To Create Great Customer Experiences, Add a Human Touch

    Digital tools allow insurance companies to expand customer outreach like never before. Insurance companies can now offer increasingly personalized online experiences, providing information and collecting data within a digital environment.

    Yet digital tools can’t do everything. Insurers, agents and customers may also deal with highly-charged emotional situations, from confusion over which policy to buy to grief when it comes time to file a claim. Technology can handle the technical details of many such interactions, but it can’t account for the subtleties of human emotion.

    To offer the best customer experience, insurance companies must balance digital efficiency with human sincerity.

    Why Software Won’t Save Your Customer Experience

    A mass consumer shift to online shopping has been underway for several years. In October 2017, Christie Schneider at IBM predicted that by 2020, 85 percent of all customer interactions would be handled by technology alone, with no human interaction.

    We may not have reached that 85 percent threshold yet, but the recent pandemic greatly accelerated the switch to digital. A survey by customer messaging software provider Medallia Zingle found that, before COVID-19, 78 percent of consumers said they shopped and used services in person like salons and gyms at least three times a week. Now, however, only 34 percent of consumers say they’ve maintained these habits.

    As a replacement for in-person shopping and information-gathering, many people have moved online. Grocery shopping, banking and even insurance purchases are now made in a digital environment in unprecedented numbers.

    Yet customers’ desire to exercise caution when it comes to the pandemic doesn’t mean that they automatically experience digital insurance shopping as satisfying. When technology is not applied carefully, customers can have frustrating experiences.

    “Using technology without understanding the implications on the overall customer experience can have detrimental effects (i.e. frustration or skepticism) on the relationships you build with policyholders,” writes Vivienne Zimmermann, chief customer experience officer at ProSight Specialty Insurance. And with so many online options for insurance shopping available, customers who struggle with one company’s interface can easily try another insurer.

    One study found that 54 percent of insurance customers will look online for insurance quotes. When it comes to purchasing a policy, however, most of those customers turn to an agent rather than an app, writes Brent Kelly, vice president at Sitkins Group.

    “While a machine can perform a given task, often more efficiently than we can, what it lacks is the artistry in the activity, that uniquely human ability to cater to the needs of the individual,” Ron Miller, enterprise reporter at TechCrunch, writes. “The protocol may suggest one approach, but a person who is good at their job understands when to adjust and the subtleties that are required.”

    Even when technology can do every part of a process, like customer intake, it may not be the best choice. An AI chatbot, for instance, may gather all the key data about a customer’s needs from an intake interview. But the chatbot may miss some of the emotional nuance that is communicated nonverbally, through tone of voice, facial expressions or posture, says Jay Gates, claims consultant at Gallagher.

    “It’s just an ice cold process. Nobody likes talking to a computer,” Gates says.

    Digital tools can make the customer experience cold and impersonal — or they can build a stronger connection between customers and their insurers. The result depends on how the tools are deployed.

    Creating Human Connections With Digital Tools

    There’s no turning back from the digital future. Yet handing the entire customer relationship to digital tools isn’t the best way to cultivate those relationships, either. Even digital interactions need a human touch, and insurance agents provide an excellent place to start.

    Insurance agents play a key role in building insurer-customer relationships. An agent’s expertise and ability to communicate face to face with customers makes agents ideally suited to handling a number of complex insurance questions, writes Virginia Hamill at Fit Small Business.

    “Organizations should strive toward adopting a hybrid model where automation and agents work hand-in-hand, and each play to their relative strengths to support customers,” says Fara Haron, CEO of North America, Ireland and Southeast Asia and EVP of global clients at Majorel.

    To achieve this goal, Haron recommends that insurers integrate AI-enabled chatbots and similar technologies to help customers get answers more quickly. Bots can answer the simplest questions on their own and refer customers to an agent when their query is more complex.

    Integrating artificial intelligence and similar tools with agent-customer interactions may also help reduce another source of aggravation for customers: waiting for service. In one six-minute customer service call, human interaction occupies only about 25 percent of the time; the other 75 percent involves the customer waiting while service agents look up information, writes Schneider.

    Digital tools can reduce the waiting time, allowing agents to assist customers more effectively and with less wait time. The result is a more satisfying experience for customers and a more effective one for agents.

    Treat technology as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, human interaction with customers, recommends Heron. Human involvement in choosing the training data for AI tools and in monitoring those tools for effectiveness is a must in terms of enhancing the customer experience and allowing human insurance company employees, agents and brokers to do their jobs well.

    Combining the benefits of digital technology with the human expertise of insurance agents offers a best of both worlds scenario for insurers and customers.

    “At the end of the day, if your claim or question is handled to your satisfaction, does it matter if it was done by a human or bot? In fact, if a bot can get the same job done in a matter of seconds, doesn’t that make for a better user experience?” asks Michael Crowe, founder and CEO at Clearsurance.

    Building a Hybrid-Digital Future

    Digital tools can sort facts, analyze data and spot patterns faster than humans can. They can be relied upon for a number of repetitive or pattern-heavy tasks, like collecting basic contact information from customers or answering the most commonly-asked questions about coverage. Yet these systems hit their limit when it comes to the complexity and subtlety of human emotions.

    “Today’s A.I. systems have massive amounts of cognitive capability, but there’s no emotional intelligence in these technologies,” says Gabi Zijderveld, chief marketing officer at Affectiva. The technology may be able to handle facts and figures, but it cannot account for emotional factors — no matter how heavily those feelings weigh on human customers.

    The best human/digital customer experience strategies will focus on two points, writes John Abraham, general manager of the Medallia Institute. They will seek to make customers’ interactions with the company as frictionless as possible. And when customers need advice or experience highly-charged emotions, they’ll make it easy for customers to reach an experienced human being who can help them.

    To build strong customer relationships, insurance companies must not only account for customers’ emotions. They must also follow through on the expectations generated when those emotions interact with insurance company promises.

    “The time for promoting ‘caring’ messages via social media and advertising is over. Consumers aren't naïve; having found themselves now dependent on digital and remote services to undertake their everyday life tasks, they need to be confident that the organizations they do business with can be relied upon to deliver on promises,” writes Martin Taylor, deputy CEO and global CMO at Redwood Technologies Group.

    To kick-start the process of humanizing digital connections, insurance companies may benefit from updating their operating models. A focus on continuity as it relates to the new normal of COVID-19 can help insurers identify where digital tools provide the personalization, reliability and flexibility customers want, and where human interaction is still needed, writes Kyle McNabb, senior vice president of product marketing at ASG Technologies.

    Technology offers a number of opportunities for insurance companies and agents to improve customer service. Asking customers to deal solely with apps and bots, however, is likely to hinder rather than help the customer relationship. Instead, combine digital tools with human connection to offer customers the best of both worlds.

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    Bridging the gap between traditional insurance distribution models and today's digital age.