• January 1, 2013
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Sandy Put Service to the Test

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With 25 percent of cell phone towers down and power out across the U.S. East Coast immediately following Superstorm Sandy this fall, insurance agents were among the first to rely on innovative communications and customer service technologies to help those most severely affected.

Some, like Allstate, took steps prior to the storm to communicate with customers. Days before the storm made landfall in the Northeast, Allstate of New Jersey used CallFire's Cloud Call Center, SMS text messaging, and interactive voice response (IVR) technologies to urge more than 450,000 customers in the storm's path to take the necessary precautions to prevent loss of life and property. After the storm, it continued to use the CallFire technology to send messages about electrical outages, storm shelter locations, and other information. The system was able to provide customers with assistance assessing damage to their homes and cars and filing their claims, letting them know where mobile damage assessment teams would be located, and getting the toll-free customer service numbers out to them.

"Being able to reach out to 450,000 customers so quickly was very valuable," says Danny Jovic, a company spokesman. "It sent a clear message that our first priority was to help [customers] rebuild and get back up and running as quickly as possible."

The proactive outreach was even more important given that most customers were without power for many days after the storm. "When you don't have power, and therefore no TV or Internet, this was a pretty powerful resource," Jovic says.

Allstate also used the system to keep in touch with its own employees on the ground and those affected by the storm.

"Our biggest problem was connectivity," Jovic says. "A lot of our customers have personal relationships with their agents, and when they are hit with a catastrophe like this, the first thing they want to do is contact their agent. A lot of our agents were down without power too, so using a tool like [CallFire] to reach them and help them get to a place where they could start the claims process was key."

The CallFire system pulled in customer contact information from Allstate's CRM systems to place the calls, and allowed the insurer to track the communications back through the same systems.

"CRM [systems were] so important to help pull out the customer information quickly," says Punit Shah, chief information officer at CallFire. "We were able to make all the calls in a number of hours."

"Cloud telephony has transformed the ability to provide communications assistance on a massive scale," says Dinesh Ravishanker, CallFire's CEO and cofounder.

For Allstate and other insurance companies, new social media channels also provided a unique, real-time method of delivering valuable information to customers. Companies like Liberty Mutual, State Farm, USAA, Travelers, Nationwide, and Farmers positioned mobile catastrophe response units in areas most heavily impacted by Sandy, and used channels like Twitter and Facebook to let customers know where those teams would be. These units distributed basic supplies, like food and water, and also offered Internet access, telephone service, and cell-phone charging stations. Claims adjusters traveled with the units to process claims and, in some cases, cut checks on the spot.

Insurers also increased staff at most offices to handle the high volume of claims that were expected to come in via phone, Internet, and mobile apps. For customers who couldn't get through on those channels, most companies were also accessible via social media.

To further help customers with insurance questions after the storm, the Insurance Information Institute, on its Web site (www.iii.org), listed the toll-free customer service telephone numbers for all of the major U.S. insurers.

But, as is typically the case with something like Sandy that causes a huge and sudden spike in call volumes, patience was requested. "Keep in mind that due to high call volume in the wake of a disaster, it may take some time to get through on some numbers—so please be patient," Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president of public affairs at the Insurance Information Institute in New York, urged all policyholders.

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