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How insurers stay close to customers, while we’re all socially distancing

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How insurers stay close to customers, while we’re all socially distancing

By Cathal McGloin, CEO of ServisBOT.(www.servisbot.com)

writes, “The global health crisis has inevitably impacted the insurance industry, with some experts predicting that 2020 will be one of the most expensive years the industry has ever experienced.

However, in the motor insurance sector, this is offset by the reduced number of claims, as people stay at home and cars sit idle. British start-up, Cuvva, estimates that there will be a 50% reduction in car insurance claims, amounting to a £1billion windfall for insurers.

Driving customer loyalty

Some insurers jumped on the opportunity to win customer loyalty by repaying them a portion of their premiums for the weeks when vehicles weren’t being driven. Admiral made the first move in the UK market, announcing that it had set aside £100million to repay £25 to each of its 4.4 million motor insurance customers. In the US, AllState said it would repay 15% of customers’ premiums for April and May. A day later, Geico announced that it had committed $2.5billion to repay dividends to customers whose vehicles have not moved during the lockdown period. American Family also announced plans to reimburse customers $50 per insured vehicle.

Looking after customers

Cathal McGloin

Cathal McGloin

When lockdown measures were first introduced in March, the immediate impact was on customer interactions. As social distancing measures were introduced, some insurance companies found that contact centre staff overseas did not have the connectivity to be able to handle calls from home. This resulted in fewer employees being available to answer calls. With a reduced workforce handling higher call volumes, customers initially faced long wait times and increased resolution times, resulting in a poor experience.

However, the insurance industry is swift to respond to challenges and has been steadily implementing technology to drive out cost, while improving customer experience.

Applying AI to drive down costs

Three years ago, Accenture’s ‘Technology for People’ report, found that 68 percent of the surveyed insurance professionals said that they were already using AI-powered intelligent virtual assistants to improve customer interactions. More than three quarters (79 percent) told Accenture that AI would be used to revolutionise the way that insurers gain information from and interact with their customers.

So, it’s not surprising that, as contact centres experienced a sudden spike in call volumes handled by fewer customer service agents, insurers were able to swiftly implement AI to handle enquiries, in parallel with human agents, so that customers did not feel abandoned.

Setting up a chatbot in 48 hours

One such example is AA Ireland, which set up its COVID-19 chatbot within 48 hours. In the first week of March travel restrictions were announced in Ireland and the contact centre in Dublin began seeing a rapid increase in the number of calls from travel insurance customers. By 9th March, its COVID-19 chatbot was launched via its IVR menu.

The insurer was able to use the AI-based virtual assistant to rapidly follow a three step process to first deflect callers from phone lines to find the information they needed on text-based channels such as its website, mobile app, messaging solutions and social media. Secondly, by sending the customer a link to a virtual assistant, the AA Ireland could automate conversations and interactions while making customers fully aware that they were getting information from a virtual assistant. Thirdly, the insurer integrated the chatbot with its existing Zendesk live chat platform, so that a customer simply had to type, ‘I want to speak to someone,’ for the bot to hand over the conversation to a human agent.

Customers receive an SMS on their mobile with a link to the virtual assistant that instantly pops up a COVID-19 message pointing to related updates. Since the virtual assistant also has capabilities around other common customer service queries, it offers them multiple options besides COVID-19 information updates, for example, requesting documents, renewal assistance, or making policy changes. This allows customers to self-serve in many ways and to dip in and out of the process, going back in to the COVID-19 bot to get information when it’s convenient for them.

After the COVID-19 chatbot went live, the contact centre saw an 11% reduction in calls as customers were directed to the information that they needed. The virtual assistant integrates with the livechat system to enable seamless handover and escalation to live agents.

Steps to success

Insurers don’t need coding knowledge to be able to benefit from conversational AI platforms. They need an understanding of customer processes, which is where their contact centre professionals excel.

Natural language processing (NLP) and AI bot technologies are advancing at a rapid rate. With an abundance of training, combined with the advancements in natural language AI models, a virtual assistant can carry on an impressive and lengthy conversation with a customer: recognising context, sentiment, and nuances of language.

It’s vital to make customers aware at the outset that they are conversing with a virtual assistant, rather than a livechat agent.

To mitigate any impact on the customer experience, seamless integration with livechat is required, so that customers don’t get caught in a chatbot loop and can always speak to a customer service agent if they need to.

Post-contact analysis should be carried out to quantify how many virtual assistant conversations have escalated to a live agent, so that conversations can be improved. A/B message testing should also be used to optimise the AI bot, in the same way that customer service agents tailor conversations to suit customers’ requirements while they’re on the phone with them.

