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23 May 2012

Improving business performance requires a better customer experience

This might seem like a statement of the obvious for this inaugural blog posting, but apparently that opinion may not be shared by everyone.  Consequently, I thought I'd kick off discussions on this blog with an experience of what it's like to shop for travel insurance.

This is the 21st century. Business has now had a good couple of decades of experience in using the internet, contact centres and customer relationship management (CRM) technology to hone its service performance. Brand identities, strategies and commitments to customer care have been set and repeatedly communicated. Commitments to a customer vision and seamless world-class experience have been made, with mission statements written and distributed.

The integration of technology into blended, multi-channel environments makes it easier than ever before for a customer to shop around and find the most competitive deal as possible; quickly, easily and without too much effort. For all the millions of dollars (in any currency) invested in sales, marketing and service, the customer must surely find it simpler than ever before to hand over their hard earned money to an organisation - in return for great value products and excellence in customer service.

How does this situation match with an actual customer experience?  Consider a practical case study example from this afternoon, on a sunny autumn day in the southern hemisphere.

The customer's situation and need

  • A customer gets free travel insurance provided with their bank credit card if they pay for more than half of their trip's pre-booked expenses using it.
  • They're about to travel on business and want to arrange cover that goes beyond the 90 day period specified in their free terms and conditions. 
  • They need to check out travelling with a simple pre-existing medical condition and want to shop around for the best deal, comparing costs between two providers they've done business with before.

The players involved

  • Provider A - the customer's existing bank's insurance arm. 
  • Competitor B - a travel insurance company that the customer has previously held a policy with. 
  • Underwriter C - the company that underwrites special conditions for both Provider A and Competitor B.

The scene is now set for 21st century business to deploy its arsenal of efficiency in sales, marketing and service. Internet enabled technology and fully staffed contact centres are ready and waiting.  What does it actually feel like to be a customer of two leading Asia-Pacific regional insurance providers in completing this transaction?

The customer's purchasing experience

A running count of the number of times information is given is contained in parentheses [ ].

Step 1: Talk to the people you're already with - Provider A.
  • Read credit card insurance terms and conditions.  Discover free travel insurance has conditions around (a) duration of trip and (b) medical conditions, as set out on page 15, subsection 1(c) of a rather small print booklet.
  • Call provider A to discuss the details of extended trip.
  • Provide name and address details [1] which are now "updated onto our system". 
  • Explain situation [1] and why you're calling, based on page 15, subsection 1(c).
  • Advisor refers you to underwriter C, giving an alternative phone number you need to call.  A transfer is not available.
  • Call Underwriter C as instructed.
  • Provide name and address details [2] now "updated onto their system".
  • Explain situation [2].
  • Provide trip details [1].
  • Obtain quote of additional cost - $400 fee, with reference number 1 supplied.

Step 2: Shop around and exert your consumer rights with Competitor B - a trusted provider you've dealt with before.
  • Call competitor B to discuss your needs for renewed business.  Explain situation [3].
  • Provide name and address details [3].
  • Obtain insurance options and quotes from advisor.
  • Ask about medical conditions and whether they need to be declared.  Yes, but they'll be okay as it's simple.
  • Referred to Underwriter C for a medical authorisation number.
  • Advisor transfers automatically to Underwriter C.  Explain you've just spoken to them with a different company.  Explain situation [4].
  • Provide name and address details [4] to Underwriter C.
  • Provide details of trip [2].
  • Undertake medical assessment online - all OK, no problems.
  • Underwriter C advisor informs you that they can now see you've called previously.  Fantastic, but a bit late to avoid repeating information.
  • Advisor provides reference number 2, authorising the medical condition.
  • Confirmation details sent by post to home address. No electronic mail option is available. They apologise for the inconvenience.

Step 3: Compare what you've found and exert your rights of choice as an informed consumer.
  • Note Competitor B's policy is more expensive, with additional restrictions.
  • Decide to purchase additional cover from Provider A, as a loyal customer and with a better cost profile.

