Insurance Insider: The Call Centre

In February 2011 I found myself back in the UK in need of a job. I had high hopes of a career as some sort of an online community manager. I had realistic expectations of resuming my career in retail management. Neither option was particularly fruitful in the first couple of months of job hunting. I generally despise agencies, but needs must, and along I went to a couple of Bournemouth recruitment specialists. Bournemouth employment is dominated by two industries. Tourism and finance/insurance. But surely there’d be something else that suited my skills better than those two.

The first agent had a job in a call centre selling home insurance. I had my own preconceptions of life in a call centre. Not good ones. We’ve all had those evening calls from persistent salespeople. Nothing else, I asked? Nope. Bin man? Mortuary assistant? Nada. Bag packer at a supermarket? Zilch. No big pharmas looking to pay for human guinea pigs to test risky new drugs on?? They didn’t have a thing. Just call centre jobs. I think they detected my reluctance to embark on a new career in extreme telephonic boredom. I wasn’t to hear from them for six months*.

But before I left the office, I heard someone in the next room mention the name of the insurance company. I went home, looked them up on the internet and applied directly for an Outbound dialling vacancy. I got a call back and an interview was arranged a couple of days later. I still wasn’t keen. But I did need a job. So I put on my best garb – my wedding suit – and lumbered into their office block, feigning as much enthusiasm as possible. I was given a cup of coffee. It was a vile concoction. I drank it all, just so as not to offend. Make a good impression etc. I needed a job that much.

The interview consisted of a few questions to see how motivated I was. Oh really, really motivated. Honest. I did a quick spelling and math test. How do you spell ‘kill me now’? Then I had a chat with a lady who ran one of the Outbound dialling teams. She was really quite pleasant and we had a nice talk. She asked about Mexico. She asked about my wife. Well, she’s still in Mexico at the moment. She asked when she was coming over to join me. Well, visas are expensive – I need to get a job first! I saw the empathy and even pity written all across her face. Bingo! The job was mine. And why not? You think I cheated with that bit of emotional blackmail? Absolutely not. That was my first sale for the company. It’s all about rapport. You’ll see…

I left the interview with a start date. The nice lady had gotten me a job with the Inbound department, which is not only a better job, but the start date was a month earlier. The difference between Outbound and Inbound roles is as their titles suggest. The former is the guy you hate. The guy who calls right in the middle of dinner to offer a quote. It’s extraordinarily repetitive, combative and competitive. The latter is the guy you call to accept or get a quote, to amend or renew your policy or to let off steam when something doesn’t go your way. It’s more varied and less pressured.

So on April 4th 2011 I went along for the first day of four weeks training. For the first two weeks we learned about the home insurance product we sold. We learned about the computer and dialling systems that we used. We were introduced to the script. A lot of what we say is scripted, to ensure we are compliant. That’s to say, to ensure we sell in accordance to the defined regulations for our industry. Which has, if we’re going to be honest, a pretty shabby reputation.

We were taught sales techniques. Fact Find – what does the customer have, what does he want, what does he need? Match and Demonstrate – make sure we offer a product at least as good as he has, and demonstrate the benefits of being with us. Objection Handling – how to overcome (or overwhelm!) a customer who keeps fobbing us off. And, of course, Rapport!

People buy from people they like and trust. Build up a relationship. If the customer mentions something you are familiar with, the start up a conversation. Or else talk about the weather! It works. During the first couple of months, I received a call from a chap who had just moved back to the UK with his family from Mexico City. He’d been working for a large international company. Yes, we talked about Mexico. Yes, of course he bought a policy from me!

Week three was training on the phones, calling real customers. Although I was going onto an Inbound team, everyone who joins the company has to prove they can sell on the phone. I had to sell one policy in a week. In the event, I sold three in my week. Others just couldn’t do it and disappeared, either through their own choice or on a less voluntary basis. People come and go in this industry as in any other industry. Just a lot quicker. An Outbound agent who has served a year in the same company is something of a veteran. Two years is a rarity. Anyone who lasts three years deserves a medal. The Inbound department is quite different. On my team of eleven agents, I am the longest serving employee. But there’s a whole bunch who’ve passed the two year mark. Even the newbies have been here a year or more.

