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By: Gerry Kirk

Now, more than ever, pension administrators need to strengthen service to their members. Gerry Kirk, of Covansys, examines the link between employees and their human resources services.

Picture service to your members as being only as good as the series of links in a chain. Some of the links are strong; some are weak. And we all know that a chain is only as good as its weakest link.

What kinds of links are we talking about? These links can represent activities such as:

If you already understand these links and their interdependencies, chances are you are working hard to keep them intact.

But the fact is, few public pension administration organizations manage these links well. And fewer are tending to the weak links.

Furthermore, the chain is being stretched. There is a growing tension between what administrators are delivering and what their members expect and value. This tension is fueled by growing member expectations coupled with administrators feeling that they know their members and do not have to learn more about them.

Chain Of Service

So how can pension administrators strengthen their links? The answer lies in adopting a member-focused model; a model that permeates all functions and levels of the pension administration organization. It is an action-oriented model based on:

This member-focused model can be visualized as four quadrants, linked by a Chain of Service.

The Chain of Service begins with listening to the member. Listening to your membership means gathering and recording their wants, needs, and expectations.

Listening is a continuous, full-time job. It means gathering information not just when you want it, but also when the member wants to talk. For example, at the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, members and employers can eMail OMERS directly with questions, concerns, or ideas through new, dedicated eMail accounts. Ian Kinross, manager, pension communications, says “eMail now represents roughly 10 per cent of all client contact, and continues to grow exponentially.”

Listening also includes measuring and tracking member requests and respective responses, individual member preferences, the satisfaction levels of individual and group (actives, retirees, annuitants, new members), and member suggestions for new services.

It is equally important to track individual member experience as group membership behaviour. At an individual level, it is critical to build a profile of each member’s experiences with the retirement system. This profile will condition how you respond to the member in the future, defining your ability to meet each member’s unique needs and expectations. The aggregation of individual member experiences will allow you to identify and anticipate membership trends.

The ‘Think’ process digests and analyzes member information captured by the ‘Listening’ quadrant. This thinking can occur in ‘real time’ during dialogue with a member or be used to drive future member interactions.

For example, let’s assume a member has recently exercised a number of retirement benefit calculations. Furthermore, you listened well and captured this in your member’s profile. This could be the trigger for a customer service agent, while they are on the phone with the member, to offer up information on pre-retirement planning.

Thinking should be done not just by management or customer service agents, but by all retirement system staff. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan is one system that routinely collects and shares feedback from its members. Each month, they survey a random sample of teachers and pensioners who have recently received service. “The survey results are tabulated and each month our client service managers and staff examine the results for trends,” explains Rosemarie McClean, vice-president, client services, for Teachers’. “This feedback provides the basis for future improvements and has proven to be vital to enhancing procedures across the organization, including telephone call standards.”

As with Dick and Jane, first we think then we do. This is where the retirement system does something based on prior analysis. This can range from developing new communication messages to resolving complaints. How well this quadrant is executed largely determines the degree of value delivered to the member. Doing can be sparked by:

Doing may also need to be immediate, in response to an emerging issue. “For instance, an article appearing in the morning newspaper may result in an immediate glut of calls from concerned members,” says McClean. “We try to anticipate public issues that may have an impact and we respond accordingly. The timeline may be tight, but when an issue arises, we immediately prepare ‘talking points’ and brief staff so that they are well-equipped with key messages. Ultimately, our goal is to always ensure the client is well served.”

Increased Levels Of Satisfaction

Delivery can include responses to member requests or observed behaviour, new programs and services, newsletters, and information alerts. Excellent delivery results in pleasantly surprising members by going beyond what they expect, resulting in measurably increased levels of satisfaction.

At OMERS, Jennifer Brown, vice-president, pension devices, says delivery includes looking at “end-to-end” service in partnership with employers. OMERS recently launched a web-based eAccess service for 900 employers across Ontario, allowing them to view member information and submit transactions electronically. Brown says “eAccess has drastically improved timeliness of claims and we’re also adding eEnrollment and eQuote capability.”

Successful delivery is dependent on message content and often to a greater degree on how the message is communicated. Think about the last time you had a burning complaint satisfactorily resolved. You probably remember most the friendliness, courteousness, and respect with which you were treated; the personal care and attention you received; the promptness shown in following up and fixing your problem; and the high value placed on your long-term relationship. This is what delivery is all about, and monitoring for successful delivery brings us back to the ‘Listen’ phase, thus completing the chain.

The Weakest Links

The Chain of Service only works if activities across all four phases flow in a continuous unbroken, chain. Too many pension administration organizations experience breaks in this chain, with the most common and fatal breaks occurring in the first and third phase … the weakest links.

If member feedback is not diligently gathered in the first phase, then most retirement administration decisions are made in a vacuum. Outcomes for the membership, typically, do not align well with their needs and expectations.

Retirement organizations that gather member information and receive reports, even discuss it and anticipate what to do, but don’t do anything, usually end up delivering zero additional customer value. We recognize these organizations as those that pay ‘lip service’ to member service excellence, seemingly making the right upfront moves, but lacking the ability to follow through. Doing is often the toughest activity in the chain, because it can involve changing the way we do business.

Pension administration organizations that exhibit a continuous, unbroken chain can be usually distinguished by two key factors. First, they have designed and integrated their administration processes across functional work units by considering full life-cycle member scenarios, from the time of the initial member request, right through until the request is entirely fulfilled. Second, they have developed and executed long-term IT plans resulting in well-integrated systems and applications.

Implementing The Chain Of Service

Implementation of the Chain of Service begins with Listening. Start by getting a picture of your membership’s most pressing needs, their current satisfaction levels, and future expectations. This can be accomplished by a survey of active members, retired members, and annuitants. Here are some points to keep in mind:

Later, you may employ focus groups to drill down into specific survey results to better understand them.

Your survey results should serve as a building block for strategic planning. It is important to do this planning while the results are ‘warm,’ while there is momentum. OMERS now monitors client satisfaction on a quarterly basis and conducts broader market research on customer perceptions and beyond, annually.

Another key building block to your strategic planning is conducting a ‘weakest link’ assessment of your business processes, with emphasis on examining full life-cycle member scenarios and how your automated applications/systems are used in these scenarios. How well do these processes and systems perform ongoing listening, thinking, doing, and delivery? How do successful retirement systems manage this cycle? How well are process steps, data, and systems integrated?

During your planning, revisit the Chain of Service to structure your discussions on how to best serve your members, both as individuals and as groups. During these times when pension administrators are managing tight budgets, the chain can additionally be used to frame specific business benefits and prioritize actions to focus on current business issues.

Strengthening the Chain of Service is a long-term proposition, a journey, but a journey well worth the rewards.


Gerry Kirk is a director with Covansys, a global consulting and technology services firm.

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