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Self-service search provides the answers for Humana

A natural language query tool has policy holders helping themselves while also linking to the healthcare provider's IVR.

Directly linking customer satisfaction to revenue can be tricky for many businesses. But for Humana Military, a provider of healthcare for active-duty and retired military personnel and their families, it's crystal clear: Get negative ratings from policy holders, and the company loses government funding.

So, when Humana Military -- a subsidiary of Louisville, Ky.-based healthcare provider Humana Inc. -- embarked on deployment of a self-service search tool, its policy holders were a major consideration. But so too was cutting costs by reducing calls coming into the company's 260-seat call center, according to John Jones, the company's senior systems manager.

In July 2004, Humana launched AnswerCenter, a natural language search tool from Minneapolis-based Spanlink Communications Inc. that provides results in a question-and-answer format rather than a list of keywords. Also, agents in the company's call center use the tool as their own knowledge base, providing customers a consistent set of answers.

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Customers would often call into the company repeatedly, effectively "shopping for the right answer to their questions," and then, when they got an answer they liked, acting on that, Jones said. AnswerCenter cut those calls significantly.

However, Humana faces a challenge commonly associated with self-service technology -- measuring the effectiveness of the tool. In fact, one of the dirty secrets of CRM is that many companies see a spike in calls to the call center immediately after deploying a self-service tool.

"We knew [success] was going to be a difficult thing to measure," Jones said, noting that the company has had to keep agent staffing at the same levels. "There are always new government programs being added to our project. We knew it was going to be difficult to offload agents to the tool."

Humana and Spanlink estimate, however, that calls to the call center cost roughly $5.25 each, and the Web self-service tool costs about 25 cents per user -- meaning that Humana should save $1 million per year.

Humana is now using the application to augment its interactive voice response (IVR) system by converting user questions to text, loading them into the search tool, and then testing whether the IVR system has the answer. If it does not, it will forward the results from the query to agents, so they're armed with answers when they take calls from customers.

So far, the company has kept its positive customer ratings with the government and expects self-service usage to expand. Humana had projected approximately 73,000 Web hits with the tool but has already received 217,000.

"Now we're actually doing some marketing, letting beneficiaries and providers know [about the availability of the technology]," Jones said. "I think it's a great tool. Anybody searching the Web will never want to go back to a word search."

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