Online Customer Service Can’t Compete with the Human Kind

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, April 1, 2010

Those of you who watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation” are undoubtedly familiar with the ship’s science officer, Lt. Commander Data, who happens to be an android—that is, a robot designed to look and act like a human being.

Over the course of the show, which ran several years and is still widely broadcast in reruns, Mr. Data’s fondest wish is to become more “human,” to the point where he can actually feel human emotions and can appreciate abstract concepts like humor. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the show’s very creative writers, Mr. Data (as he is known) never quite achieves that state of nirvana.

I thought of poor Mr. Data when I read an item by my colleague Alex Vorro in which he notes that insurance customers feel they are not as well serviced by Web systems as they are through more traditional channels. Alex cites a survey from eGain Communications Corp., which found that while insurers excelled at providing good service to their customers in the call center, those results were offset by "below average" or "poor" performance both on their Web sites and via e-mail.

On first blush, these results seem confusing. Assuming an insurer’s customer service practices are consistent across all delivery media, why should there be such a pronounced difference when the messages and interaction come via e-mail or Web site systems? The answer, however, is quite simple. Online customer-facing systems, much like Mr. Data, don’t quite “get it” when it comes to being “human” or relating in a way that we humans find comfortable.

Just think of your own typical experience with online services of various kinds. When they are successful, they perform the functions, which we fully expect them to perform. There are no kudos for a machine or a piece of software doing what it is supposed to do, so we don’t call these interactions “good customer service.” At most, we acknowledge that the systems delivered what we wanted and what we expected.

On the other hand, when systems are not successful in giving us what we want—and there are many ways that can happen—we are all too likely to say that the insurer has not provided good customer service. So if a customer service program freezes up, if the choices offered don’t include the choice we want or if an interactive program refuses to interact in a way we find meaningful, we are often left frustrated and angry. We may lash out at the poorly constructed technology, or the inconsistencies of the Web in general, but sooner or later we will focus our ire on the company that brought us this pain. Thus, when asked how we liked their customer service—probably by yet another automated system—we tend to vent our frustrations, and our opinion of the insurer is diminished in direct proportion to our urge to take a shotgun to our computer.

Of course, poor customer service can also be delivered by humans, but at least if one is on the phone with another person, there is a chance that problems can be better explained, meaningful communication can take place and solutions developed. Automated systems, at least at this point in the development of artificial intelligence, have yet to be able to deliver a sympathetic remark convincingly, or to express empathy for a frustrated consumer.

Insurers who look to save money with automated, customer-facing applications try to make those systems as “human” as possible, precisely because they know that we consumers want that kind of communication. Like the tragic Mr. Data, however, they are nowhere near delivering such functionality, thus it is no surprise that consumers’ ratings of online customer support are significantly less favorable than for person-to-person communication.

The message for insurers is clear. Keep your online automated systems for taking care of simple tasks that don’t require human intervention—but have a person standing by and ready if the problem is bigger than your systems, or if the customer just needs a word of encouragement.

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

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Comments (3)

Self-service is great if you want to add or drop a car or report a cracked windshield. However, when you've experienced a traumatic event you generally want to talk to someone from the company you've been paying your entire lifetime to catch you when you fall. The industry shouldn't use one solution for every process or be surprised when the adoption rate is 25%.

Posted by: Valerie R | April 9, 2010 9:24 PM

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I couldn't agree more that online service is essential in today's world, but that a simple way to connect with a human that is standing by is one of the most important ingredients. I for one am not particularly tech savy, and I often just need a human being with whom I can converse. Insurance companies must not overlook this!

Posted by: Ellie L | April 9, 2010 11:41 AM

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Self service adoption rates are an objective measure of your points. With "succesful" self service initiatives struggling to get 25% adoption the expected savings are not there. Yes offer simple transactions but simplify the rest so they can be handled via self service. The simple transactions are not the ones that are the expense opportunity.

Posted by: Ed Fenwick SVP Nolan Co | April 9, 2010 10:35 AM

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