P&C insurer grows with IP telephony

The P&C insurance company headquartered in Quebec City makes sure every call gets answered by an informed representative who more often than not is aware of the caller’s name and history with the company even before starting to converse.

La Capitale is a direct writer doing business only in the province of Quebec. It has more than 500 employees in 22 regional offices in towns and cities throughout the province providing sales, service, collections and other business services to its customers and prospects.

La Capitale’s goal was to improve its call centre technology with the objective of improving customer service for callers and increasing the productivity of its telephone agents.

Since 1995, their main goal has been to have all agents in all 22 offices operate as if in one office, reports John Kirouac, vice-president of finance. La Capitale’s offices were using a Centrex solution for telephone service with automatic call distributor (ACD) queues for most agents. The major call centres in Montreal and Quebec City used a Nortel network ACD to distribute calls amongst the offices, but all other sites were independent and did not automatically route calls.

An overhaul of La Capitale’s system in 1995 linked eight of the offices, but it was cost prohibitive to link all 22 offices. A Y2K problem requiring an update to the phone systems prompted the company to look to new possibilities. They met with Cisco, with whom La Capitale had their private data network, and decided on what they have today: a Cisco-based IP solution that integrates voice and data onto a single network to deliver a distributed or virtual contact centre.

“We want if possible to keep a local service for our customers, but if local agents are not available, then we will send [the call] somewhere else,” says Krouac.

He explains that it is important for them to be local or at least seem to be local, even in remote centres, because their main competitor, Desjardins, sells insurance through about 1,500 branches around the province. A customer calling a local number will be transferred somewhere else only if all agents there are busy.

Testing transmission quality

They began with some test pilots to assure the quality of the transmission in spite of telecom facilities that varied between major centres and remote towns. A telecommunications network with increased bandwidth was built so customers would not notice quality problems in the phone calls. Because they were one of the first to implement IP, it took about nine months to deploy, about a third of the time longer than Kirouac estimates it would take now.

They chose Cisco as the vendor because their solution was the most economical to link all branches as if they were one, provide computer telephony integration (CTI) to merge data with voice, and use data to manage agents. They already had some Cisco routers, however they had to upgrade most of these to accommodate transmission quality.

They also prioritized voice over data and increased their network bandwidth to a minimum of fragmented T1, depending on the number of employees in the branch. “There were all sorts of calculations done in order to be sure that the customer would not be affected by the fact that we were sending a call to another branch if all the agents were busy,” Kirouac recalls.

Another reason they chose Cisco was the ability to build on the system. They plan to start recording phone calls for training purposes, hope to purchase a Web collaborator for a ‘click to talk’ capability, and want to forecast staffing using historical databases to ensure they have the right number of agents at any time.

Now the company has two linked virtual centres: one in Montreal, the other in Quebec. If one goes down, the other one takes over.

Calls coming in are typically prospects seeking a quote or customers looking for service on policies or phoning for claims. Kirouac reports that their IVR (interactive voice response) system recognizes at least 75 per cent of their customers when they call in. If the ANI (automatic number identification) is not found in the database, the IVR prompts the caller for their home phone number and then checks the database again to find the customer’s file. If successful, when the phone call is transferred to the agent, the insurance file is also transferred.

Handling inbound calls

“So on at least 75 per cent of calls we save 45 seconds,” says Kirouac. “Previously what we had to do is answer ‘good afternoon, how can I help you?’ and [the agent] would have to go to the computer system and find the file, get it to [his or her] screen and then start servicing the policy. All that is done automatically as the phone is transferred. We don’t want our IVR to be too long because we know that people don’t like it, but it really improves customer service for us because the file goes along.”

Those 45 seconds per call become significant with a weekly volume of 30,000 to 50,000 calls from customers, depending on the time of year. And because all agents have access to the customer files which are on the central system, the location of the agent is transparent to the customer.

The IP system also gives La Capitale the capability of routing calls according to the skills.

IP-based phone systems usually result in savings, particularly in long distance charges. That has been La Capitale’s experience as well, but that is only a side benefit. Even as vice-president of finance, Kirouac places greater value on the system’s ability to enhance their customer service by making sure the customer gets answered, increasing agent productivity by at least 20 per cent, applying CTI and capturing data to better manage the call centres. Previously, La Capitale had no idea how many calls went to each location on a daily basis.

“Even in peak periods, there is no message taken on calls coming in,” he boasts. “We never reduced our personnel here even though we knew [the IP system] would increase productivity. It makes a larger amount of agents available for any customer in the province of Quebec.”

Lessons learned

Kirouac offers these tips for others considering an IP communication system:

• choose one single vendor. “When you work with phone companies or phone vendors, when there is a problem, it is always the other vendor’s fault. We took an end-to-end solution so everything is Cisco’s problem.”

• make sure you have adequate data processing resources to do the project, including network specialists, a telephony specialist that is user-oriented, and IT people to understand and build the application. “There is some IVR scripting to be done and all kinds of stuff that needs to be set up in order to have a system operate the way you really want it to operate.” La Capitale had network and telephony people but had to hire IT people.

As a result, they used Cisco professional services but they prefer to be independent from vendors and have their own staff doing the applications. “If I had the IT people at the beginning, we would have been self-sufficient earlier. When you want to do something, you do it and when it is someone’s responsibility to take care of the system, failures can be fixed easier and quicker.”

• have a back-up. While implementing the new IP telephony, their Centrex system ran in parallel which they could switch to in about 10 seconds if there were problems, says Kirouac. “We would just reroute the main numbers and it would go on our old system. I would never do that without having another phone system just beside.”

In addition to phone systems in Quebec and Montreal backing up each other, some of the hardware in those centres is doubled as a precaution.

• don’t be afraid to be the first on board. “We got an Oracle database in 1997. All of our insurance applications are running on Oracle. We’re always ahead of everybody else in technology. That’s probably one of the reasons our employees really like us.”

Indeed, this past September, human resources firm Watson Wyatt and the magazine Affaires Plus awarded La Capitale as the best employer in Quebec in the category of enterprises with more than 500 employees.