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Consumers link good communications to satisfaction with health coverage

The insurers perceptions' of what communications their customers want from them differ significantly from what the consumers say they value most.

Nearly 80 percent of consumers rate excellent communications from their health insurers as one of the most important ways they obtain critical information about their coverage, benefits, and providers, according to a survey released Oct. 30, 2000 by the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA) and Xerox.

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HIAA and Xerox conclude that insurers who effectively provide their policyholders with appropriate health plan information can significantly improve their customers' satisfaction and loyalty.

The telephone survey, "Strengthening Consumer Relationships Through Strategic Communications," was conducted in July and August 2000 with 301 randomly selected households who have private health insurance. The survey, with a second set of questions designed solely for health insurers, was also answered by 93 insurers who are HIAA members.

How consumers rate their insurers

One of the study's more troubling findings is that only 34 percent of consumers say they are "very" satisfied with their health insurers, according to John Jones, vice president and general manager of the Xerox Health Insurance Business Team. "That's a significantly lower rating than for benchmark companies in other industries," Jones says. "Those companies usually average above 50 percent."

Jones says that because satisfaction and loyalty appear to be linked, there is plenty of room for insurers to improve customer satisfaction. One way to achieve this goal may be by providing consumers with more relevant health plan information. Only 30 percent of consumers rate their insurers' enrollment materials (customer handbooks, plan descriptions, and welcome letters) as excellent. According to the survey, enrollment materials "all too often end up unread or in the trash."

How insurers measure up

Nearly 60 percent of the insurers say they have developed, or are developing, strategies to improve communications

Nearly 60 percent of the insurers surveyed say they have developed, or are developing, strategies to improve customer communications and create a more positive company image.

However, the insurers' perceptions of what communications their customers want from them differ significantly from what the consumers say they value most.

While nearly 85 percent of both consumers and insurers ranked "ease of understanding" of health plan materials as a major contributing factor to customer satisfaction, the insurers greatly downplayed three other key measures. Consumers rated above 80 percent the importance of personalized plan information, the integration of that information into a single source, and the ease of finding plan details. By comparison, only 20 to 40 percent of the insurers rated these measures as crucial to their customers.

Closing the gap

Successful health insurers will close this perception gap by rethinking their communications strategies, according to Jones. He says some companies already fine-tune their enrollment kits by personalizing letters and supplying only information that is relevant to the particular customer. "If the customer doesn't have dental or vision benefits, then why include this information in the package?" asks Jones.

By using a combination of strategies — including putting a customer's personalized plan information on password protected Web sites — insurers will not only improve customer satisfaction, they will also increase their bottom line. According to Jones, these strategies will reduce the number of times a customer has to phone the insurers' call center for information, thereby reducing the insurers' operating costs.

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