The Phoenix, one of Israel's oldest and largest insurance companies, has 1,300 employees. The insurance firm is the anchor of the Phoenix Group, which is involved in insurance, investments and finance. The Becher Reform changed the face of the financial market in Israel and insurance companies are busy reorganizing and restructuring their marketing apparatuses. Phoenix has also undergone a face-change during the past two years.
We spoke with Erez Orly, the company's vice president of human resources, about the changes, the company's operations and employee management.
What are the company's areas of activity?
The Phoenix operates in three main areas of insurance: long-term savings, general insurance and health insurance. Long-term savings used to be comprised primarily of life insurance, but today, following the Becher Reform, it includes pension funds, pension funds and financial products.
Previously, most insurance companies were involved in life insurance and general insurance; their organizational structure was product-centered.
Two years ago the company decided to switch from focusing on the product to focusing on the customer, based on a desire to improve service and better provide for the customer's needs.
Who are the customers, insurance agents or the final customer – the policyholder?
The policyholder. We see the agents as business partners and our main distribution branch.
Since most contact with customers is carried out by agents, it comes out that the agents are the primary force in the relationship with them.
Both with the customers and the agents. For example, the company runs a phone service center under the customer relations division. The phone center provides services primarily for insurance agents, but for customers as well.
On the other hand the main service setup in the area of long-term savings is carried out by the 200 service coordinators in the customer division. Service coordinator is one of the core positions at the company.
What is the profile of a candidate for the job of coordinator?
He has to have a well-developed sense of providing service, an ability to work in a computerized environment, have a feel for working with numbers and be able to teach himself. He has to be capable of working in an intensive, multitask environment and be able to work as part of a team.
Does he have to have a college education?
If he comes from outside the company a bachelor's degree is a prerequisite. On the other hand, because the company encourages promoting company employees, if there are company employees who are suitable for the job this requirement will not prevent them from getting promoted. These candidates might be service representatives at the company's customer relations center, who developed a sense for customer service on the job, gained familiarity with certain Phoenix products and became familiar with the company's customers and work environment.
As long as we're on the subject it's important to note that during the past year and a half [due to the Becher Reform] there has been a significant change in the insurance market and the market is undergoing substantial specialization which affects the image of the insurance companies as employers.
The banks' entry into the field and the definition of the entities involved in it not just as insurance people but as finance people has had an impact on this trend. Also the legislation required training and licensing processes for certain positions. All this raised the entry level in the industry.
Have wages increased accordingly?
Yes, because now there's a shortage in the work market of people who are capable and certified to operate under the new rules of the game. Today, in order to receive a consultant's license you must meet Finance Ministry requirements and do a six-month internship.
How much employee mobility is there in the company, and in the industry as well?
There can be mobility within the company, of course, and among the insurance companies and large insurance agencies as well; but a considerable portion of workers remain in insurance. They acquire a profession in a field that has demand, so there is no strong motivation to switch to another industry. The average seniority of Phoenix employees is seven years.
How do you recruit employees?
A distinction has to be drawn between two different types of recruitment. One is when we want to recruit a few employees to man one position or another. Generally these are experienced workers who already work in the industry. In this case the main recruitment tool is placement companies.
The other type of recruitment is broader. Once or twice a year we open training courses. In this case we recruit through newspaper ads or Internet advertising. We look for people without experience, but with a profile suited to our needs. Following the initial screening of resumes and through phone interviews, suitable candidates are asked to come to assessment centers for tests and interviews with the managers of the recruiting units.
At which stage do you decide where to place the employee – before the course begins or only after the student has completed the course successfully?
Assigning those who were accepted to the course to the team they will join is done before the course gets started. The course combines theoretical studies and drills with hands-on work in the teams the worker will belong to. The fieldwork is done under the supervision of the employee's staff manager. At the conclusion of the course the employee continues the learning process on the staff.
Some candidates studied insurance at insurance colleges. Why do they have to take an extended training course?
External academic institutions primarily impart knowledge of the insurance business. That's important, but not enough. They learn the profession from us at the Center for Business Excellence.
How long does the training program last?
About four months. Studies are held every day from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm. As I said, they learn a profession here. During this period they also receive a full salary.
That's a significant expense. Do they commit to work at the company for a certain period at the end of the course?
