Great-West finds phonework cuts down on paperwork

By setting up dedicated call centres, the Great-West Life Assurance Company has been able to provide better customer service and cut down on paperwork by conducting certain transactions over the phone.'We were looking for ways to better service our clients, and...

By setting up dedicated call centres, the Great-West Life Assurance Company has been able to provide better customer service and cut down on paperwork by conducting certain transactions over the phone.

‘We were looking for ways to better service our clients, and one of the things we wanted to do was eliminate the need for paper,’ says Dave Van Tornhout, Great-West director, individual client service.

‘If you do things over the phone, you don’t need all the forms,’ Van Tornhout says.

The Winnipeg-based company, which markets individual and group insurance policies, looked at u.s. models for 1-800 services and, in 1984, set up its first call centre to handle customer service for individual policyholders.

Van Tornhout, who oversees that centre, says the main advantage has been to make many transactions, formerly conducted by mail, faster and more convenient for the customer.

At present, the company operates five call centres from its Winnipeg headquarters.

Dan Carpick is the director, administration, retirement and investment services.

Carpick oversees the other four call centres, which deal with group rsps, group pension operation, individual rsps and annuity products.

Each of the centres has a different customer base, but they work along similar lines.

Callers to all centres are greeted by a Great-West representative – not a recorded message.

However, the company does have an automatic call distribution (acd) system, so if all reps are busy, the acd puts the caller into a queue to wait for the next available agent.

According to Van Tornhout, 80% of calls in-line are answered within 20 seconds.

Individual policyholder reps know whether to greet the caller in French or English, depending on the number the client has dialed.

Customers wanting to transact business over the phone are asked a few questions for security reasons, at which point the rep can use that information to pull up their file.

From there, the rep can perform a number of transactions.

Individual and group policyholders can inquire as to the status of their policies, individual policyholders can change their address, their bank information, or effect a loan on the policy.

For more complex transactions, callers must deal with certified agents.

Simple transactions

Van Tornhout says it was important for Great-West to make it clear to the company’s insurance agents that the service is offered to take care of simple transactions, not to downgrade the agent/customer relationship.

In fact, by freeing up the agents from having to deal with simpler transactions, they have more time to concentrate on the more detailed transactions they are trained to handle.

The number of calls the reps handle depends on the subject they deal with and the time of year.

The Group RSP centre, which started out with 8,427 calls in 1989, handled 40,580 calls last year – up more than 450% (the customer base has grown about 3% to 5% a year.)

The centre has added staff, and streamlined transaction processes, by making the computer screen more user-friendly.

On the group pension side, the centre gets about 10,000 calls annually.

However, calls dealing with pensions, usually made by a plan administrator, are much longer in duration.

The reps originally came from the company’s customer service department, but as the system has evolved, according to Van Tornhout, the type of person the company has hired has been slightly different.

Not surprisingly, it takes certain skills to serve people over the phone effectively for seven hours a day.

To further improve service, the company has promoted education for its people on the phones. Many of the reps now take the loma (life office management) customer service designation.

One rep has a cfp (certified financial planner) designation.

According to Carpick, customers have developed relationships with some of the people on the phones, and will ask to deal with a particular rep.

He says the system was easy and inexpensive to set up and to maintain.

One acd, which cost about $10,000, handles calls for all five centres, and upkeep is minimal.

Carpick says that, in the future, the company would like to build on the system by setting up a voice response system for after-hours.

The next step would be allowing touch-tone interaction for those who would like to conduct their transactions that way.

Voice response up-front is a possibility, but Carpick says the company has had mixed reaction to that proposal.

He says, at this point, people enjoy the human touch.