Step 4: Purchase your desired insurance product.
  • Call underwriter C back and provide reference number 1.
  • Explain the situation to a new advisor [5].
  • Provide payment credit card information.
  • Request business name be added to address details for accounting purposes.
  • Explain the difference between a company address, a home address and why the two are different.  Give up on second attempt, after being told this means re-entering your personal information and providing it all again.
  • Receive copy of policy information immediately in your e-mail inbox (from the same company that has previously said it must post a medical assessment confirmation in writing due to a lack of e-mail).
  • Asked by Advisor if you want to "process the other travel policy."
  • Clear up confusion about reference number 2 being from a competitor quote and hence confirming this is proof of medical authorisation having already been given. Explain there is no second insurance policy for another trip.
  • Advisor informs that the previous medical assessment is not valid for this quote and questions need to be repeated again (despite it being the same Underwriter and within an elapsed duration of no more than 15 minutes).
  • Debate why the authorisation number can't be linked, but give up quickly and agree to re-answer the same questions again.
  • Informed of a hidden charge of $100 extra mentioned nowhere else in the process or documentation, raising the cost of Policy A by 25% from the previous quote.
  • Decide Policy A is now uncompetitive.
  • Cancel policy purchase and ensure refund is processed in light of hidden charges now revealed.

Step 5: Purchase the other (now cheaper) insurance product:
  • Call back competitor B.
  • Explain situation [6] to a new advisor.
  • Provide name and address details [5] again.
  • Provide trip details [3] again.
  • Confirm underwriter C reference number giving medical authorisation.
  • Discuss and agree payment card details.
  • Find out about a hidden $40 admin processing fee for medical condition authorisation that hasn't been disclosed to date.
  • Re-evaluate costs and decide to proceed with revised fee.
  • Bat off up-selling efforts of inappropriate insurance add-on products.
  • Negotiate discount by agreeing to take a higher excess.
  • Process payment.
  • Speak to advisor's supervisor and compliment them for handling the last call in a long chain so humorously and professionally.

Performance statistics

Total transaction time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Seriously. To buy insurance!
Insurance policies purchased: 1
Number of times address information provided: 5
Minimum times address information provided to a single company:  2
Number of contacts required to complete purchase:  7
Number of contacts within one provider's end-to-end business process :  4
Hidden charges not revealed until after "informed decision" made: 2
Value of hidden charges as a percentage of initial quotes: 9.35% - 25%
Number of cancellations due to late disclosure of hidden information: 1
Contact channels used for both providers:  3 - internet, phone and e-mail.

Competitor B business winning performance statistics

Channels required to complete purchase: 3 - phone, e-mail and internet
Number of handovers or calls made: 3
Number of times address provided during the end-to-end process: 3
Number of companies involved: 2
Best customer service advisor:  Mary of Melbourne, Australia.

What can business learn from this experience?

Regrettably, this is not an atypical experience of doing business in today's marketplace, despite (or maybe due to) widespread investment in "enabling technologies".  For all the sales hype around CRM, integrated contact centre technology, web enablement and their benefits to business, many organisations still forget to consider the simple step of testing a customer's actual experience in the journey through their business processes from first contact to completing a transaction.

Here are some key lessons to take away and apply in your own organisation:
  • The business case benefits promised by "channel shift" (moving customers from more expensive to cheaper channels) must not assume eliminating the need for other channels.  Some people will still need to call, especially if you haven't tested the technology properly.  Customer contact centre calls plateau in some cases, rather than fall.
  • When outsourcing part of your business processes to a 3rd party, test the whole process from start to finish.  The customer associates your brand with the end-to-end experience, and will not distinguish the handover points to another organisation.  Does your supplier live up to your brand experience ideals?  Does the process work smoothly for your customer, or do they have to start again at the point of the outsourced handover?
  • Poor customer service, repeated callbacks, a lack of 'warm handover' (i.e. one person handing over a customer with a personal introduction) irritate the customer and waste their time.  This is likely to be interpreted as a reflection on your brand and business performance, affecting customers' future purchasing decisions.
  • Customers may not give you the luxury of fixing the problem.  Research shows only 5 to 10% of customers who are actually dissatisfied choose to complain after a service failure experience (Tax and Brown, 1998*). Many more may just walk away.


For the consumer, carrying out a simple transaction still may not be all that simple. The organisation that provides the best possible customer experience is the one with the greatest chance of winning, and retaining, more than their fair share of the customer's wallet.

If your organisation is implementing a customer service business change, you'll probably have been told what it is the technology can do for you. Remember that success comes from making sure it works for your customers as well - along with employing quality people (like Mary from Melbourne) who'll handle customers' frustrations delicately, professionally and with good humour.

People like Mary, backed up by effective processes tested against the customer experience of doing business with your organisation, form the backbone of your customers' service experience.

*Tax, S.S., Brown, S.W. & Chandrashekaran, M., 1998. Customer Evaluations of Service Complaint Experiences: Implications for Relationship Marketing. Journal of Marketing, 62, pp.60–76.

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