Compliance concerns, lengthy wait times, incorrect information. These are only the more recognized complications when assessing call centers, so how can plan sponsors and providers offer dependable—and reliable—material to participants?
Recent analysis of responses to the 2017 PLANSPONSOR Defined Contribution (DC) Survey found that sponsors are more satisfied with call center services than other participant services, yet respondents were also more likely to cite them as an area needing improvement than as a top service offering, with sponsors reporting slow response times, inaccuracies and poor service as common complaints.
The apparent contradiction was not surprising to Brian O’Keefe, PLANSPONSOR’s director of research and surveys, noting “in the internet-age, call centers may seem antiquated, but sponsors are not shy about voicing dissatisfaction if one fails to resolve participant questions.”
To understand what callers face, Lauren Brouhard, executive vice president at Fidelity Investments, suggests participant surveys—by phone or otherwise—and let the responses determine improvements the sponsors should make.
O’Keefe concurs. “Sponsors need to understand and assess participant needs and know that the provider can meet any unique needs,” such as serving employees in several time zones.
O’Keefe says small plans often have a small, central participant pool which is easier to service (i.e., you can offer seminars or one-on-one meetings onsite during work hours or direct participants to a local adviser, whom they can meet with whenever is convenient). However, larger plans lose this option because workforces get more distributed and spread across time zones.
“In terms of call centers, I presume it is expensive to staff a call center after hours and on weekends because you have to plan for a certain level of call volume that may or may not materialize. Additionally, you may need to staff multiple locations to account for potential business interruption from weather or other unforeseen circumstances. If you have a small plan, those costs cannot be shared across a larger participant base, but with larger plans you can do that,” he says. “Smaller plans may prioritize ‘high touch’ service that offers a depth and quality of conversation (likely in person) over accessibility that extended hours may provide.”
Avoiding fiduciary risk and providing correct information
Providing correct information while not overstepping the boundaries of giving advice is also something to consider for a call center. To avoid litigation, it’s clear why some plan sponsors or providers would rather generalize information to participants.
“One thing call centers have really felt pressure on, is how much do we try to integrate ourselves in this engagement process, to help people make more appropriate decisions meet their needs, and how much do we not want to be involved in that because it opens panels to potential fiduciary risk?” O’Keefe notes.
So, how can plan sponsors and providers oversee a representatives’ compliance, while also delivering thorough information?
Well, by literally doing so. According to Brouhard, if a provider offers the service, plan sponsors may be permitted to evaluate calls between representatives and participants, to confirm no fiduciary risks were made.
“Some plan administrators request the option to review calls as well—we do have some clients that are partnering with us to ensure compliance by reviewing calls themselves,” she says.
Additionally, Brouhard recommends the use of strong technology to safeguard correct, and valuable, information. Employing sounder equipment can create clearer data for both the call center associate and participant, while mitigating compliance issues. At Fidelity, an associate desktop is configured to display a plans’ advice or education, to ensure sharper communication.
“It’s really important to keep the environment for the associates simple and straightforward,” she says. “Make sure there’s the right content and process for quick and easy access, so that there is no doubt in their mind what they’re supposed to do.”
While dissatisfactions are unescapable, O’Keefe and Brouhard say the number one key to ensuring consistent and correct information is having a working partnership between the plan sponsor and provider. Brouhard says, “It’s really a partnership to get information out and make sure participants can engage in a way that works for them, to help them enhance their financial wellness and meet their needs.”
O’Keefe is confident that providers are investing in technologies to improve quality while reducing cost and is quick to point out that future of call centers may look very different.
“Twenty years ago, call centers dominated participant interactions,” he observes. “Today, websites, and increasingly mobile apps, have taken center stage. But continued acceptance of online chat support and advancement in artificial intelligence may transform the participant experience and render the traditional rep-based call center obsolete.”
In the meanwhile, sponsors should invest the time to confirm that their plan’s call center strategy meets their participant’s needs.