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Resilient Omnichannel Customer Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Insurance Perspective
Neeraj Prasad Chief Operating Officer, HCL Insurance Business Services (IBS) | June 5, 2020
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Let me begin by sharing a brief story.

Joanne is a former nurse who lives with her husband James, a retired lorry driver in a small house in Basingstoke. After more than two decades working in a City hospital for the NHS, Joanne opted for a quiet retirement. She would have preferred a cottage in a nice village in the Midlands but she wanted to stay as close to her children who were based in London and Basingstoke was just within budget. Until recently her routine was fairly simple; an early morning breakfast, a garden stroll, lunch with neighbours, calls with her children, and making sure her husband James didn’t spend all day at the local pub. But in January 2020 everything changed – the COVID-19 pandemic had reached the UK.

Joanne’s network of nurses soon started sharing their stories from the front lines. The news of the first death came in early March and by the end of the month, there were nearly 20,000 cases including the Prime Minister. By mid-April, there were over 140,000 cases and nearly 20,000 deaths. Joanne was worried. Her husband was cavalier at first but as the entire country clamped down under lockdown, even he began to take matters more seriously. And then, when least expected, Joanne fell ill and quickly passed away in their modest home.

James was left to sort matters out. Even after all the essentials had been taken care of, it seemed there was still much more to be done. In the weeks that followed, James was caught between grief and helplessness as he attempted to figure out how his wife managed everything – from bank accounts to bills. And then there was the matter of Joanne’s life insurance policy and pension scheme which resulted in endless hours on the telephone with equally helpless service agents and a labyrinth of webpages and forms to navigate. He couldn’t believe that in the 21st century, he still needed to manually sign printouts and post them in order for any of this essential work to be processed. This wasn’t the future he had imagined.

This singular story tells us all that we need to know about the unique, human tragedy that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought. Perhaps not since the influenza epidemics of 1957 or 1968, has a disease ravaged the world to such an extent. In fact, with over 4.7 million cases and nearly 320,000 deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic may be the worst in modern history. And what makes this era uniquely challenging is that its dangers make even the smallest tasks like meeting people, going outside or interacting with businesses a complicated and risky proposition.

In response to these challenges, every industry has had to let go of their “business-as-usual” mentality and reform their business intelligence to align with the new reality. The impact on enterprise infrastructure has been monumental as entire workforces have either been furloughed or migrated to a work-from-home state. But for those of us in the insurance industry, this pandemic is not just a challenge to our business operations but to our ethical commitments as well.

Impact on Life and Pension Services

Dealing with insurance processes and procedures isn’t usually any customer’s idea of fun. In most cases, it’s assumed a difficult and cumbersome road lies ahead. In the best of instances, even with well-respected and honourable insurance providers, customers are still likely to rate expediency highly in their overall experience. As technology enablers in the life and pension services domain, my aim has always been to dispel this legacy and help insurance providers implement effective customer service that fulfils customer needs. But all this is rooted in human interactions.

Amidst the chaos and panic of the current crisis, the core principles of our industry have been challenged. There is no longer the scope to engage in in-depth customer interactions. As customers continue to make claims, traditional customer service and processing mechanisms now face bottlenecks. This is mainly due to the necessary restrictions of working from home and social distancing. And whilst life and pension services count as essential workers, they are bound in traditionally analogue processes.

Meeting customer demand is currently far too reliant on hard-copy paperwork. This includes nearly everything from death claims processing to maturity claim and payments to applications. Our collective workforce is trained and efficient in handling these processes manually. Whether its scanning and cheque processing or helping customers with closed-book products, workers in the life and pension industry know how to get it done. But to do so now when even a simple trip to the post office is filled with dangerous exposure makes it all the more difficult.

To make matters worse, the Royal Mail is caught up in challenges of its own, delaying processes and holding up customer fulfilment. Unfortunately, there are no villains in this story but there is an opportunity for the insurance industry to take bold steps that can have heroic results. Insurance businesses have to seize the opportunity and accelerate their digital transformation journey by adopting omnichannel customer service.

Enabling Omnichannel Customer Service

As we saw in our anecdote at the start, customers like James are caught in a tenuous position. Surrounded by risk, drowning in uncertainty, and hampered by outmoded processes. Unfortunately, James represents a demographic that needs greater assurance than others. As an elderly pensioner, James is vulnerable to numerous risks – from lapses in his annuity payments to clearing claims with his insurance. For people in James’ position it is a matter of survival. Even after the worst seems to have happened, the crisis is far from over for the millions of people in James’ position.

In the coming weeks and months, thousands of people will begin calling their insurance companies en masse. With restrictions likely still in place, companies will find it intensely difficult to meet these demands. The first key interaction in these cases takes place with the First Notice of Loss, when the customer notifies the company of their claim. But given the slowdown in processing and the inherent delays, this can be a painful and protracted experience.

This is precisely why, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) issued clear guidelines for insurance firms as the pandemic came to a rise. And while they addressed the need to implement any plans that could help mitigate the operational impact of the crisis, they emphasises their concerns about three key areas: the treatment of policy renewals, mid-term adjustments, and product suspensions.

By adopting advanced digital transformation in the form of omnichannel customer services, insurance providers can provide true support with real time services. Companies can enable automation tools across operations to not only increase the accuracy of the claims but also reduce operational costs. By leveraging transformative technologies in the back and middle offices, enterprises can benefit both themselves and the customer. Tools like Robotic Process Automation can help manage large volume of claims processing while launching intuitive customer portals can speed up the claims submission process.

By adopting advanced digital transformation in the form of omnichannel customer services, insurance providers can provide true support with real-time services.

This becomes particularly critical when we consider that much like Joanne from my story, the majority of claimants are likely to be in a vulnerable demographic. This means our customers most in need will be those who are desperately reliant on their policies for additional liquidity and sustenance during these trying times. But apart from supporting this customer segment, the adoption of an omnichannel platform for customer service will also help insurance workers.

In a traditional setting, insurance workers would need to go to work despite the pandemic in order to manually process documents, file cheques and send out mail. But with an enhanced omnichannel system they can be protected and focus their energies with a peace of mind working from remote locations. Furthermore, it will free up the workforce to focus on other critical areas of the business such as helping reform their internal systems to integrate and clarify claims related to COVID-19.

Currently, no insurance process has a filing code for a death or claim caused by COVID-19. In fact, in many cases, deaths take place at home with no clear metrics accessible to the provider or the government authorities. By reforming their systems, there will be a clear additional benefit as we’ll be able to gather more accurate data with which to support the pandemic countermeasures.

Harnessing Digital Transformation for Ethical Customer Care

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) also released a statement rather recently, setting out their expectations from the insurance industry. They key message was simple – firms should prioritize the needs of their customers and demonstrate flexibility in their treatment. This statement alone serves as a rallying cry for us in the life and pension services industry to ensure that as insurance providers, we have all the tools needed to accomplish these goals.

Today, as a technology organization, we know that omnichannel customer service systems can be developed and launched in as little as 8 weeks. These systems can help prop up back-office operations, help enterprises engage with their customer and digitize the claims processing pipeline to protect policyholders and workers alike. Moreover, any digital transformation initiative can also help providers on board digital support for their closed-book products as well as offering relief to their legacy customers.

At the end of the day, the business of insurance has always been one of trust and peace of mind. By taking charge of their current circumstances, insurance providers can ensure that they live up to that creed and offer their customers continued service and relief that is faster, easier, and more empathetic to their situation. Now is the time for firms to take the bull by the horns and become proactive in their endeavours. From where I stand, bringing automation, omnichannel services and digital transformation is the key to achieving this outcome.