Automating processes

Even when the conversations have been perfected, to really drive down operational costs, insurance AI assistants also need to be able to automate underlying workflows and processes. No matter how good a conversation is with an insurance bot, there will quickly come a point where customers need to input their payment details. Security has to be prioritised for any insurer that wants to create an enterprise-grade conversational AI experience.

Each industry and each company has unique requirements. The insurance chatbot will need good initial training data, based on realistic customer conversations and the AI model will need to be tuned and optimised on an ongoing basis.

Staying close to customers

Many companies are advancing their AI journeys, launching virtual assistant solutions that are highly skilled in a specific business task, whether that is helping a customer with a quotation, onboarding new users, or reminding customers that their policy is nearing its renewal date. Virtual assistants are highly successful at handling these customer interactions: reducing agent handling time, driving increased conversion rates, and lowering the cost of service delivery.

As virtual assistant implementations become more sophisticated, natural language technology will allow companies to understand more precisely what customers want, so that automated processes meet the customer need, reducing manual intervention. In the meantime, it is vital to enable virtual assistants to handover to a customer service agent if a customer requests it, or if a bot hasn’t been trained to respond to a particular query.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, this combination of AI-based automation and human agents enabled insurers to rapidly scale their customer service operations, while keeping costs in check. As the insurance industry navigates the post-pandemic era, it will need to seek more ways to apply AI to reduce operational costs, while keeping customers on board.”

Finance

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific warns of capacity cuts, higher cash burn

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Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific warns of capacity cuts, higher cash burn 1

(Reuters) – Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd on Monday warned passenger capacity could be cut by about 60% and monthly cash burn may rise if Hong Kong installs new measures that require flight crew to quarantine for two weeks.

Hong Kong’s flagship carrier said the expected move will increase cash burn by about HK$300 million ($38.70 million) to HK$400 million per month, on top of current HK$1 billion to HK$1.5 billion levels.

Hong Kong is set to require flight crew entering the Asian financial hub for more than two hours to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks, the South China Morning Post reported last week, citing sources.

“The new measure will have a significant impact on our ability to service our passenger and cargo markets,” Cathay said in a statement, adding that expected curbs will also reduce its cargo capacity by 25%.

The airline, in an internal memo seen by Reuters, requested for volunteers among its crew who could fly for three weeks, followed by two weeks of quarantine and 14 days free of duty, adding it will be a temporary measure and not all its flight will require such an operation.

“We continue to engage with key stakeholders in the Hong Kong Government,” the memo said.

The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Separately, a company spokeswoman said the airline could not detail the impact on vaccine transport specifically in terms of cargo shipments.

The aviation industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic as many countries imposed travel restrictions to contain its spread.

In December, Cathay’s passenger numbers fell by 98.7% compared to a year earlier, though cargo carriage was down by a smaller 32.3%.

($1 = 7.7512 Hong Kong dollars)

(Reporting by Shriya Ramakrishnan in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Jamie Freed in Sydney and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong; Editing by Bernard Orr and Arun Koyyur)

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Travel stocks pull FTSE 100 lower as virus risks weigh

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Travel stocks pull FTSE 100 lower as virus risks weigh 2

By Shashank Nayar

(Reuters) – London’s FTSE 100 fell on Monday, with travel stocks leading the declines, as rising coronavirus infections and extended lockdowns raised worries about the pace of economic growth, while fashion retailers Boohoo and ASOS gained on merger deals.

The British government quietly extended lockdown laws to give councils the power to close pubs, restaurants, shops and public spaces until July 17, the Telegraph reported on Saturday.

The blue-chip FTSE 100 index dipped 0.1%, with travel and energy stocks falling the most, while the mid-cap index rose 0.1%.

“Stock markets are crawling between optimism around the rollout of vaccines and worries that a jump in virus infections and fresh local lockdowns could further affect recovery prospects,” said David Madden, an analyst at CMC Markets.

Britain has detected 77 cases of the South African variant of COVID-19, the health minister said on Sunday while urging people to strictly follow lockdown rules as the best precaution against the country’s own potentially more deadly variant.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had earlier warned that the government could not consider easing lockdown restrictions with infection rates at their current high levels and until it is confident that the vaccination programme is working.

The FTSE 100 shed 14.3% in value last year, its worst performance since a 31% plunge in 2008 and underperforming its European peers by a wide margin, as pandemic-driven lockdowns battered the economy.

Online fashion retailers Boohoo and ASOS surged 4.8% and 5.9%, each. Boohoo bought the Debenhams brand, while ASOS was in talks to buy the key brands of Philip Green’s collapsed Arcadia group.

Recruiter SThree Plc gained 0.9% after its profit, which nearly halved, still managed to beat market expectations and the company said it had resumed dividends.

