As Customer Operations Director here at Ageas UK, Caroline King is a leader in her field and an asset to have at the helm of our customer-led strategy. To mark National Customer Service Week, Caroline shares her thoughts on how customer service has evolved and how we can build recognition of it as a valued career and profession.
Every business function undergoes change, but in recent years customer service has evolved like never before. The role customer service plays has always been intrinsic to a business, and this is evident now more than ever.
From AI to driving sustainable growth (themes identified for this year’s National Customer Service Week), the landscape has dramatically changed. As Customer Operations Director here at Ageas and 28 years of experience in the customer service profession, in the last five to 10 years I have witnessed the increasing recognition of the importance of customer service.
Approximately five years ago, we decided to take a more systemic approach to customer service. Since then, we’ve put emphasis and investment into understanding our customers and becoming more customer-led. We are purpose driven, and our purpose is very much founded in customer delivery. We’ve built our infrastructure around that, and it’s at the centre of everything we do. Whether dealing with customers directly or not, all of Ageas’s functions are driven by this purpose – to understand people and simplify insurance.
The general perception about what a contact centre looks like has often done a disservice to the people in these fundamental roles, and this misconception is true now more than ever.
If I think back to 10 years ago, the role of a call centre agent was perhaps more transactional. Often there were scripts, and the individual would essentially go through the motions and arrive at the answers. While this is an outdated view potentially still held by many, this is inherently different to how we operate now.
The job descriptions for customer service roles have truly transformed and as a result, so has our recruitment process.
How we recruit now is not necessarily what has been done in the past. For customer-facing roles, we now recruit based on competency and behaviour. We look for potential, and having the right behaviours and attitudes is key. We look for individuals who can show empathy and who already have a fundamental understanding of what customer means. In order to identify these, our recruitment process is very robust. The onboarding is detailed, and we have eight weeks of mandatory training which is mostly classroom-based.
Within Ageas and no doubt every other call centre environment, roles have become less entry-level. With customers at the centre of our operations, the core of our training programme is developing their intrinsic skills of empathy and understanding. We ensure that everyone at Ageas, not just customer-facing colleagues, has a good grasp on how to recognise vulnerability, understand affordability, and have an awareness of regulatory requirements.
Insurance is a complex topic and customer queries and requirements vary greatly, so a very different attitudinal skillset has become essential. It’ll take a bit of time, but our ambition is to have our customer-facing people experts in all areas. As the role changes, we review job profiles and revaluate salary and reward packages to ensure we attract and recruit the right people. Internally we also offer customer service apprenticeships, and we are very supportive in enabling people to develop these skills professionally regardless of their function.
Our people do not need to be customer-facing to be driven by our purpose. When we recruit for senior roles, we look for professional skills that often involve behavioural science. As well as knowledge of the market and regulatory landscape as you’d expect, we need our colleagues to understand what makes people tick and how this can be applied to the service we offer our customers. In addition, we look for the ability to translate customer predicament, manage it, and find solutions.
As customer service roles develop, a much broader set of skills are required to serve customers individualistically. We know each customer query is different, so it is much more about predicament management and understanding and adapting to a customer’s query or issue in the moment.
We use the term ’predicament management’ to put the focus on thinking about what that individual customer needs in that moment. It is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach that it may have been five years ago so, and while we very much have a framework in place, we give our team the freedom and empowerment to find the solution for the customer in the moment.
Due to external factors such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent cost of living crisis, I’ve noticed customer behaviour is entirely different to what it was four years ago. Our customer-facing teams have had to understand and adapt to this shift.
At Ageas we introduced a Vulnerable Customer Programme, which includes upskilling with tailored training to support customers in vulnerable situations, changing processes for those behind on payments, and reviewing how we manage excess payments. We are all Vulnerable Customer Champions regardless of our role, and we regularly update our Customer Care Policy and Guidance as well as our Customer Care toolkit.
Throughout the pandemic, we also took the opportunity to become more digital. We’ve digitalised our business over the last two years, so much so that almost 60% of our Ageas Direct transactions within customer operations are now completed without human intervention. This means our teams can focus on those customers either with less digital-literacy and/or more complex predicaments, which is yet another reason the scope of these roles has grown.
I have built my entire career in and around contact centres, and I am delighted to have a highly skilled and dedicated leadership team around me at Ageas who are all passionate about everything customer. They understand the importance of remaining close to our customers, no matter how senior their role, and I’m proud that every member of our UK executive team has thrown themselves into participating in our Customer Immersion Programme.
This programme involves six interactive immersions into the customer journey that the executive team are brought into. In one instance, we set them up with a mock customer account so they could experience the online journey through the lens of the customer. This allowed them to navigate the platform with the freedom to explore the overall functionality as one of our customers would. We also had them listen to a range of claims calls in our contact centre, enabling us to really highlight to them the impact a claim has on a customer’s life, as well as the sheer scope of queries we help our customers with on a daily basis. It was a real eye opener for our leadership team, and implementing this programme is all part of breaking down that outdated perception of customer service.
Building recognition of the profession externally
Alongside ensuring that every single person in our business understands the customer’s viewpoint, re-education about what customer service is is a big part of what I do.
Our heavy investments in CX shows, and we are frequently recognised externally as having market leading CX. Awards aren’t everything but they are valuable in terms of highlighting our progress, and I am particularly proud of achieving our ServiceMark accreditation on our first time of trying.
To get customer service recognised more widely, we need to do more of the same. We need to continue to be ambassadors within and outside of Ageas, and I will continue to champion and lead the way to ensure the topic is never far from people’s minds.
More cross industry and cross organisation work is required, and we participate in many membership forums and collaboration networks to try and raise the profile and keep CX on the agenda.
Working closely with The Institute of Customer Service is a big part of it for us. Our CEO, Ant Middle, is a vice president and we work closely with the institute to support its initiatives, for example the recent Service with Respect initiative, which contributed to new legal protections being brought in for customer-facing workers. This was big news across all industries, but it has been particularly impactful in terms of adding more credibility and value to the customer service profession.
National Customer Service Week raises awareness of customer service and the vital role it plays in successful business practice and the growth of the UK economy. As an organisation we support it every year, and as an individual at the forefront of the customer service profession, it is a week-long celebration to reflect, recognise, and recommit.
Learn more about how we support our customers and Ageas’s Vulnerable Customer Programme in our 2022 sustainability report.
More information on National Customer Service Week and how to get involved can be found via The Institute of Customer Service website.