Photo of an angry zombie on her mobile phone.

Don't be shit! BUPA

By Oliver Damian

I have had a private health insurance policy with BUPA Australia since 2011. Even before this, I was with MBF Health before it merged or got acquired by BUPA.

My decision to get cover with them was largely influenced by the sweet carrot of a discount they offered to members of the NSW Law Society at that time. Not to mention the stick in the form of scare tactics employed by the Federal Government who decided to intervene in the private health insurance market by tweaking the Medicare tax rebate rate for those who are over a certain age and don't take on private health insurance.

In all those years I was a policy holder, I don't remember a BUPA representative contacting me to have a pleasant chat about how I was going with my cover. I trawled through my inbox and found that the e-mails I got from them were all about: (1) my tax statement being ready; (2) changes to my cover's legal terms & conditions; and (3) e-mails enclosing discounted movie tickets. To be honest I was slack in utilising my cover. Aside from annual dental check-ups, and once in a while chiropractor, massage, & GP visits (and those discounted movie tickets) I never really used my cover much. That's all good. It's in the past. That's how the health insurance system has been rigged between Government and Big Insurance. I thank the gods for the good health I've enjoyed thru the years and not needing to call on the insurance big time.

What's pissing me off right now is this. My financial circumstances have changed since I stopped full–time work to get two more bachelor degrees. I can no longer afford paying the premiums until I start working again. Guess what? In all the slick supposedly “human–centered user interface design” of the BUPA corporate website and the myBupa member's site, I couldn't find anything that relates to how I can cancel my policy.

And so I rang the BUPA phone number, and gave up after being on–hold for half an hour. The funny thing about being on–hold with them is that they play this corporate message—on a loop— of how good they are and how good their customer service is. It's a bit insulting to say the least. If their customer service is really that good then why am I on–hold wasting my precious time listening to this corporate marketing dribble?

Having no luck with the phone call method, I decided to visit one of those slick BUPA centres sprinkled around the Sydney CBD. I was oddly surprised that the pleasant customer representative at the BUPA Centre in King Street simply gave me a paper form to fill-out. If I remember correctly, I was able to enrol to get cover on–line. And now to cancel requires paper. Perhaps, another brilliant tactical move by their customer attrition department? What was odd to me was she didn't ask me why I was cancelling my policy. Although before I left she had this funny look on her face when she said I'm just letting you know, they're gonna call you, I tell people that now. I didn't understand at that time what the funny way she said this meant.

Now I know what that funny look was all about. I left the signed policy cancellation form at the BUPA centre on . On and on , I got the same text message from BUPA asking me to call a 1800 number to “discuss” my “request” to cancel my policy. It said their “Customer Care Team” is available to assist with “cancellation requests”. Since when did cancelling a service became a request—a favour owed to the service provider— and not a right that a customer has under consumer law to terminate the service? I can only surmise that BUPA wants me to call them so that they can have some telemarketer dissuade me from cancelling my policy. In any case, it was bad enough that I had to physically go to a centre, sign a paper form, and now I have to call them as well. Is BUPA a 21st–century customer–centric company which the look of their website, social media accounts, and slick marketing materials seem to be working so hard to portray? Or is BUPA some 18th century Byzantine bureaucracy?—which this Kafkaesque cancellation process so abundantly communicated to me.

I wish it ended there. From to date, I've been getting 2 missed calls from (03) 9003 4366 every day. Just missed calls, no voicemail. Of course, I got curious who this would–be caller is. That's 10 missed calls so far and counting. So I googled the number. Lo and behold! The website Reverse Australia Lookup revealed that it's a BUPA number. Other people have had the same missed calls as I did. Everyone who left a comment were not impressed. One person commented [sic]: Bupa customer service, they don,t like people dropping out of private health ins even tho i have printed off their forms ,filled them in and mailed them at their request. They are like a dog with a bone ,they just don,y want to give up. No wonder 302 out of 367 reviews at the Product Review website gave BUPA a Terrible rating.

Is this the modus operandi of big business all these years? (1) lure prospects into signing up with shiny offers; (2) screw them over as customers with underwhelming service while you happily charge them for the service; and (3) hound them to the ends of the earth when they try to cancel the service. It's no wonder 20–year–old college drop-outs are disrupting big business service industries left, right, and centre all over the world. Big business has been appalling in how it has been treating its customers. They got away it for so long because of a lack of competition within the cozy over-regulated environments they have been happily operating in (more often than not in cahoots with the government). Well: globalisation; internet commerce; and a proliferation of nimble start-ups nipping at the heels of these behemoths is starting to change all that. Hello Amazon, welcome to Australia.

It looks like the service designers at BUPA (if they have them) need to be reminded of keeping a balanced 5E's of the customer journey in service design: ENTICE, ENTER, ENGAGE, EXIT, and EXTEND. It seems that BUPA and other big businesses of its ilk have skewed their efforts heavily on Entice and Enter to the detriment of Engage, Exit, and Extend.

It's quite puzzling how common sense would dictate that it's more effective to keep existing customers happy and cultivate one's relationships with them than to convince new punters to try the service. Existing customers have already crossed the line. They have already been convinced to pay for the service. It's simply a matter of keeping them engaged and invested in the service. One would think that it's easier and more pleasant to do this than to come up with a never ending slew of gimmickry to lure newbies in.

It's a bit like spending all one's effort to get more water into a bucket when it would have been far simpler to plug the hole where the water is leaking out.

I guess this has to do with the way big business has traditionally compartmentalised its operations into competing departments. And in this turf war, sales and marketing has been dominant simply because it's much easier to measure how many new customers have been acquired than to measure the satisfaction of existing customers. Thus sales and marketing people has hitherto gotten all the spoils of war in terms of bonuses and commissions while the operations people who actually deliver the service to the customers are left to languish in envy. But I'll leave the discusssion of how this is an area begging for a radical redesign for another day.