How Aegon used behavioural psychology to make its customer conversations more natural

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How can behavioural psychology help improve the interactions your staff have with customers? Cowry Consulting’s Jez Groom and April Vellacott explain.

When was the last time you tried to call a contact centre seeking help with your pension? In all likelihood it went something like this: You were put on hold for the first ten minutes, forced to listen to some grating and tinny rendition of a song that, after three consecutive plays, left your blood gently simmering.

After finally being connected with a real human, you were read a convoluted script which ended up making you feel as though you were talking to a poorly programmed robot in beta-testing. Unable to get the answer to your query, you ended up feeling confused, overwhelmed, and ready to throw the phone across the room.

Sound familiar?  

The alternative route

Our interactions with contact centres have always been this way. Calling them feels like a chore, forcing us to perpetually procrastinate this necessary part of our to-do list.

What if there was an alternative? What if these conversations made it feel like you were talking to a real human, with an easy and seamless journey to get what you needed? You’d certainly enjoy the conversation more, and it’s undoubtable that the customer service representative (CSR) on the other end of the line would also have a better time.

Aegon, one of the world’s largest life insurance and pensions companies, were in this mode of thinking when they approached Cowry Consultancy in 2016, keen to rectify the contact centre experience for its customers.

The brief was straightforward: transform contact centre conversations through behaviour; tapping into human psychology to identify the pain-points in their current exchanges between customer and CSR, and translate these into genuinely enjoyable interactions.

When we started our work them, Aegon had recently launched their new Retiready platform, a digital service for those who wanted a simple pension or ISA. Despite this relatively simple offering, financial decisions always involve a level of complexity, and so customers still required some human interaction to give guidance, clarity and reassurance. As such, Aegon Assist was created, where customers could call a CSR to help them with their financial decisions.

Transforming scripts

Having identified that they needed to overhaul these telephone interactions, we helped Aegon conduct an audit of their existing call scripts, optimising the content to remove the jargon and make the dialogue more human. For example, we reduced cognitive overload by chunking the information into manageable stages, knowing that people would be more likely to follow the call if it was broken down into discrete components. In addition, by reassuring customers during the call that they were ‘nearly there,’ CSRs were able to tap into the goal-gradient effect and make it more likely that they continued the call to completion.

“The changes to our scripts make it easier to explain complex pensions in a simple way that customers can understand,” explains Claire Houstin, Senior Associate at Aegon Assist.  

To help CSRs to confidently navigate complex interactions and go ‘off-script’, we then delivered skills training to give CSRs grounding in behavioural psychology. This was a fun and practical introduction to behavioural economics, which introduced key biases and heuristics such as Social Norms, Authority Bias and Ambiguity Aversion. In addition, this training covered the ethical considerations of applying behavioural economics, and detailed some practical examples of its application in the wild.

We reduced cognitive overload by chunking the information into manageable stages, knowing that people would be more likely to follow the call if it was broken down into discrete components.

Enhancing productivity

In addition, their screens were re-designed to facilitate better conversations, and their working space was transformed to enhance productivity, health and wellbeing. Previously, CSRs screens featured poorly designed PowerPoint flows, with garish colours and hard-to-read fonts. We transformed the visual hierarchy and colours to improve processing fluency, and added icons to increase recognition and stimulate a positive emotional response.

Their physical environment was optimised to increase motivation and retention, whilst decreasing absenteeism, churn, and the associated cost of recruitment and training. Recommendations were made based upon the SALIENT framework, a mnemonic checklist used to optimise environments. The first letter stands for ‘sound’, given that attention-grabbing sounds can have a adverse effect on attention. As such, we recommended sound-absorbing ceiling tiles in tandem with strategically located plants and artwork to absorb background noise, coupled with background nature sounds to increase mood, relaxation and productivity.

Before long, CSRs reported feeling more empowered in their roles as they began to drive richer conversations with their customers. Through embedding psychology as part of their roles, they felt increasingly engaged, which in turn lead to greater customer advocacy.

Shifting measurements

Perhaps more radically, however, was shifting CSRs away from Average Handling Time (AHT) to Net Promoter Score (NPS) being their core target.  

“It really gave CSRs something to think about,” said Stuart Gallagher, department coach at Aegon’s contact centre. “It gives employees the structure they need to take control of the conversation from the start. If you’re smashing your NPS scores, you don’t need to worry about AHT.”

Aegon Assist’s director Mark Screeton added that teams are now “competing against each other to deliver the best NPS results”.

Before long, CSRs reported feeling more empowered in their roles as they began to drive richer conversations with their customers.

Employees also participated in a competition dubbed the ‘C-Factor’, where they were invited to contribute their own improvement ideas based on their new knowledge of psychology. In doing so, this further reinforced their understanding of, and commitment to, their new skillset and helped underpin the importance of leaning on psychology to succeed at their role.  

The results were unequivocal. Aegon’s NPS rose by 15 points, and employee engagement soared by 47 points. Aegon’s quality assurance scores climbed by 14%, and investments increased by a huge 60%. The value delivered was undeniable, with Aegon making £37 for every £1 spent on the project.

Ultimately, it was a win-win-win situation. Not only did the redesigned conversations make CSRs happier, they were also enjoyed more by customers, and delivered better financial outcomes for Aegon.

By transforming stilted scripts into conversations which felt more natural, behavioural psychology was able to help empower both the customers and the CSRs.

“We're having natural conversations now, and people are empowered to use their own knowledge in their conversations,” remarked Jennifer O'Malley, Assist Quality Analyst.

“It really is this simple; it just flows like a conversation.”

Proof that a small psychological nudge can deliver on big business objectives.

About April Vellacott

Cowry Consulting behavioural economics customer experience

As Cowry’s Marketing Manager, April extols the virtues of behavioural economics to enhance customer experience.​

April holds a first class Honours degree in Psychology from the University of St Andrews, where she focussed on how evolutionary forces have shaped modern day behaviour and conducted research on facial perception.

Having worked some years to help clients with the planning and strategy behind their advertising spend, she returned to academia to acquire her master’s degree in Behaviour Change at UCL. Here, she wrote a thesis on how behavioural science could be used to enhance cyber security in the Internet of Things. 

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