Intelligence: Protecting customer-facing staff

Man and angry customers_for CMS

With rising energy bills, inflation and the cost-of-living crisis all hitting consumers in the pocket tensions are running high and customers service departments are facing more hostility. Sam Barrett investigates what insurers are doing to protect their customer-facing staff.

Abuse against customer service staff is on the increase according to the latest research from the Institute of Customer Service. And, with expectations that this will rise further as the cost-of-living crisis bites, insurers are taking steps to protect their customer-facing employees.

The research, which was conducted among customer-facing staff in May, found 44% of them had experienced hostility in the past six months, up from 35% in February. Additionally, one-third of respondents believe that customers will become more challenging, with rising energy bills and price inflation among the key triggers.

“Hostile behaviour is increasing,” says Jo Causon, chief executive of the ICS. “The pandemic has been challenging for consumers and the cost-of-living crisis will add to this. Employers need to ensure they protect staff and take incidents of abuse seriously.”

Scale of the insurance problem

Although abusive calls are in the minority in the insurance sector, Nicola Dunning, customer and operations director at LV, says her eyes were opened to the level of abuse staff received a few years ago.

“I showed some of my colleagues a video that had gone viral of a man racially abusing an elderly black passenger on a Ryanair flight. I was horrified by his behaviour and never thought anything like that could happen here. Sadly, it soon became apparent that this type of abuse was happening to our colleagues and they were just tolerating it,” she explains. “We had to change this: we don’t tolerate abuse in the workplace and it’s just as unacceptable when it comes from customers.”

As part of Dunning’s work to stamp out customer abuse, LV monitors the abusive calls that employees receive. Since the start of 2021, 112 cases were flagged as abusive, with action taken on 44 of them. Across the cases, 79% were threatening, 16% were racial abuse and the remainder were a mix of different forms of abusive behaviour.

Abuse by customers is also recognised as an issue at RSA. Karl Helgesen, chief operating officer at the insurer, explains: “The vast majority of our customers are respectful but we do occasionally interact with someone who is angry about the service they’re receiving, which can lead to them getting frustrated and abusive. We tend to see more abusive behaviour in the complaints and claims environment.”

While most people would point to the stresses of claims, and the potential for a settlement to fall short of expectations, as the most likely place for customers to become abusive, LV’s findings show this isn’t necessarily the case. While claims calls account for 40% of the cases that were referred, the remaining 60% come from sales and servicing.

This is no surprise to Caroline King, chief customer officer at Ageas. “I wouldn’t single out the claims department as being on the receiving end of more abuse,” she says. “It’s rare across the company, but we do see it at the front end too. It’s important we protect all of our customer-facing staff.”

Service with Respect

The Institute of Customer Service launched its Service with Respect campaign in July 2020 following a meeting with the trade union USDAW. This highlighted a worrying increase in abusive behaviour towards retail staff since the beginning of the pandemic.

To see whether this experience was common across other sectors and within contact centres, the ICS ran some research across customer-facing staff. Jo Causon, chief executive of the ICS, admits she was shocked by the results. “We found that more than half of customer-facing staff had experienced abuse since the beginning of the pandemic,” she says. “It has been a challenging time for everyone but it showed how important it was to launch our Service with Respect campaign.

The campaign has three objectives:

  • Encourage organisations to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to abuse from customers supported by training and formal procedures to enable staff to feel supported.
  • Campaign for a change in the Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 to make assaults on those providing a public service an aggravating factor in sentencing decisions
  • Raise awareness among consumers that hostile and abusive behaviour towards customer-facing staff is unacceptable.

The campaign now has 210 organisations supporting it, including Ageas, Covéa Insurance, LV and Direct Line.

Protecting employees

A multi-pronged approach is used to ensure employees feel safe and protected. For many insurers, this starts with a policy that sets out the organisation’s position on customer abuse. As well as detailing the action the insurer will take in the event of abusive customers, it also demonstrates to employees that they are protected and that this type of behaviour is not tolerated.

“We launched our abusive customer policy in 2021 to help protect our staff but we also signed up to the ICS’s Service with Respect campaign to demonstrate our commitment,” says King.

A multi-pronged approach is used to ensure employees feel safe and protected. For many insurers, this starts with a policy that sets out the organisation’s position on customer abuse.”

Employee training is another important strand of insurers’ support. “All of our customer-facing employees undertake a lengthy induction,” explains Vicki Heslop, director of customer experience at Covéa Insurance. “This focuses on empathy and problem solving. We encourage our staff to think of the customers as if they were a parent.”

Having this empathy with customers can help to build rapport, but insurers are also aware that not all callers will be friendly. For instance, RSA provides training on how to deal with difficult, angry, and abusive customers.

“In most cases this will help staff to defuse a difficult situation with a customer, but we also provide clear wording and guidance on what they can do and say where this isn’t possible,” explains Helgesen. “We don’t tolerate threatening and abusive language towards our employees.”

