Customer service sets insurers apart in health exchanges

Although customer service has never been the health insurance industry's forte, some major insurance companies are taking steps to improve their customer relationships.

The recent push toward enhanced customer service comes as insurers prepare to sell their plans through health insurance exchanges in 2014. When insurers begin offering their products on exchanges, which require certain minimum benefit packages for all insurers, customer service becomes a key differentiator among competitors, Forbes reported.

Consequently, UnitedHealth Group, Cigna and Health Care Service Corp. (HCSC), which owns several Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, are working toward improving their customer service ratings.

"The ability to know your members is going to be more important than ever," Austin Waldron, senior vice president and chief customer service officer for HCSC subsidiary Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, told Forbes.

Although insurers definitely are behind the eight ball based on a Temkin Group survey rating companies across industries--which found that U.S. consumers gave the health insurance industry the lowest scores of "poor" or "very poor"--a separate Forrester Research survey showed that some insurers are improving their customer service.

Illinois Blues, for example, has made a "significant change" in Forrester's Customer Service Experience Index, jumping from 14 points in 2011 to 68 points in 2012. The insurer said that instead of increasing spending on customer service, it has focused on investing in member education and online interactions.

"We have to have our systems and the robustness needed for an additional 1.5 million to 2 million members ready to go so everything is not a 20-minute phone call," Waldron said. "There is going to be more one-stop shopping."

UnitedHealth, meanwhile, said it is investing more than $2 billion annually in "technology, including new development, to enhance how we support customers," spokesman Daryl Richard told Forbes. "With these investments, we are able to collect, analyze and apply data to predict healthcare needs and identify areas of improvement," Richard said, adding that these investments help members easily access the care they need.

By focusing on customers, whether through outreach, education or enhanced service, insurers likely will see large payoffs. Consultant firm Accenture determined that if insurance companies improve the quality of their customer service, they could charge more for their products because nearly half of the people it surveyed said they would pay more for superior customer service.

To learn more:
- here's the Forrester Research survey (subscription required)
- read the Forbes article

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