On a recent business trip, the ever-changing dynamics of customer service really hit home for me. I walked into a pharmacy to replace a tube of toothpaste and was confronted with two checkout lines. The shortest line led to the regular counter, where a real, live human being was helping customers. The longer line of customers stood in front of a group of four self-serve checkout stands.

Trends in our own insurance industry ran through my head as I watched my fellow travelers and shoppers:

  • Why were more people willing to join a longer line to receive less service?
  • Did the option of four self-serve stands translate into a promise that those lines would move more quickly?
  • Or did customers actually want to swipe chewing gum and bottled water themselves?

Behavioral scientists will reach for deeper motivations, such as the empowerment of doing something yourself or the desire to avoid human interaction during some transactions. And researchers who study business trends will remind us that drugstores and grocery stores save money on personnel when customers become their own checkers and baggers.

Can you guess which lane I chose? Standing there with my tube of toothpaste and an impulse buy of bottled water, I waited in the self-serve line and thought about companies that make their customers do extra work in the purchase cycle.

In our industry, carriers have typically arranged insurance offerings — particularly voluntary products — in ways that make someone, somewhere do extra work before completing an initial sales cycle. This isn’t intentional; what makes sense for carriers doesn’t always translate into the end-user’s convenience.

I’m not a fan of policies that make our customers do more work. Not only does less convenience usually equal fewer sales, but it’s just not right. We can make it relatively quick and easy to choose insurance products. And not only should we do this, but I see evidence that more carriers are doing this.

Here are some changes I’m seeing carriers enact that lessen the amount of work that end-user customers have to do:

  • Seamless, packaged solutions with simplified product design and streamlined underwriting and business rules
  • Consumer-driven analysis tools that promote participation and a positive customer experience
  • Creation of “universal” enrollment platform concepts
  • Strong trend toward using the Internet (including smartphones, PDAs, and tablets) as the preferred communication vehicle and product delivery system

Giving customers the option to perform an employee’s job might work in some industries, but won’t work for us. We’re the experts; it’s up to us to make choices simpler and easier, not more confusing or difficult. As carriers work with producers to build more client-friendly processes, our end-users will be able to select the insurance products they need with the convenience and simplicity they want. Let’s do our work so well that it takes the burden off our clients.

Steve Howard is vice president of Benefit Solutions at American General Life Companies. Steve’s monthly blog on ASJonline addresses issues and trends in the insurance industry. To join the conversation online with Steve, contact him at steve.howard@aglife.com.