Health insurers take to Twitter

Company representatives are searching the site for what people are saying about them.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Sept. 28, 2009

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The next time you have a complaint about an insurance company, consider venting via Twitter. Chances are, your target will be reading.

Insurers increasingly are taking cues from other industries and assigning company representatives to scour the pages of the microblog looking for customer complaints. And they aren't just reading. They are reacting, much to the surprise of those who thought they were blowing off steam anonymously.

"Nine out of 10 people are blown away that someone tweeted back," said David Finkel, senior vice president of service operations for WellPoint, the parent company of Anthem and several Blue Cross Blue Shield plans.

So far, Finkel said, the mix of Twitter users with whom he has corresponded has been about 95% members and about 5% physician practices. He expects that balance to shift as more physician practices use Twitter.

The American Medical Association hasn't studied complaint resolution on Twitter. But, in general, insurers are becoming more responsive to complaints, according to the AMA's annual insurer report card.

Insurers say Twitter is not replacing traditional customer service channels. Companies' use is simply an acknowledgment that this is a communication channel customers are using. Because of privacy concerns and obvious limitations with an 140-character maximum, complaints generally aren't handled on the message boards themselves.

A Forrester Research report, "How Twitter Can Influence eBusiness," published in May, said many customers find the greatest advantage of Twitter to be the immediacy. It's also an immediate way for companies to find out what people are saying about them.

Many times, the nature of a posted complaint isn't immediately evident. Finkel said. For example, when he sees a tweet saying "Blue Cross stinks," he'll respond with "I hope to change your opinion." Then he'll offer to take the conversation offline. If he can't solve the problem quickly, he passes the customer to someone who can. He boasts that 99.8% of the conversations end with a satisfactory solution.

Doug Bennett, spokesman for Humana, which also launched a Twitter customer service pilot program in recent weeks, said it has one person who peruses the boards, looks for comments about Humana, then forwards them to the appropriate person.

Both Humana and WellPoint have multiple Twitter accounts managed by various people and departments within their organizations. At least in the pilot phase, responses will likely come from the personal account of an employee, rather than from a dedicated company account.

Marcia Conner, senior enterprise strategist for Pistachio Consulting, said Twitter is also a way for companies to find customers who weren't helped through traditional customer service routes. These customers often go on Twitter to vent because they are "past the point of expecting help."

"The fact that someone can then step in is game changing," she said.

Conner has been working with several insurance companies as they figure out how best to use this new form of communication, internally and externally. She said the insurance industry has been slow to adopt social media, but they aren't too late.

Right now, Conner said, Twitter users are the people who are responsible for bringing it to the mainstream. These are the same people who value word-of-mouth advertising and will be the first to tell others when an insurer turns a bad situation around.

The fact that this new tool can be used anonymously to harm a company's reputation is not lost.

"Absolutely ... we are concerned about the company's reputation," said Bennett. Directly responding to critics is an effective way of managing that reputation, he said. "You'd think any good company would respond."

Finkel said the response of, "Wow, I didn't think you were listening," is one he hears quite often.

Twitter also allows insurers to put a "human face on an institution we didn't otherwise have a human connection with," Conner said.

Finkel agrees. He said WellPoint views Twitter simply as another communication path. "You have to be willing to engage in any way they want." And engaging means more than just responding to problems.

Finkel said he saw a recent post from a new mom who tweeted her delight at the fact her insurance claims had been paid by the time she and her new baby were home from the hospital. He took the opportunity to congratulate her on the birth and thank her for her tweet.

Both Humana and WellPoint expect their pilot programs to continue. The more success stories that are heard, the larger the need will become, Conner said. Bennett suspects that in the near future there will be staff in the customer care center designated as responders to tweets.

It's just a sign of the times, Conner said. Years ago, as more households got phone service, more customer service representatives were needed to answer the calls.

"Hopefully organizations will realize they are meeting a need" by designating staff to Twitter.

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