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Teams On The Front Line … The Groups That Meet And Greet

Department Spotlight

Teams On The Front Line...
The Groups That Meet and Greet

The SOA's Meetings and Events and Customer Service Departments are two groups who are in frequent contact with our members and candidates. Whether it's planning a meeting, webcast or special event, or fielding calls about passwords, transcripts or book purchases, these groups are always hopping.
By Sam Phillips

The Meetings and Events team plans well over 150 meetings a year. The Customer Service team fields about 500 phone calls and about 1,300 e–mails per week. This third installment in a series of articles intended to help familiarize members with the SOA staff will focus on the expanding roles of these two departments that work side–by–side to deliver exceptional service to the SOA's members and candidates.

MEETINGS AND EVENTS

Colleen Fiore is the senior director of customer service and events and is responsible for the oversight of the Meetings and Events Department, as well as the Customer Service team. The Actuary recently asked Fiore some questions about the department, the responsibilities, the challenges, the successes and the integration of both groups. Following are her responses.

What are the responsibilities of the Meetings and Events Department? The Meetings and Events Department is responsible for planning over 150 meetings annually offered by the SOA. Not only are we responsible for planning the continuing education events, such as seminars, symposia, spring meetings, annual meeting and webcasts, but we are also in charge of planning the Board meetings, committee meetings, Central Review of exams and Central Gradings. We are responsible for content development, speaker recruitment, negotiation and signing of hotel contracts, hotel logistics, registration and exhibit management. We are a full–service resource for the SOA! Meetings and Events contracts more than $3 million a year with hotels and various vendors in planning events.

What are the short–term and long–term goals of the department? We're going green with our events! Greening our meetings and related services demonstrates our commitment to reducing the environmental effects of global warming. Currently, we are posting handouts and attendee lists in advance of the meeting on the SOA Web site. This reduces waste, yet provides attendees with the ability to view the material in advance of the meeting and to print the handouts for their desired sessions. We also provide printers on–site at our larger meetings, allowing attendees to print the handouts and attendee list on–site. We are exploring many other avenues to make our meetings green, so be on the lookout for more changes in this arena.

With the new Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirement taking effect in January of 2009, we are researching alternative ways to deliver programs to reach our global community. We have been increasing the number of webcasts each year and plan to continue that trend as well.

How many staff and volunteer members work on these events? Within the Meetings and Events Department, we have a total of 11 seasoned professionals who work on various events. We also work with hundreds of dedicated volunteers throughout the year who are certainly instrumental to our success!

What are the most popular meetings? All of our meetings are popular. With regard to attendance, our annual meeting is by far the largest. We have over 1,600 attendees at this event. We've seen attendance taper off at our spring meetings; however, we have seen an increase in registration for our seminars and webcasts. We have certainly increased the number of programs, and it's nice to see that we are still meeting our members' needs, but capturing them at different offerings.

What are your biggest challenges? The biggest challenge we face, in regards to continuing education, is providing timely, relevant content to our members cost–effectively. Our members have to work within their corporate budgets to determine how many events they can attend within a year. We're always looking to elevate the experience at our meetings, while keeping costs down.

In today's economy it is definitely a seller's market for selection of meeting venues. Based upon demand and the limited number of new hotels being constructed, we are challenged with negotiating the best rates and contractual terms for the organization. In 2008, hotel costs are expected to increase five percent. The history and relationships we have established with our hotel partners over the years have definitely assisted us in negotiating more favorable terms.

What are your group's biggest successes? We've had many successes over the years. One of the biggest, I think, was in 2005 when we moved the annual meeting from Anaheim to New York City and changed the date within eight months of the meeting taking place. The challenges came in negotiating with the hotel, relocating the space, adjusting the planning timeline and communicating to members, volunteers and staff. The meeting was very successful!

This year we held our first ever 16–hour live webcast: "Global Best Practices in ERM for Insurers and Reinsurance." This webcast provided 16 hours of live content with five hours of pre–recorded content. We had over 500 sites register for the event with nearly 1,500 people participating. Obviously there is a huge need in this area, and planning for 2009 is underway!

Overall, I think we've done a great job negotiating with hotels–and mitigating our risk. We really know the value of our business, our history and we're very mindful of the SOA keeping its costs down.

Why is it a natural fit that Meetings and Events and Customer Service be integrated? I think it's a natural fit because when you think about it, each department is responsible for providing outstanding service and an exceptional experience to members and candidates. Customer Service is the front line of the organization meeting our member and candidate needs by responding to phone calls and e–mails, processing dues and registrations. Meetings and Events is the front line in delivering exceptional events to members, including CE and non–CE events. Also, in keeping with the goal of making the Customer Service Center a one–stop shop of contact for calls, e–mails and transaction processing, registration for CE events will be transitioning to the Customer Service Center in May with the Valuation Actuary Symposium. Each area is dedicated to exceeding our customers' needs.

What good things can you say about your teams? My teams are extraordinary. When you think of the complexity, the volume and variety of meetings being produced within this department, it truly is astounding. The Meetings and Events team is truly a dedicated group of professionals who work diligently with the volunteers and suppliers to ensure the successful outcome of all of our events. They have really gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure each and every detail is accounted for.