Definitely. They have to repay part of the costs of the course if they leave before the agreed period of time is over. Still, obviously someone who leaves beforehand is unable to fully pay the large amount of money involved in training him – tens of thousands of shekels.
People receive a profession in demand through orderly, methodical training at a large company with a good reputation. Not every insurance company has the professional or economic ability to put together a project like this. This training program clearly has economic value from the participant's standpoint.
Smaller companies or large insurance agencies can ambush your students once they complete the course, making them tempting offers.
True. At this stage course graduates lack experience and other companies can offer them competitive wages. We don't give them high pay right at the start, because we also weigh into own considerations the investment in their training. On the other hand, someone else who didn't invest in them can offer them a more attractive wage at this stage.
And are people tempted by it?
Usually not. Because they realize that their potential for development at a company like ours is different than at a small company. This is in addition to their obligation to be employed for the agreed upon period of time. If the course graduate leaves before the agreed upon date, he must return at least part of the money invested in him; not just the cost of training, but also the wages he was paid during the four months of training.
Does everyone who starts the course complete it?
Generally most of the participants complete it. One or two people might drop out in the middle due to various exigencies.
The worker's training does not end with the completion of the course. Throughout his professional life he continues to receive ongoing training. Insurance and finance are very dynamic fields. The regulation is very high, guidelines change frequently, including working guidelines. In this field someone who does not receive training on a regular basis turns into a less up-to-date worker and therefore less professional.
Why is the coordinators' work with the agents executed as part of teams?
For a number of reasons: One, the insurance product is a complex product and it's hard to find a worker [coordinator] who knows how to provide the customer assistance in all of the fields, unless he is a very longstanding, experienced employee.
Two, if only a single person handled every agent it could create a problem of availability. A single person cannot be available all the time. He goes on vacation or sometimes takes time off for various reasons. We don't want an agent to have to forego assistance. Therefore he is provided service by a team of coordinators.
Every team, which has an average of ten coordinators, handles a given group of agents.
I presume not only other insurance companies are liable to be an attractive destination for your people, but the entire financial market as well. Banks are coming into this area, investment companies are expanding. The question of holding onto vital workers is become critical for insurance companies.
I agree. Holding onto employees is among the major topics we are engaged in. Just recently the group's execute board held a special discussion on this issue. It's not self-understood that the executive board of a large company devotes an entire meeting to this issue. As a result we know how to define the key jobs at the core of the organization. A lot is done to ensure the employees in these positions remain with us.
Do you invest in company activities and benefits?
Definitely. A lot. We see them as something that contributes to employee cohesiveness, a feeling of belonging and a positive atmosphere. Still, surveys we've conducted show employees attribute relatively little importance to company activities compared to other employment components, such as professional training, promotion or compensation.
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In conclusion, let's talk about the customer service center. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the insurance industry. I assume this, too, is a result of the reform?
That's right. The service center is part of the company, but nevertheless it has a certain uniqueness to it. In essence the center is no different from customer service centers operating in other industries.
The center currently has 130 employees located in a building in Tel Aviv [and not at the company's main facility]. There, too, like at other service centers, there is considerable turnover, although we are trying to reduce it.
Retaining employees at the service center is important to us. Therefore we compensate workers based on seniority at the company, in addition to regular compensatory bonuses for meeting service goals.
Similarly we try to strengthen the center's ties to the company. For instance, by giving good workers an opportunity to advance as part of the company. In the last course for long-term savings service coordinators, for example, there were five participants who started off at the company as service representatives at the customer service center.
Still, not everyone who wants to work at the service center wants to develop in the field of insurance. Some of them view it as temporary work, like at many other phone service centers.
How long does it take to train a service center representative?
Two weeks, on average. I say "on average" because there are three service centers corresponding to the three main areas of insurance – long-term savings, health insurance and general insurance. In each of these three areas about two courses per year are held.
In what situations do customers contact the customer service center?
In a variety of situations that are not complex. Most of the daytime calls are from people with health insurance or dental insurance policies through leading companies. These customers call the phone center regarding every matter relevant to their insurance policy, e.g., obtaining approval for dental care plans.
Another example: a policyholder wants to update the personal information related to the policy. To provide the customer quick and immediate service this action is carried out through the service center. The center is available 12 hours a day and spares the customer the effort involved in locating the insurance agent or a representative from the company's main professional apparatus.