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The Mercer Report: Call Me Maybe?

Ensure employees experience success during open enrollment by improving communication.

By Jacqueline Hill

With another open enrollment season around the corner, organizations and their employees face that crucial time when complex and personal benefit decisions must be made. For many people, last year’s benefit choices may not be right or sufficient for the coming year—as families grow or as retirement draws nearer. One of the key strategies for helping employees cope with the inevitability of change is to ensure the robustness of customer engagement call centers.

Even with online registration, mobile apps, and benefit platforms that far exceed the capabilities of only a few years ago, call centers remain the front line for plan members. When an individual needs to make direct verbal contact with a customer engagement call center, organizations need to deliver a positive experience, providing answers and solutions quickly, courteously, and accurately. Call centers can only thrive on a shared understanding that each individual who calls needs to be treated the same, no matter the inquiry. There are no “small” matters.

Achieving excellent service is not an end state, but rather it’s something that requires continual monitoring and improving based on the needs of the workforce. Organizations seeking to transform their call center benefits administration and service to drive greater results should focus on creating more rewarding outcomes for customers. This can begin with an analysis of the prior year’s processes and establishing goals, including:


adopting highly effective volume forecasting, capacity, and staffing models;


investing in technology to better support an ideal customer service process;

• improving training to boost performance; and

• differentiating training by client needs. 

This approach is designed to encompass three key areas: people, process, and technology. The people side requires recognition and reward programs to enhance colleague engagement; increased communication with playbooks, desk charts, weekly emails, focus groups, and regular meetings; and new recruiting and pay strategies.

As for process, organizations need to ensure customer calls are routed quickly and efficiently. A focus on more frequent reporting can help provide a clear picture of how well benchmarks are being met, along with better connections to internal business partners to improve issue resolution. In addition, a “critical caller” processes can be introduced to escalate sensitive callers to increase first-call issue resolution.

The technology piece can be ambitious—and potentially costly. It may require the launch of new and enhanced websites as a means of enhancing self-service, along with an overhaul of the client knowledge base to ensure that call-center benefit counselors have accurate and complete information at hand. If they’re not already in place, live chat systems can offer an enhanced online option for users, as can email programming that automatically notifies customers of issue resolution. Quality control can be enhanced via an interactive voice response (IVR) survey.  All of that may require server upgrades to increase capacity and reduce error and system issues.

The improvement should be measurable. For example, is there a decrease in the “handle time” of open enrollment calls compared to the year prior to the system process changes and enhancements? Handle-time improvements of 20 to 30 seconds are a solid benchmark for success. For organizations using an IVR survey, response rates in the mid-to-high 20 percent range is the goal, with an overall satisfaction rating in the mid-to-high 90 percent range.

The larger point is that no organization can afford to rest on its laurels when it comes to benefits administration and the very real need of customers to resolve complex issues through their call centers. The differences between unsatisfactory, lackluster, average, and very satisfied matter a great deal to participants during open enrollment as well as year round. They should matter just as much to organizations seeking a competitive edge in attracting and retaining the talent it takes to succeed today.

Jacqueline Hill is the global customer engagement leader and consumer association business leader for Mercer Health & Benefits Administration LLC.

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