How various communication techniques improve or hurt your relationships
[A]n understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of each type of communication can make all the difference in the ways we build relationships … .
By Paul Martin, CPCU
One constant challenge for professionals providing service to insurance customers is quality communication. From the first contact with a prospect and quoting policies to making policy changes, the circumstances involving a claim and, hopefully, years and years of renewals, communication is critical.
In addition to providing quality customer service throughout the customer lifecycle, communication is incredibly important to the insurance agent in terms of avoiding errors and omissions claims, which often hinge on quality communications.
Let’s consider several aspects of communication that can improve or hurt the customer service you deliver.
When email came on the scene in work settings during the 1990s, it seemed like a miracle. With a quick click of a mouse, a short or long letter could instantly be sent to an underwriter or a customer about practically any subject. This of course required both parties to be actively engaged with email, but everyone did eventually.
Attachments came later and added a whole new capability of communication. No longer were printed letters and mail required.
Email reduced costs. It was fast. It was excellent documentation of communication for both parties.
But here’s where its evolution took some not-so-great turns. Emails, and replies, and replies to the reply became a thing not everyone adapted to well. Many times, emails were crafted quickly without thought, almost like someone would respond in a conversation.
But written communication that is not well crafted can be ambiguous, or absent background and context. It can be easily misunderstood. If an email thread filled with misunderstanding goes on long enough, it can become a service liability—even to the point of creating hostility.
Considering all these issues, email continued to develop into something important. As the ability to include larger and larger attachments, and later URL links, email became the perfect information “truck.” It could carry more information than could immediately be read. But it could be stored, printed, and passed along.
The realization that email is awesome for some things and not for others is the first lesson to take away in quality communication.
In the old days, the phone was the way insurance professionals conducted instant communication with customers. The alternatives to the phone before the internet were mail or face-to-face meetings that needed to be planned.
The conversation details of phone calls between agents and customers needed to be documented in some way. First, they were captured with pen and paper, and later with cheaper computer storage, digital capture, and then recordings. The phone was and still is an important tool.
So why then is the telephone used in customer service less often than it was before?
It seems that email created some habits that were less than optimal. For example, a customer emails their agent late at night with a question about coverage on one of their policies given a stated loss scenario. The next day, the agent sees the question and responds with a lengthy email on how the coverage would likely respond.
That response may be fine, depending on the nature of the question; however, it’s often not that simple.
To properly respond to a serious coverage question, a properly written email response often takes much longer than would a much shorter phone conversation. It would need to lay out all the possible interpretations of the true meaning of the question, outlining the assumptions important to applying the policy language to the hypothetical claim scenario.
It’s as though agents have trained themselves to document the exchange rather than communicate properly.
Rather than spend 45 minutes crafting a brilliant email response to the question, the agent could phone the customer and engage in a conversation about their question. The conversation can be documented or captured in a variety of ways.
If concern regarding caveats and exceptions is important to the agent, they can develop canned safe language to include on every phone call, such as, “Remember, every policy has exclusions and conditions that apply, and I encourage you to read your policy and reach out to me if you have any questions.”
These habits in errors and omissions claims can be powerful testimony. Imagine the account manager on the witness stand saying, “Yes, I know I said that because I always say that on phone calls regarding a coverage question.”
One more word about phone calls. Every call is an opportunity to have a personal connection with that customer—to build upon the relationship. The agent may also learn new things important to servicing the account, even in the chit-chat.
The evolution of text messages has been interesting, and everyone has opinions about the advantages and disadvantages of this communication method.
At first blush, it wouldn’t seem to offer much to an industry like insurance, but time has shown us a few things. For example, insurance companies remind customers of important dates such as premium payments. They can provide important links to new services or reminders about how the customer can benefit from specific programs.
It can link to mobile apps that can process claims or underwriting data.
Text messaging has developed some of the advantages like email. It can be a truck, but it still doesn’t provide deep communication. It’s fast and convenient, but it’s not like talking. Not yet. The industry will continue to watch how it evolves.
Studies have shown that, even in the internet era, certain aspects of physical mail are valued by customers. Millions of people, for example, continue to want physical mail bills instead of internet bills. This is diminishing as older generations give way to younger ones, but there are still other advantages to physical mail.
It is something that the customer can hold in their hand and read. Sometimes over and over. It doesn’t require access to a computer or a phone. It is also “storable” in ways that are different than the digital copies everyone has become accustomed to.
One aspect of written communication that is overlooked is the value of handwritten correspondence. People open and read handwritten correspondence. They tend to keep it, as well.
Why? Perhaps because it’s more personal, and customers value a personal touch with others important to them. Is it that far from a handwritten note from an aunt or grandparent on a birthday?
We haven’t solved the challenges of communication techniques in today’s environment, but an understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of each type of communication can make all the difference in the ways we build relationships with customers.
Paul Martin, CPCU, is director of academic content at The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research headquartered in Austin, Texas. Paul works to develop, maintain, and deliver quality educational programs for the organization. Paul has over three decades in the insurance and risk management industry.