The line crackles and scratches. It's loud and I wince as it catches me off guard. I adjust my headset and look sideways at Kevin "Nuchi" Xiong, a Senior Individual Customer Service Representative, but he doesn't flinch. A couple of seconds later, a woman's voice comes on the line. She sighs loudly and deeply and begins, “My name is Donna* and I'm so confused.”
I work in Corporate Communications at Premera Blue Cross. I'm still pretty new to Premera and health insurance in general. So a few weeks ago in the middle of open enrollment, which happens to be Premera's busiest time of the year, I put a headset on to listen in and hear exchanges between our customers and the employees tasked with helping them.
Premera employs approximately 470 customer service representatives. Two thirds of them are split between Premera's corporate campus in Mountlake Terrace, WA and Spokane. Another third are comprised of telecommuters located throughout the Pacific Northwest. During the open enrollment period, between November 1 and December 15, Premera handles close to 10,000 calls each weekday from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.
I had no idea what to expect as I embedded myself in our call center. The experience was illuminating, inspiring and maybe, just a little bit humbling.
Xiong sorted out Donna's issue, she received overlapping benefit statements, and then he shared with me how he approaches each customer. “It's like a dance” he said. “We have to help each other, wait for each other.” But what if they're really crabby or frustrated, I asked. “I just get in the zone,” Xiong replied grinning. “I get in the zone and focus on solving their problem.”
Xiong has been working in customer service at Premera for about two years. He admitted that sometimes it does get hard. “You've got to remember that you represent the customer. Yes, I work at Premera, but I'm representing you to get what you need out of us. That's part of the service you're paying for. To help you navigate or find the best options and understand what's going on,” Xiong said.
To help customers understand their healthcare plans, a customer service representative (CSR) may navigate as many as 80 tools in their computer systems to give customers the information they need. Watching CSRs click between multiple screens, pulling up the right piece of information can be dizzying. But they do it quickly and quietly, all while listening to or making small talk with a customer on the other end of the line.
Some of the many reasons customers call in are to inquire about benefits, claims, billing or eligibility.
There are tech savvy millennials who don't know much about health insurance because they've never had to use it and there are grandparents who can tell you everything about their plan and how it works, but need guidance to log on to their personal accounts on our web site. “I could be such a good teacher!” Xiong laughed. “We go over so much information, we wear so many hats."
Every minute counts in a call center and the CSRs are on a tight schedule. Xiong has two fifteen minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch built into his day. Calls typically last anywhere from one to 10 minutes, but some calls can take more than hour.
A few days later I located another cubicle in the call center labyrinth and found Malinda Counsellor, a Senior Customer Service Representative who works with customers from our Group business. She was speaking with an elderly gentleman still recovering from heart surgery. He was convinced he had been overcharged and he wanted to do the math with Counsellor on the phone. “No problem,” she said. Counsellor opened up several screens, created a spreadsheet, and methodically began number crunching the caller's statements. While Counsellor entered digits on her sheet I could hear the rustle of paperwork and the man punching numbers into a calculator. It reminded me of the times when I've called customer service for myself with my kids making noise in the background or when I've been searching for my card or records. I've made a mental note to be more prepared and polite next time I call customer service anywhere.
When I asked Counsellor what she likes about her job, she told me: “Some customers you just make a connection with and you have a good conversation. The best part is when you know that you are actually making a difference with the people you are talking to."
Click to here to watch Kevin "Nuchi" Xiong talk about what it takes to be a customer service representative at Premera.