(Reporting by Shashank Nayar in Bengaluru; editing by Uttaresh.V)

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Top 8 Tax Scams to Watch Out For

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Top 8 Tax Scams to Watch Out For 3

It is tax time and that means finding the best way to file your taxes and to get a refund of any amount you’ve overpaid. Unfortunately, tax time also means plenty of scammers are thinking of new and clever ways to try and get their hands on your money or on your personal information (which they can use to get money).

Those who specialize in IRS tax scams are clever and can be very convincing. Your first line of defense is to always know what to be looking for in terms of common tax fraud in order to avoid being another victim.

8 Most Common Tax Scams

Protecting yourself from IRS tax scams can be tricky if you’re not aware of what the threats are. A good tax scam seems legitimate, and that is what makes them dangerous. Always be on the lookout for the eight most common tax scams, including:

  • IRS Phone Scams
  • Fake IRS Emails
  • Fraudulent Tax Preparers
  • Fraudulent Tax Refunds
  • Fake Charities
  • Set Up Offshore Accounts
  • Empty Promises
  • Frivolous Returns

To know what exactly you need to watch out for, let’s look at them in more detail.

1. IRS Phone Scams

If someone calls you claiming to be from the IRS, it is almost certainly one of many IRS phone scams. The IRS will never call you to demand money for back taxes or to confirm your personal information, so be immediately alert. Never give personal information over the phone, and don’t head to the bank to follow the demands for money.

If you do wind up on the end of an IRS phone scam, don’t become flustered by aggressive tactics by the fake “agent”. They are good at sounding threatening and demanding information or payments. Remain calm and ask for contact information. Tell the scammer you’ll call them back with the information. Either the scammer will give you fake information or he will work to avoid leaving any information at all. Regardless, don’t call him back. Simply report the call to the local police or the IRS.

2. Fake IRS Emails

Another very common fake IRS scam is phishing, or sending fake IRS emails, in a ploy to gather personal information. Fake emails will look authentic and will ask you to click on a link or to log in to a fake IRS website. The purpose of these emails is to simply gather your personal information to be used for other fraudulent purposes.

Just like with IRS phone scams, you should be immediately wary if the IRS appears to send you an email. The IRS does not contact citizens through email. All official IRS communication will come through standard mail. If you do find a fake IRS email in your inbox, forward it to the IRS. The IRS investigates these scams and has a dedicated email address for this very purpose: [email protected].

3. Fraudulent Tax Preparers

Some scam artists show up in a suit, open a storefront and offer to prepare your tax return for you. These tax preparers appear by all accounts to be absolutely legitimate, and many go to great lengths to convince customers of their years of experience and authenticity.

As a fraudulent tax preparer, however, the person is not legitimate. The scam artist can use your tax return in many ways for his own benefit. He can inflate your refund and skim off the top. He can charge outrageous fees for filing on your behalf. He can file your return correctly this year and gather all of your information to make a fake return for his benefit next year.

If you are going to have someone else prepare your taxes, be sure to look carefully through tax service reviews. Tax service reviews are available on many different websites that offer feedback on companies and services. These reviews will give you a very good idea about the legitimacy of the business and the reliability of the preparer. If a company doesn’t have any tax service reviews on any website, like e.g PissedConsumer.com, or BBB, that may be a sign that it’s a pop-up company that will disappear as soon as the scammer has what he wants.

4. Fraudulent Tax Refunds

Another very popular tax scam starts well before the tax season. To file a fraudulent tax return, the scammer must gather all pertinent personal information including a social security number. He then uses the information he gathered to file a fake tax return on your behalf. Naturally, he’s not going to send you the refund he’s claiming – that goes into the scammer’s pocket.

The best way to prevent a fake tax return is to guard your personal information close at all times. If nobody is able to steal your identity, they can’t file a tax return. Another good step is to file your own tax return as early as possible. That way, even if your information was stolen somehow, you will get your refund correctly and the IRS will be alerted when someone files a second return using your information.

5. Fake Charities

Charitable donations are tax-deductible if you’re itemizing your deductions. This creates possibilities for scammers to take advantage of others who are looking to reduce their tax burden and increase their refund by making donations. Fake charities can take on many shapes and forms.

Some may appear conveniently around tax time or be affiliated with fraudulent tax preparers. The claim is that by donating to a fake charity you will help others and reduce your own tax liability. Instead, you’re giving someone free money and you won’t be able to deduct the donation as it’s not a real charitable organization. Other fake charities involve you in a scam by promising to give you back your donation as soon as the tax return is filed, for example. It goes without saying that claiming a donation you didn’t actually make is tax fraud and highly illegal.

