Life insurers have for years been known as information technology laggards. The unwanted reputation is notable in respect to IT solutions that can simplify business processes for producers and clients. Unless they move up the digital curve — and fast — they risk losing business.

Evolving in fits and starts

To be sure, insurers have implemented systems that can reduce the time and expense of point-of-sale transactions. But the phase-in has been uneven, at best. Examples on the P&C side include carriers that recently sold me auto, homeowner’s and auto/home umbrella policies.

Related: Digitizing the insurance process – are you ready?

Certain aspects of the sales, such as receiving via e-mail policy applications to be completed, went well. Other steps — securing an electronic signature and the bank/credit card details needed to bind the policies — remain to be digitized. As to the homeowner’s policy, the full contract doesn’t reside online; you get a hard copy via snail mail.

These are not isolated cases. Nor are the problems limited to P&C companies. Many life insurers have digitized only parts of their transaction processes. Especially in need of an overhaul is underwriting: A step that should be handled in one online session instead can take days, weeks or (in my case) months because of the need to procure attending physical statements and exam results.

It would be bad enough if insurers’ ad-hoc tech upgrades were the result of tight IT budgets or poor planning. But I fear another reason is at play: a less than adequate focus on the end-user.

Unless they automate most (if not every) aspect of customer transactions, insurers might be better off remaining paper-based. Why so? Because any automation raises consumer expectations: When parts of a transaction are digitized, but others are not, buyers become frustrated.

Related: 21 emerging risks for the insurance industry and global economy

A lesson for life insurers blog opinion column

The expression on the face of this tired business traveler mirrors the exasperation many consumers feel when faced with less-than-efficient customer service tools. (Photo: iStock)

Taken for a ride

Annoyance can mount to the point of rage, as I experienced this past week — though not with an insurer. Before returning to Tampa International Airport from a conference in St. Pete, I discovered that I lost my return receipt for a pre-paid round-trip ticket. All that I had to show for the charge was a text message sent to my cell phone showing the trip’s confirmation number from the van service, SuperShuttle.

I assumed that all was fine, but made a follow-up call to SuperShuttle, to connect with a live agent to be sure the charge was recorded. Alas, no luck: No one answered.

Still, I remained confident. What could go wrong? SuperShuttle had a sophisticated customer-facing computer system. From the time I booked my round-trip ticket in St. Pete, the system was populated with information about me — my name, e-mail and phone contacts, hotel, and departure time for the airport. The system needed only to recognize my telephone number when I called, then request verification of the trip via voice or touch-tone input, to issue a confirmation number.

As a bonus, the following morning, that same system texted me a link that tracks the van’s location. Clearly, SuperShuttle was on top of things.

Related: 5 tech upgrades carriers must make in 2016

A lesson for insurers opinion column blog

Excuses are an insufficient substitution for on-point customer care that anticipates and solves problems. (Photo: iStock)

 

A big letdown

Or so it seemed. When the shuttle picked me up, I told the van driver that I had lost the printed receipt, but had the confirmation number. He contacted his supervisor, who related back the number was insufficient: It served only as evidence that I had made a reservation, paid or not.

I was stunned. How, I asked myself, could SuperShuttle not have a record of the charge, one that could be easily retrieved by its field staff? Tracking down the charge on CapitalOne’s website using my iPhone made no difference: The driver would accept only the printed receipt.

Not wanting to be charged again, we got into a stand-off. I wanted to speak to someone in-the-know; he, noting my reluctance to pay, threatened to call the police.

I backed down and handed over my credit card. In a follow-up call to customer service, I learned that SuperShuttle doesn’t avail its van drivers of information about round-trip tickets purchased via credit card from live reps at airport-based kiosks.

That explanation proved less than satisfactory. Surely, issues apart from protecting credit card holders (SuperShuttle could simply have attached a special code to the confirmation number, denoting the trip as prepaid) account for the missing charge.

What might that be? An oversight by the IT team that designed SuperShuttle’s computer system? A decision by a budget-conscious CFO or CIO to deny field staff records of charges because of the additional programming cost?

The more cynically-minded might suspect a third reason: Management opted to require printed receipts precisely because it saw an opportunity to make more money on people prone to losing them.

Regardless, the acrimonious exchange with the van driver left me bitter. And it reinforced a view I’ve long held about customer relationship management solutions: that any crack in a system germane to the customer experience could prompt users to bolt for the exits — and the competition.

Life insurers looking to implement or upgrade their own customer-facing IT solutions would do well to bear this digital pitfall in mind, and plan accordingly.

 

Related: 

3 ways the ‘Internet of Things’ will improve customer relations

How the insurance industry is being disrupted

How to fix the insurance industry’s reputation

Are you following us on Facebook?