“Now, we first send new members a welcome card”

Published on: 2 October 2020

Customer satisfaction is increasing and feedback from members and employers is cautiously becoming more positive: the result of two years of hard work on increasing customer focus.  Rob Schormans, board member of the Members and Employers Services, is giving us an update on the progress to date. 

At the beginning of this year, even before the outbreak of the corona crisis, Rob Schormans and his team spent a day at the Efteling amusement park. Not so much for a ride in the Python or the Flying Dutchman (or maybe just a bit), but to gain inspiration: how does the fantasy-themed amusement park interact with its customers and what can APG learn from it? The working visit is part of the shift towards customer focus, which Members and Employers Services have been making for the last two years, in anticipation of the new pension system. The basic principle: empathizing with all pension-related moments in the lives of members and fully supporting them in this with maximum appreciation. That is not a matter of simply flipping a switch. Implementing all changes takes time, emphasizes Schormans, who is responsible for Marketing Operations within Members and Employers Services management. Still, the first results of the new approach are now starting to emerge and they are positive.  

How was the customer served before: what changes did you have to make? 

“APG’s main focus used to be on administering the pension benefits to the best of its ability. We lacked focus on people and the organizations behind that pension. Anyone who was new to the pension fund, became incapacitated for work or had lost a loved one, received a business-like letter with complicated terms such as ‘value transfer’, sometimes from several departments in a single week. Those letters didn’t do justice to the emotional side of important life events. Besides, people often found it difficult to understand what was in the letter.”

So that needed to change. How did you go about that? 

“The emphasis had to shift to the needs of members and employers. We therefore adopted an agile working style to provide them with a faster service. We’ve also started working in multidisciplinary teams, not just pension specialists, but also IT people and marketers, for example. Together, you gain a quicker understanding of what members and employers need. We’ve mapped out fourteen important live events from a pension point of view, from memorable events such as a new job, marriage and birth to painful events such as divorce and death. We also examined the bottlenecks in our services, such as the complaints procedure and the payment of survivor’s pensions.”

What do customers notice of the changes in practical terms?

“When future members register with a fund, they now receive a friendly welcome card first. By doing this, you immediately set a warm tone. In addition, we try to write our letters as comprehensibly as possible and communicate more digitally. Nearly sixty percent of members indicate that they want to receive communication digitally. We’ll be testing these letters or mailings and our website in member’s panels: do people understand it? We also seek contact more often, which allows you to dose the information better and build up a relationship. For example, nowadays, we send people a card for their ‘retirement anniversary’, that’s the day they registered with their pension fund.” 

We seek contact more often, which allows you to dose the information better and build a relationship

So you are working on improving communication. Does that also apply to the service provision itself?

“Certainly. Previously, people could only submit complaints in writing and had to wait weeks for an, again, written reply. Now, a complaint can be submitted digitally and you’ll be called back within 48 hours. Another example is survivor’s pension payments, which could take months sometimes. I recently spoke with an employer, a school principal. He told a poignant story: the partner of a deceased teacher was unable to pay for the funeral and the children’s school fees, because the survivor’s benefit took such a long time to come through. Fortunately, we’ve been able to considerably shorten that period. We’re also working on simpler procedures for submitting information and making payments.”

What has changed in the provision of services to employers?

“We no longer just look at scope, but now also focus on the difference in needs between organizations. Small employers want the pension administration to run smoothly and they want us to provide assistance to employees in practical terms. Large employers are more concerned with issues such as sustainable employability and managing sickness absence. We therefore support them through an information library, webinars and by training internal staff for specialist employee questions, such as early retirement. As part of our approach, we also work closely with the affiliated funds.”

What obstacles do you encounter in the shift to customer focus?

“Ideally, you would like to change everything at once, but you have to do it in small steps, because you’re also dealing with legal requirements, technical possibilities and a complex working environment. It also takes time to learn to see things through the eyes of the customer. We regularly listen to the Customer Contact Center, complaints handling and member’s panels. We also set up a ‘feedback loop’ recently. Feedback ambassadors collect customer feedback throughout the organization. We discuss this feedback on a weekly basis. Such as the surprise of a member who had subscribed to a digital newsletter, only to receive written confirmation in the mail. The feedback manager then contacts the teams or IT to see how we can implement improvements. We feed the result back to the colleague who introduced the improvement and, where possible, to the participant or employer.”

What have you learned from how other organizations deal with customers?

“We looked around at other financial companies, such as Achmea, ING and Nationale Nederlanden, as well as online companies such as Zalando and Bol.com and visited the Efteling amusement park. A visit to Tony Chocolonely was also on our list, until the corona crisis hit. At Zalando and Bol, for example, the track & trace option allows customers to see exactly where their parcel is. This teaches us that turnaround times must be as short as possible and that you must keep members and employers well informed. That day out in Efteling was also an educational experience. Staff at Efteling try to surprise their customers every day. They aren’t satisfied with a seven out of ten for customer satisfaction, they aim for a perfect ten.”  

Can APG already see a shift in focus towards the customer being reflected in higher customer satisfaction?

“We measure that with the Net Promoter Score. You ask customers to what extent they would recommend your company to others. Two years ago, the NPS was negative, we had more critics than ambassadors among our members and employers. Since then, we can see a slight upward trend and even considerable pluses in the monthly scores. The feedback also becomes more positive. At the same time, people use the customer-friendliness of say Bol.com as a frame of reference, they expect the same from APG. The bar is therefore set higher and higher. Everything is pointing in the direction that we’re indeed making the desired shift towards the customer but as an organization, you need at least three to four years to complete it. You can compare it to a marathon. We’re halfway through, legs are feeling tired at times, but with focus, the right mindset and encouragements from the spectators, we’re determined to make it to the finish line.