At the advice of his tax preparers, a famous country singer Willie Nelson moved some of his money into tax shelters and charities to help reduce his tax bill. The IRS grew suspicious of the moves and investigated. In one of the most famous IRS cases in the United States, Willie Nelson was hit with a tax bill in the millions when his charities and shelters were found to be invalid.

Willie didn’t have the funds to make the payments, so the bill continued to grow until the IRS finally grew so frustrated they raided and seized all of Willie Nelson’s properties including a recording studio, a ranch, and his home. Even that wasn’t enough to pay the bill, so eventually, Willie made a deal with the IRS. He recorded an album and all proceeds from that album went directly to the IRS to whittle away his debt. Willie did file suit against the accounting firm that advised the tax shelters in the first place, but the two parties settled out of court.

6. Set Up Offshore Accounts

Some tax scams sound good but require your participation in illegal activities. For example, you may meet an unscrupulous tax “professional” who offers to help you move some of your money into an offshore account.

This sounds legitimate as many people use offshore accounts for valid reasons, but by moving your funds into an offshore account with the intent of hiding that income from the IRS, you’re committing tax fraud. Additionally, if you’re working with a shady professional, it’s highly likely that neither you nor the IRS will see your extra income ever again. And you can still wind up with a legal case with your money stolen and gone.

7. Empty Promises

The tax preparer who encourages you to sign a blank tax form is nobody you want to work with. These preparers encourage you to simply sign the form because he or she is going to work out the numbers for you so that you can get the highest possible refund. If you do this, you are almost certainly subjecting yourself to tax filing scams.

Signing a blank tax form is potentially worse than simply signing a blank check for a stranger. Not only are you at risk of losing your personal information and any refund you might be owed, but you are also at risk of legal action by the IRS for signing your name on a refund that is almost certainly going to contain false and fraudulent information.

8. Frivolous Returns

The IRS sees a ridiculous number of what they call “frivolous returns” every year. A frivolous return is a tax return that is filed with the intent of simply wasting time. These frivolous claims have already been thrown out in court, so filing a tax refund making a frivolous claim is simply opening yourself up to additional action by the IRS including fines of at least $5,000. The top “frivolous claims” include:

  • Refusing to pay taxes on moral or religious grounds
  • “Opting out” of paying taxes
  • Invoking the First Amendment to “protect” you from taxes
  • Claiming only Federal Employees pay federal taxes
  • Claiming you have no income and therefore no tax liability (when you clearly do)

Top 3 Tips on How to Protect Yourself from IRS Tax Scams

Protecting yourself from tax fraud is a matter of being vigilant and mindful that there is always a possibility of something going wrong. Work with a trusted advisor or study up and file taxes yourself to avoid the uncertainty of allowing others to handle your financial matters. Often a bit of knowledge goes a very long way.

1. Know How the Tax System Works

One of the most common negative IRS reviews is that the tax refunds aren’t released immediately. In many IRS complaints, customers complain that they don’t get their refunds immediately.

While frustrating to wait, the IRS is usually very clear about processing times and has never sent refunds immediately after the filing window opens. The government doesn’t move quickly and reviews of documents and financial information submitted in your returns are necessary.

Additionally, relying on others to help you file your taxes every year can open you up to the possibility of fraudulent activities. Reviewing the tax codes and reading through the laws and requirements may not be exciting, but it will give you at least a basic understanding of how the process works so that you can look out for problems if you are trusting someone else with your information and money.

2. Always Read Carefully

The safest way to file your taxes is to do them by hand on the original IRS paper forms and to mail them using certified mail. Many people don’t choose to do this, however, as it can be very tedious and confusing if you do not know the tax system backward and forwards.

Instead, many filers rely on tax software and paid tax preparers. When using software or allowing someone to use the software on your behalf, it never gets too comfortable. There might be hidden fees in the software or glitches to overcome.

Reviewing choices carefully as the software takes you from screen to screen is a good way to avoid accidentally accepting hidden fees. Another option to avoid paying for fees you aren’t comfortable with is to simply abandon the return on one piece of online software and to try again with another – there are multiple tax return software options available.

3. Always Look for Tax Filing Scams

If you always expect to find a scam, you’ll never be surprised when one appears. Even tax preparers who have been in business for years can have some deceptive business practices that others assume are necessary or haven’t noticed them at all.

Tax time can be exciting if you’re entitled to a large refund, but it can be stressful if you don’t feel in control of the tax filing process. Educate yourself on the risks and tax scams that exist, and always exercise caution when choosing a method to file your taxes. Your personal information is closely tied to your money, so protecting both of them is often simply a measure of keeping your eyes wide open and using your knowledge to avoid traps and scams.

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