My colleague, Laura Kibiloski, will be detailing the activities of Customer Service, but I'd like to mention that the individuals on that team are truly outstanding as well. They receive hundreds of phone calls and e–mails from our members and candidates each week on a variety of topics, and handle each one with style, grace and professionalism.

Again, I'd like to reiterate that integrating Meeting and Events and Customer Service is definitely a natural fit. The people on both teams are great. I'm truly privileged to work with such dedicated and professional individuals.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

Laura Kibiloski is the manager of the SOA's new Customer Service Center, which was created in May of 2007 to provide a number of services for candidates and members. The Actuary went to Kibiloski for an in–depth explanation of all the options now available. Here's what she said.

What is the most common question the service center receives? The most frequently asked question we receive is about user name and password. Our customers need this information to access our online features, such as transcripts, exam orders, meeting registration or if they need to access a grade slip. The calls for username and password are especially high during times when the membership is invoiced for dues. Invoices are now online and the members need their user names and passwords to access and print their invoices.

When did books and publications orders and the registration for future FACs move into the Customer Service area? All Fellowship Admissions Course and Associateship Professionalism Course processing was brought into the Customer Service area the first week of January. Books and publication order placing was rolled in January 21st. We grew quickly right after the first of the year.

The Customer Service Center will soon take over the meetings and events processing. Your first tasks will be the registrations for the Valuation Actuary Symposium (ValAct) and the 2008 Annual Meeting. Who performed these tasks previously and will this addition add significantly to your work load? Registration was handled previously in the Meetings and Events Department. Many of the meetings have now gone to online registration. ValAct is the first meeting that the Customer Service area will handle, in May. I believe this new addition will significantly add to our workload, but we will have to wait and see exactly what impact this has on the department. We are ready to take on the challenge.

What kind of training did the staff receive in order to answer all the calls and e–mails? The new Customer Service Department is comprised of staff from various departments within the SOA. Combined we have 83 years of SOA experience. Training comes from knowledge that the staff has acquired over the years, and they share it within the group. Every question we receive is bounced off the lead staff member of that topic. We have team members specializing in exams, distance learning, continuing education, finance, accounts receivable and membership.

How does the Customer Service Center differ from the former call center? The original call center was set up to be the first line of communication into the SOA for calls and e–mails. The new Customer Service Center is a full–service center. We process orders and payments, as well as act as the first line of communication. Our goal is to have a one–stop shop for every question that comes in. We address the question, take the order and make the payment all in the same transaction.

Since the creation of the Customer Service Center is fairly recent, were there any particular challenges you faced as a group, particular successes you would like to bring to light? One of the challenges for the new center is that it is a combination of staff members from various departments within the SOA. One of the goals of the new department is to foster a team environment. We not only handle the work we did previously, but we are taking on additional work from the multiple areas that are now included in this department. All of our Customer Service team members are being cross–trained. That is a challenge if you've been working by yourself for a number of years–to expose your information and to open up and teach other team members is an accomplishment in and of itself. I am requiring this team to not only teach others, but to be taught as well. Peeling back the layers of individual roles within that department is quite a challenge.

The Customer Service Center is evolving. I feel we are successful. I can hear it in the type of answers being given on the telephone every day. What one of the staff members might not have known a few months ago is now being provided to members like second nature.

How many calls, e–mails and orders does the team field in a week? On average we're handling 500 phone calls a week and about 1,300 e–mails. The volume is influenced by what is happening at the SOA. For example, volumes were extremely high in September 2007. We had 8,100 e–mails and 3,300 phone calls. The reason for the large influx was exam registration. Candidates were trying to meet a deadline and had questions about exam registration. The same thing happens when membership dues are invoiced. I expect the same thing is going to happen when Meetings and Events rolls out their deadline dates. Any time there's a big announcement at the SOA or a deadline of a major impact, the Customer Service Center booms with questions.

What do you personally feel is the greatest asset of the Customer Service Center? Flexibility. I can ask anyone in the department to drop a project they're working on and pick up another. Everybody gives freely to help out on a project from start to finish, especially when there's a deadline. Most projects in the Customer Service Center are deadline driven, and I can count on the staff to just stop what they're doing and push the project through to the end. We keep a lot of balls juggling in the air at the same time. To keep them all aloft is a big accomplishment of the department. Flexibility, without a doubt, is the greatest asset of customer service.

What other responsibilities does your department have? There's a large volume of work being produced from our department in relation to the candidates and members. It's not just the phone calls and e–mails that we deal with. For each exam session we assist in the registration process for 16,000 candidates. We also handle the membership records for almost 20,000 members. The Customer Service Center is truly a processing center, and I think we do need to break those barriers of it being thought of as just an e–mail and call center.

Any thing you'd like to say about your team and your accomplishments? I would say the greatest asset of the team in general is their positive support of establishing this Customer Service Processing Center. Everybody in the department was asked to change positions within the SOA to embrace this idea, and they have all been on board since the beginning. There's a lot of growth still to come. There's a lot of knowledge still to be shared, but I believe in this team and I believe in the project. Every team member seems to be giving their all and are supportive of this project. I am very grateful to each of my team members and their support.

Sam Phillips is staff editor at the Society of Actuaries.