Behavioral Psychology & Employee Performance

A version of this article originally published in Carly’s monthly column on Best’s Review.

We are all well aware of the challenges of recruiting and retaining Millennial talent in the insurance industry.  One of the specific challenges that we have is likely related to the changes that have happened in our entry level roles. Over time, our entry level roles have become more specialized. Many of the roles are in true call center environments where time on the phone is measured closely, length of a call is an important metric, and time to develop and understand insurance in a technical manner may not be afforded because the phones are always so busy.  These roles are essential to every insurance company.  The representatives who work in these centers are providing necessary customer service, selling policies,  or taking front line claims reports. 

However, you will find in many of the call centers, engagement is low, frustration is high, and employee turnover is rampant. Often, the employees in these call centers are well paid, and many companies do promote out of these call centers. But, for many of the people who are working in them, the job is joyless, and a positive understanding of insurance is not a part of the deal.  When we consider how it must feel to come from college expecting a challenging and rewarding career and to land in a call center, we should not be surprised.  

The roles that these call centers fill are essential to the industry.  Helping a customer make a payment or add a vehicle is the kind of work that I started out doing in the industry. It felt different when I was doing that work in an agent’s office compared to a few years later when I was doing the work over the phone. In the agent’s office, I met my customers in person. They were members of my community. They would visit me every month to pay, or at least annually for their review. When I went to the grocery store, I might run into them, or I might have gone to school with their children. I loved working in that office and getting to know all of our customers. They were respectful of me and kind even when they were frustrated about an increase in their payments. Beyond that, I had freedom over much of my time at the office; the order in which my work was completed was up to me, my phone calls did not need to follow a certain script, and the agent I worked for trusted me and encouraged my education.

When I took a similar role in a call center, I was suddenly talking to people in 26 different states.  I had a requirement to make a certain number of phone calls per day.  If I left my desk, the time away from my desk was measured (and counted against me).  If I wanted to attend meetings to learn about cross-company work that was being done or develop myself professionally by attending speakers hosted at the campus of the company I worked for, that time was counted against me. I was lucky throughout my time in  that role to have had supervisors who believed in my potential. I was also fortunate to have learned strong technical information in my time at the insurance agency, so I could present myself to the various customers from all over the country as an expert-even with that background, customers were not always respectful or kind in the way that they are if you’re sitting across the desk from them.

As we continue to hire in call centers and move some work from local representatives to national representatives, we should think about how we can use behavioral psychology to improve the environment in our call centers.  One example of where we can use a concept from behavioral psychology is in the research around bonuses. Dan Ariely and other behavioral economists have found that money is a very temporary motivator.  Helping employees have ownership, a sense of belonging and a feeling of pride in their work is much better long term. We must begin to understand these systems of incentives to make our call centers better places to work. If our employees feel empowered and have tools at their convenience to educate customers and guide their decisions, we can improve their day to day jobs.  If we can directly tie their roles back to the impact they are having on the company and on the customers, we can help them feel pride in their work.  We must help them recognize their value and potential in order to build our bench strength for the years to come.

About Carly Burnham

Carly Burnham began her insurance career in 2004 as an office assistant at an agency in her hometown of Duluth, MN. She got licensed as a producer while working at that agency and progressed to serve as an office manager. Working in the agency is how she fell in love with the industry. She saw firsthand the good that insurance consumers experienced by having the proper protection. When Carly moved to Des Moines in 2010, she decided to commit to the industry, and she completed her CPCU in one year finishing it in 2012 and attending commencement in New Orleans. She completed her MBA at Iowa State University in 2014. During this time, she and Tony founded a Gen Y Associate Resource Group at Nationwide in Des Moines. After they had both left Nationwide, Tony recruited Carly to co-author and manage She has the difficult task of keeping his constant flow of crazy ideas focused and helping to flesh them out into useful articles. Carly enjoys sharing knowledge and ideas about the future of the industry and finds the website a good outlet for this passion. Carly is involved in the the CPCU Society Underwriting Interest Group. She also writes "Next Wave" a monthly column in the "Perspectives" section of Best's Review.

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