My working day is simple. I turn up, turn on the computer, log into the dialling system and wait for the calls to come in. Some days are non stop. Others can be rather slow. Some days I’ll get a steady flow of customers renewing their policy. Other days I’ll have a stream of customers calling about quotes they got on Compare the Market, Go Compare of the MoneySupermarket. My job is to sell as many policies for as much money as possible in the quickest possible time whilst remaining compliant. And also remaining civil – there are plenty of customers who will put your patience, even your sanity, to the test. But at least I don’t work for the guy in the video above.

Some agents are really money focussed. Most, almost all, call centres have bonus schemes. A lot of those schemes are based on commission per hour figures. I despise this, as it encourages poor behaviours and penalises good customer service. The most successful agents bonus wise will get rid of you as quick as they can. That may even mean ‘accidentally’ hanging up on you if you are taking up their time but are unlikely to earn them any commission. I’ve seen these sort of agents rack up bonuses of £1,000 to £2,000 per month.

Fortunately, my company has backed away from this system and is now rewarding staff for service and hard work with a simple share of the commission they earn. This means the bonus pool is more fairly shared around. I can earn three, four maybe soon five hundred pounds in a month in bonus. But I can still be conscientious and offer decent service. Which makes me happy.

There are good days and bad days.I’ll work harder for a nice, pleasant customer. I’ll still work hard for an average customer. I’ll do the bare minimum for a rude SOB. Only a couple of times have I had to end a call and hang up on a customer for being abusive though. It’s like anything else in life. Treat people like you’d want to be treated yourself. My hours of work are reasonable. Some Saturday mornings, no Sundays. Certainly a lot less anti-social that in convenience retailing. I get all the bank holidays off. And I get to sit in a reasonably comfortable chair in a nice modern office in the warm and dry. The people I work with a a nice bunch, which counts for a lot. Although every now and again we get a new person who is quite, quite mad. They don’t last long.

So, in short, I’ve had many worse jobs. There are frustrations. The company I work for gets things wrong sometimes. Occasionally they screw up spectacularly. There are some reservations I hold about the way they do business and the way they handle employees. But life is never perfect. If they stoop below a level that is acceptable to me, there are plenty more call centres in the area. And vice versa – if I don’t perform, there are other agents waiting for my job.

But what, you might ask, has any of this got to do with you buying insurance, other than giving you a brief run down of my career history within the industry? How will this help you in anyway in getting the right cover at the right price? Well, there’s a point to this that is so obvious that a majority of callers seem to miss it entirely. When you speak to a call centre, you are dealing with a human being. He or she will have their own story. Some will be better than others. They are unlikely to want to bleed for their company. What you get out of them will largely depend on you. Be nice!

  • I received an email from them six months later, telling me that I hadn’t got the job. Of course I replied. Just to inform them I had got the job, was still going strong, and how much commission had they lost for not sending me along for an interview? I got another email from them about a year ago, asking if I was interested in a job at the company I work for. I despise recruitment agencies like you despise call centres…
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4 comments

  1. Whenever I call into somewhere, I always try to be nice, as I figure it’s not a very fun job to begin with. Also, everyone in the world has latitude as to how they treat customers, and as you note, if you’re a nice customer, someone will likely go the extra mile for you. And if you’re an SOB (not “south of border,” LOL), you also don’t know how bad they can screw you either.

    This policy has generally served me well, sometimes spectacularly well in places like airports where employees get all kinds of grief for things entirely outside their control. I’ve gotten upgrades that the jerk ahead of me believed were unavailable. And besides, I do believe in karma too. What goes around does indeed come around.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where drunken hordes are already drinking green beer and shouting in the streets.

    1. Being nice is definitely the moral of this story. Plenty of customers are nice. A pretty big proportion of them are indifferent. That’s fine. But a shockingly large chunk of my daily callers are….ignorant. To put it mildly.

  2. Of course I think you are way too talented for your current line of work – adding to why you must be virtually the top in the chain. That said to do a grand job at whatever is always a commendable policy. Interesting report.

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