Business

Aflac to celebrate rare J.D. Power customer service honor across the company on Friday

BY TONY ADAMS

tadams@ledger-enquirer.com

A plaque has been awarded to Aflac, headquartered in Columbus, for its certification as having one of the top customer service centers in the U.S. The designation only goes to the top 20 percent of companies who seek it.
A plaque has been awarded to Aflac, headquartered in Columbus, for its certification as having one of the top customer service centers in the U.S. The designation only goes to the top 20 percent of companies who seek it. tadams@ledger-enquirer.com

It’s a basic accomplishment centered around how well Aflac’s front-line employees interact with customers day in and day out — adding up to roughly 10 million phone call assists each year.

That’s why a corporate-wide celebration will take place Friday to celebrate the recent J.D. Power certification of the company’s customer service centers — Aflac calls them contact centers — at the Paul S. Amos campus in Columbus and its facility in Omaha, Neb.

“You think about the fact that it’s not so much an arbitrary, static criteria that you have to meet. It evolves every year,” Jason Goodroe, Aflac second vice president, customer service center, said during a recent tour of the 525-employee facility in east Columbus. “The top 20 percent of organizations achieves this, and the bar keeps moving. We leaped over it this go round, so we’re feeling good.”

In fact, this marks only the second time — and the first in more than a decade — that Aflac’s call center has received the certification from J.D. Power and Associates, a California company that conducts surveys of companies’ customers to determine how satisfied they are with their experience. It is perhaps best known for its product quality surveys of automobiles, with highly rated vehicles using the J.D. Power name in commercials.

The process at the Columbus and Omaha centers included a thorough analysis of staff recruiting, training, incentives, and involvement by management. The bow on top of the audit was random surveys of customers who purchase and use Aflac’s supplemental insurance policies, which pay them for covered expenses when they are injured or suffering from illness.

The bottom-line attributes surveyed were how courteous and knowledgeable the customer service representatives were with those they spoke, along with efficiency in talking with someone and resolving their need or issue correctly and promptly.

Columbus-based Aflac also has invested in an automated answering system in order to smooth the customer experience and make certain policyholders don’t get caught in a confusing phone tree that frustrates them.

“About 25 percent of calls are resolved with that automated teller. We put an investment in that to make sure we have a world-class automated system,” said Virgil Miller, Aflac senior vice president, internal operations. His oversight includes the Paul S. Amos campus, with about 2,400 employees, and the Omaha facility that has about 125 staffers. “We reduce our transfer rate with that automated system. We don’t want people being transferred back and forth.”

Miller said customer service representatives are put through a series of training programs that start with the basics of the insurance offered by Aflac. As the workers are seasoned, they move into additional responsibilities and handle more complex customer calls. The company also tracks claims and billing service satisfaction itself and they most recently have been at all-time highs, he said.

“Complex calls call for expertise, so we’re building experts,” said Miller, acknowledging that developing talent in the centers often makes the employees attractive to competitors who might like to steal them away.

The call center operation overseen by Goodroe has four primary responsibilities. The duties include handling calls from policyholders, businesses that offer the insurance as an employee benefit, sales agents out in the field, and medical service providers such as a doctor’s office or hospital needing to validate coverage.

But simply satisfying a customer’s request or problem isn’t where the task stops, said Goodroe, mentioning a voluntary effort called “Thank You Thursday.” Staff will take blank cards, decorations, crayons and glitter and craft notes to customers, with the message varying from a simple happy birthday or condolences after they’ve lost a loved one.

“It may be ‘hope you feel better’ or the birth of a child. Customers will call us back and say, ‘I never expected it, you made my day,’” Goodroe said. “We understand the importance of having a very good call experience, and we don’t discount that in any way. But we also realize that we can have an influence beyond the phone calls.”

Inside the customer service centers on Friday, however, the tables will be flipped. It will be others within the company thanking the staffers who contributed to the J.D. Power honor and patting them on the backs. Of course, Goodroe said, the facility will continue to buzz with calls from across the U.S. amid the celebration.

“Understanding that a call center operation is not a light switch, we can’t just shut it down. So we have to keep our service going,” he said. “But our senior executives will actually be delivering the cupcakes or cookies desk to desk. I can ride the emotion out of that for weeks because it shows that (the employees) are so important that our senior leaders carve out time for them. It’s profound in terms of what it means.”

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