Fixing process exceptions. And music on hold

Gibbs wrestles with a lost medical insurance payment ... for five hours

If music be the food of love, then my medical insurance provider, Anthem Blue Cross, has a very distorted kind of love for me. I received a letter from the company a few days ago titled "Notice of Grace Period" which informed me that my payment hadn't been received. This did not please me because I knew I'd made a payment.

I use my bank's bill pay service and there, in my account, was the debit for my medical insurance dated March 1, and here we were almost two weeks later. There was only one thing to do; stiffen up the sinew, summon up the blood, and call customer service.

As usual, there was predictably dreadful looped on-hold music with the usual distortion just to make waiting as aggravating as possible. After an interminable hold I spoke with a rep who tried to find my payment in the system using my bank details, but there was no trace. She suggested I call my bank to see what they knew.

[A LOOK BACK: Great customer service does exist!]

Sigh. On to my bank. Horrendous muzak again, and if I thought the insurance company music was distorted, this one kept getting bursts of static that sounded like canons being fired. It might have been OK if the piece playing was the "1812 Overture," but it was some fluffy piece of classical music so the explosions were really jarring. But I digress ...

Anyway, after another tediously long hold, I got a rep who confirmed the money had been debited from my account and sent electronically to Anthem. OK, back to Anthem.

Another hold, different rep. No, she tells me, they don't accept any electronic transactions. None at all. Never had. Not set up for it. Hmm. Seems unlikely but hey, what do I know?

Back to my bank. Rep tells me that they do send all transactions electronically. Ask for a supervisor. Supervisor tells me that they send the bill pay transactions to a clearing house who, if they can't send the payments electronically, send a paper check. My head was about to explode.

I'm going to cut this story short and leave out the obviously foreign supervisor for whom Engrish was definitely a second language, the dropped calls, the endless repeating of account details to computers and reps, and the endless being thanked for every piece of information I provided. Let's cut to the chase: It's partially my fault, but also the fault of Anthem Blue Cross for some very odd reasons.

Last November I had to change my policy and with the changes came a new account number. Unfortunately I didn't change the details in bill pay so I was still using the old account number ... and it was to that account where the payments were going.

What was inexplicable was that the payments had, for the last three months, been routed from the old account to my new account. The Anthem rep couldn't explain how this had happened, who had been doing it, or why they stopped doing it. And getting the payment moved to my new account was obviously not easy to do because the rep had to hunt down someone on the operations side to get it done.

So, what can we learn from this? The take away is that you must identify all of your process end points and exceptions and make sure that procedures exist to resolve the exceptions.

In my case an exception should have been raised by a payment being applied to a closed account. Only in a different reality where systems engineering is merely a nice idea -- which is apparently how the IT department at Anthem Blue Cross thinks -- could this happen without generating an exception. Do as Anthem did and you're going to have angry customers who will, like me ... and I'm not kidding ... have wasted over five hours sorting out what should never have been a problem in the first place!

And there's one other take away: Brand managers and other marketing wonks should occasionally listen to their customer service lines to make sure that when they are pissing off their customers royally by running them around for hours, they aren't adding insult to injury through having lousy, distorted music on hold.

Gibbs is still mad in Ventura, Calif. Express your rage against the insurance machine to backspin@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter and App.net (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater). And check out the Predictions Blog.

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