Health insurance organizations rely heavily on the call center as one of their only direct customer touchpoints. And as customer expectations for a positive experience increase, the call center becomes even more important for ensuring customer satisfaction. Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BCNEPA) understands this, and has invested in improving call center interactions with virtual hold technology.
BCNEPA's 80 call center agents take approximately 800,000 calls per year from its 600,000 members. Upwards of 95 percent of all company interactions take place in the call center, says Bob McDonald, director of service operations. "We are the heartbeat of the company," he says.
Most are customer service related calls, about plan questions, new service, or bills. "They're not calling us to tell us how much they like us," McDonald says. He adds that in the past many customers waited up to 10 minutes to talk to an agent, and were already angry when they reached a person. This affected both customer satisfaction and agent morale.
In July 2007 BCNEPA implemented tools from Virtual Hold Technology to automate the initial stage of the customer contact. When hold times are under 120 seconds, callers simply stay on the line and are transferred to a live agent when one becomes available. But when the wait time exceeds two minutes, callers are prompted with the option to receive a callback when it's their turn, or with scheduling a call back at another time within seven days.
For the immediate callback option, the caller types in their phone number, and the system automatically dials back when the caller reaches the front of the queue, right before the agent answers. For the scheduled option, callers type in their number and the day and time they prefer a call. The system automatically dials an outgoing call at the preferred time, and puts the caller at the front of the queue. On average, 46 percent of people choose one of these options, and of those, almost all (97 to 98 percent) prefer the immediate callback.
McDonald says that customers are routed to one of the center's three divisions based what they selected during the initial call - HMO, PPO, or traditional insurance products. This saves customers from having to repeat the step during the callback process.
Initially the program was driven by the desire to decrease average handle time, but McDonald says the company quickly realized its impact on satisfaction. "It's now a much better experience for the customer, and the employee," he says. With fewer callers in the queue, the average speed of answer improved by 19 percent, and the abandon rate had a 26 percent improvement in 2007, and an 18 percent improvement in 2008. And with fewer calls tying up the line, the blockage rate (the percentage of time callers get a busy signal) decreased by 76 percent. Telephone costs have decreased as well, though he declines to reveal specifics.
In addition, the caller's demeanor is more positive when he or she reaches an agent. "More members in general are satisfied," he says, pointing to the number of compliments and lack of complaints in the organization's speech analysis of calls. McDonald currently measures satisfaction in a yearly survey, but plans to add post-call surveys to more accurately measure satisfaction with the call center experience.
Proactive health information
McDonald says the virtual hold technology has allowed BCNEPA to reach members proactively with outbound calls as well. The organization recently conducted a program in which the system called more than 2,000 female customers over 40 years old to remind them about the importance of mammograms. "We want to encourage people to be proactive about their health," he says. "Proactive customer service will be more popular in the future."
Next steps include scheduling future callbacks when the call center is closed and expanding the number and types of automated outbound calls. "Whatever we do in the future, it all goes back to the member experience," McDonald says.