Apple offers some powerful customer service lessons for life producers. (Ryan Emberley/Invision for Apple/AP Images)

On September 19, the new iPhone came out, and my family, probably against its better collective wisdom, decided that was the day for us to upgrade all of our mobile phones. It did not go well. Not necessarily because we tried to do it on National Freak Out Over the New iPhone Day, but because we tried to do it through AT&T.

AT&T had a “one phone per account” policy, which means we either had to drag our kids into the store to upgrade, or we could order the new phones over the Internet. Ordering online seemed preferable to standing in line forever with a bunch of excited hipsters, so to the Internet, we went. AT&T’s system, however, botched the order and and condemned us to spend a few hours navigating an increasingly unhelpful labyrinth of sales support web pages and customer service phone lines staffed by reps who either had no clue what to do or who simply put us on hold for 20 minutes until disconnecting us.

Ultimately, we went to the Apple store and tried there. Not only was it a master class in how to handle large volumes of customers, but their sales reps were skillful, friendly and helpful. The transaction happened swiftly and without drama, we got everything we needed, and we left as happy customers. In fact, it took us less time for us to drive to the store, wait in line, buy four new phones, and upgrade our mobile service by doing it face-to-face with a live agent at Apple than it did for us to get nowhere trying to do it online and through 800 customer service numbers with AT&T.

On somebody’s balance sheet, automated and telephonic sales support looks like a great idea, but it’s actually the world’s most effective machine for mass-producing disaffected customers. Imagine, for a moment, if handling life insurance claims was the same kind of emotional torture that you get when dealing with your mobile phone carrier online or over the phone. Imagine making grieving widows wait on the phone for half an hour … and then disconnecting them.

Of course you can’t. You’re the human side of a business that needs its human side more than ever before. And yet, there are decision-makers who see this industry’s aging distribution; and the challenge of hiring, training and retaining new producers; and who are thinking that rather than crafting a first-class retail experience, maybe now is the time to invest everything in direct sales and support.

To the leaders of every single life insurance company in the world: I assure you, it is not.

The strength of the relationship with the customer comes most from the professional expert who knows the client, the product, and how one can help the other. You can’t get that no matter how much you automate your selling, renewal or claims process. You just can’t. And this is especially true when it comes to life insurance, which is a personal product, dealing with personal issues, and which requires a human touch. There is no computerized process that can replace the kind of satisfaction delivered by a trusted agent who, when she congratulates you on a wise purchase, you know she means it, and you know she is right.

There are just enough success stories to direct insurance sales and service to make it seem like a good alternative to maintaining a large human support team. But this particular quest for efficiency tends to degrade service to the level we expect from any given mobile phone carrier. Is that really what we want for this industry? After all, if buying and using life insurance becomes as unpleasant as dealing with your mobile phone service, then people simply won’t buy life insurance at all. Some things, you just can’t automate.