Policies and training also need to make it clear what is meant by abuse, especially as it can be very subjective. Graham Stait, head of claims operations at Allianz, says it’s anything that could be considered aggressive or threatening.

“It could be shouting, swearing or a personal attack,” he says. “If it makes an employee feel uncomfortable or threatened, they are within their rights to terminate the call. We leave it up to them to determine when someone has overstepped the mark.”

Staff support

A good support network is essential where there is a risk of customer abuse. “Escalation processes must be clear and defined,” says Hayley Riach, partner & technical director - corporate & sector risks at Keoghs  . “Employees need to know there is an agreed code of conduct in place that allows them to terminate a call and escalate the incident where necessary.”

She also recommends insurers conduct risk assessments to understand the type of things that can happen and how it could be prevented. “Insurers should consult with their employees,” she says. “They’re at the sharp end and will know what support they need. They might even have a simple solution.”

Where abuse does happen, looking after the employee is insurers’ priority. “Immediate support comes from an employee’s team leader,” says Helgesen. “They can help them make decisions and provide guidance on support. We have good support networks within the organisation to enable employees to look after one another but we also have counselling helplines if they need more support.”

Support networks had to adapt when the pandemic forced employees to work from home, with insurers shifting to online chat and introducing more frequent check-ins with line managers.”

These support networks had to adapt when the pandemic forced employees to work from home, with insurers shifting to online chat and introducing more frequent check-ins with line managers. “We made sure that employees were aware of the wellbeing support we offer, including our mental health first aiders,” says King. “It’s bad enough getting an angry customer when you’re in a call centre but it can feel much more personal if you’re in your own home.”

Insurer action

As well as supporting the employee, insurers also have processes in place to deal with the customer. What action is taken will depend on the severity of the abuse and the impact on the employee. Jessie Burrows, managing director, customer sales, service and claims at Direct Line, explains: “It can go as far as writing to the customer informing them that abusing our colleagues is not, and will not be, tolerated or saying that all future contact will only be in writing. For severe cases, this could result in terminating the customer’s policy and barring them from any future new business.”

Where the incident warrants it, insurers will also engage with third parties and even bring in the police if necessary. Dunning says where there is a threat to to an LV employee personally, or a genuine risk, she will report it to the police.

These cases are incredibly rare, with Dunning only having to report one case in the past 18 months.

“The police were very supportive,” she says. “We also have our own special investigation unit which we will involve if necessary.”

Not all cases that are referred to team leaders will require these types of response though and Dunning says she sees some instances where the abuse is borderline. “We spend a lot of time listening to calls. In some cases, we might identify a vulnerability in the customer and offer some extra coaching to the employee so they’re better equipped to deal with this in the future,” she says.

Technology can also help. As an example, Aviva deploys call recording and speech analytics on all calls. “This enables us to identify inappropriate language and take action if necessary,” explains Charlotte Moran, customer operations director at Aviva General Insurance.

Ramping up

Insurers are also bracing themselves to deal with more cases. In line with the ICS findings, the sector has seen instances of hostility from customers increase. “We’ve seen an increasing trend for abusive or aggressive behaviour over the past 12 to 24 months,” says Derek McWhinnie, head of customer care at Zurich Insurance. “It started during Covid-19 and, as everyday pressures grow on people, such as the cost-of-living crisis, we’ve seen this continue to rise.”

Additional frustrations have also surfaced as supply chains have come under pressure because of conflict in Ukraine. This, coupled with the supply stresses still remaining from the pandemic, means that claims are taking longer to resolve.

Dunning believes the situation will get worse: “We’re not seeing the effects of the cost-of-living crisis so much yet but I expect it will come through this winter when energy bills rise again.”

Although everything suggests that customer frustrations are likely to get worse over the coming months, insurers have additional armoury to help them stamp out abuse and hostility.”

Although everything suggests that customer frustrations are likely to get worse over the coming months, insurers have additional armoury to help them stamp out abuse and hostility. After months of campaigning by the ICS’s Service with Respect campaign, an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 was introduced at the end of June, making assaults on those providing a public service an aggravating factor in sentencing.

Stronger deterrent

“I’m really pleased the amendment has come into effect,” says Causon. “It sends out a clear message that if someone is abusive to customer service staff, they could end up with a custodial sentence.”

Heslop supports the amendment: “The change in the law makes it more formal that this type of behaviour is not acceptable. I don’t expect to see changes overnight but, when the police start using it, it will help to raise awareness among consumers.”

Riach agrees. “Some people think that because they’re on the phone they can get away with abusive behaviour. Taking this type of behaviour into account when sentencing will help to stamp out abuse.”

But, while it’s a step in the right direction, everyone agrees that it’s not a magic bullet. “Stamping out customer abuse is not a one and done thing,”
says King.

“It’s a constant programme of reviewing the service and training we deliver as well as the things that affect our customers. Abusive customers are rare in the insurance sector but it’s something we won’t tolerate.”


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