"I understand your frustration..."

Workers at a health care call center.

A Convergys Corporation call center in Erlanger, Ky. Paper stars, inscribed "The Power Of One," are awarded to call center agents for performing well and showing empathy. Stars can be traded in for gift certificates and other perks.

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: I hope you had a terrific three-day weekend and that you did not have to spend it scouring the new Healthcare.gov website that launched. If you did look at it, you saw the government's first attempt to make shopping for health insurance more like shopping. Eventually, you'll be able to compare insurance companies on factors like customer service -- something health plans were once able to ignore. What did they care if you were happy? You weren't the one choosing them; it was your benefits department they had to please. Under health reform, insurance companies should pay more attention to the place where they and their customers meet: on the telephone.

Marketplace's Gregory Warner visited a customer service call center in Kentucky and sent this report.


Gregory Warner: The last time you called customer service at your health insurance company, on the other end of the line might have talked to someone at the Convergys Corporation.

Convergys is a company that other companies hire to handle their customer service calls. They answered one billion calls last year at call centers all over the world. They answer the phones for insurance companies, but also credit cards and banks and cell phones. They are, in their words, a relationship management company.

Jeff Brown: OK, I'm gonna let you guys in here. I gotta keep buzzing, because the alarm is going to go off.

Jeff Brown runs this call center in Erlanger, Ky. He leads me through a sea of headsetted heads, in 500 cubicles. Floating here and there are posters scribbled in magic marker -- "Mike's Team Rocks The World" and "Smile!" Jeff stops at a desk and clicks on a mouse.

Brown: So the first screen we're looking at is the way we actually record calls.

Warner: You know, for training and quality purposes. Sorry, just had to say that.

Brown: Absolutely.

Warner: And this is where it is.

Brown: This is it.

This is where Jeff listens to calls and scores them off a checklist called a "quality form."

Brown: Roughly 40 percent of the quality form is dedicated to empathy. Things like "Did you give an empathetic statement to the customer?" and "How many times in the past week have you forgot to do that?"

Because more than any other callers they deal with here, health plan customers that Convergys surveyed say they don't think their insurance company cares about them, or about their health. So Convergys, being in the relationship biz, launched empathy workshops. They hired empathy coaches to roam the aisles and swoop down on agents when they flounder.

Warner: Are you the empathy trainer?

Susan Houben: I am, my name is Susan. Nice to meet you.

Susan Houben.

Houben: I'm glad you came. It's nice.

Warner: Oh, thanks a lot.

Susan Houben does not miss a chance to interject a little kindness.

Houben: That kind of gives me a dance of joy!

Warner: Wow, a dance of joy. That's great. I really appreciate that.

Or a big heap of kindness into every encounter. She teaches new employees the four components of a successful apology, and how to smile with their voice. Then Jeff Brown listens back to the tape of the call and scores the performance.

Brown: And the performance is also, pay for performance. So if you're performing high, you're gonna get paid more.

Which means that the next time you call customer service and you hear:

Houben: I care, I understand.

Agent: I understand your frustration regarding this issue or...

Houben: I hear what you're saying.

Agent: I do apologize that you've had to go through this many times.

That's the sound of an agent trying not to get fired. And your giant insurance company trying to improve their relationship with you. To...

Christine Kowalczyk: Lock in loyalty. And they've got to do that now.

Christine Kowalczyk is a vice president at Convergys. She says that the day after President Obama signed the health reform bill, new calls to the center spiked 20 percent. And the subject of those calls was enough to strike fear into the hearts of the biggest insurance companies

Kowalczyk: Now, they are asking us "Can I drop out of my plan?," "When will my premiums go down?" "I want to use the government plan. How do I do that?"

That government plan -- those government-run exchanges we keep hearing about -- don't start until 2014. But Christine says that people are starting to shop around. Millions who now have insurance through their employer could switch to the exchanges where they have more choice.

Kowalczyk: I'm not going to spend a lot of time, as a customer of a health plan, when I have a choice, if I'm not getting treated properly.

Part of building that relationship in this new age of choice means health plans reaching out to customers more directly. Convergys even made a demonstration video about this. It shows a hypothetical customer getting a text message from his health plan.

Cell phone beeps with a text message

Man: Hmm. I have a text from Attentive Health Care. I better call them now.

Phone dialing

Robot voice: Attentive Health Care. Hello Mark.

The supersensitive robot that answers the phone not only knows Mark's name but why he's calling. And tracks his habits enough to advise him to increase his health savings account deduction before it runs out. And then it does the increase for him. All in a two-minute phone call.

Man in ad: Wow! I'm glad that's taken care of!

But don't let the nice guy act fool you. Insurance company profits are still based on getting as many healthy people as possible and keeping sick people to a minimum. In a world where insurance companies track our behavior closer than a jealous lover, companies can use those same tracking tools to pick and choose the customers they want to treat well.

Kowalczyk: It segments their customer population.

Christine says Convergys already does this for a large cell phone company, when you call customer service and you punch in your account number.

Kowalczyk: If I spend a lot of money and you don't? You better believe they should treat me better than you, right? So they may offer me a free coupon or a free month's worth of service. Where you, they may just say, "Thank you for being a great customer!"

Under the new rules of health care reform, insurance companies can't drop you if you're sick or very expensive for them to cover.

So if some day in the future you call your health plan and find yourself on eternal hold? Or lost in a phone tree maze? Just maybe that's the sound of your health plan trying to get you to break up with it.

In Erlanger, Ky., I'm Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

Radke: Are you nice enough to pass the call center kindness test? Check out our website, where you can answer a sample call. Test your own empathy quotient.

We'll also give you an insiders guide to beating the call center system: All the secrets from the other side -- when to dial, what to say. See them here

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

A Convergys Corporation call center in Erlanger, Ky. Paper stars, inscribed "The Power Of One," are awarded to call center agents for performing well and showing empathy. Stars can be traded in for gift certificates and other perks.

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