer wanted and deliver on whatever that need was. Of course being in the heavily regulated financial industry, there are some instances where we still have to use scripts but on the whole we’re so much more flexible.
“We were then able to educate our teams to understand and call out failure demand and waste and involved them in designing those things out.”
Another huge change for Ageas was removing target-driven bonuses.
“I can see how, from the outside, it could be considered a big gamble,” said Caroline.
“It’s definitely a switch from the status quo. But it’s really worked and we’ve found staff are happier. What we’ve said to our consultants is: ‘We’ll trust you and take away the ambiguity of what you might earn each month’. Now they get a flat bonus up-front.
“We’ve redefined a good day’s work. Now it’s not how many products they’ve sold, it’s the feedback from customers that matters.”
Ageas has stopped measuring contact centre success solely through sales volumes and replaced it with what’s important to customers. It now provides consultants with real-time feedback from customers on experience and ease of service.
The results of Ageas’ transformation programme have been, perhaps unsurprisingly, transformational. The company’s net promoter score has increased by an impressive 14 points to 40.
Customer retention has increased, processing time for all customer account functions has reduced from days to minutes and Ageas’ Trust Pilot score is now 4.5/5 (excellent).
Operating costs have reduced and first contact resolution has improved by seven points – meaning 100,000 less calls to the Bournemouth site alone every year.
Caroline said: “What’s been really rewarding is to see the impact on our teams. 94% of employees believe the programme has made a positive difference to their role and we’re seeing unprecedented low levels of employee absence and attrition.”
Looking ahead, Caroline says she refuses to rest on her laurels.
“You can never take your foot off the pedal. This is not a sprint, this is a long distance marathon and we’ve got to keep doing more of what we’ve done.
“Across the whole customer service industry, no matter what sector you’re in, it’s the same – customer expectations are changing. What we all need to do to give good customer service and excel.
“In insurance, particularly with the rise in price comparison websites, there’s not much differential in price so standing out in terms of service is even more important. Customers tell us their number one priority is ease of business and luckily for them we’re not just good at making insurance easy; it’s everything we stand for.”