Customer Service Focus

Conversations vs. inquisitions

Making clients feel special

By By Linda M. Faulkner, CIC

As insurance professionals, we focus on information and details: underwriting criteria, premium rates, policy language, state insurance regulations, and a thousand other items.

We collect underwriting data from prospects to determine what risks we're willing and able to insure. Then we complete a great quantity of paperwork to transform an eligible risk into a premium-paying policyholder. Once we've acquired premium-paying clients, we encourage them to continue paying their premiums, which requires focusing on still more information and details.

How can we focus simultaneously on people and the gathering of information essential to the insurance transactions we effect during the course of a workday? How can we build relationships at the same time we build our books of business, our reputations for being professional insurance agents, and our annual revenues?

The answer is simple: We must separate ourselves from our competition and swap cookie-cutter inquisitions for unique conversations, conversations based on the specific qualities of the individual persons with whom we interact.

"What?" you may be thinking. "I don't conduct inquisitions! I ask questions that require answers for me to do my job."

Well, think again. Let's compare a hypothetical inquisition with a hypothetical conversation.

Inquisition (Sue is the CSR):

Prospect: Hello, I'd like a quote for my 2008 Ford Taurus.

Sue: Are you a current client?

Prospect: No, I'm not. My mother is and she suggested I call.

Sue: Okay, do you have your own insurance policy now?

Prospect: No, I don't.

Sue: Are you listed as an operator on anyone else's policy?

Prospect: I don't know. I may be listed on my ex-husband's policy.

Sue: Have you ever had any accidents, moving violations, or license suspensions?

Prospect: No, never. I have a clean driving record.

Sue: How long have you been driving?

Prospect: Since I was seventeen.

Sue: How old are you now?

Prospect: Twenty-one.

Sue: Do you know what coverages and limits you want?

Prospect: I only want state minimums.

Sue: Okay. Do you have a loan on the car? Do you need collision and comprehensive?

Conversation (Jane is the CSR):

Prospect: Hello, I'd like a quote for my 2008 Ford Taurus.

Jane: Lucky you, I'm just the person to help you with that. May I ask your name?

Prospect: Melinda Smith.

Jane: Hi, Melinda. What made you decide to call our agency instead of all the other agencies you could have called?

Prospect: My mother has insurance with you. She suggested I call.

Jane: That's terrific! We love to receive referrals. Do you mind giving me your mother's name? We make a point of sending thank-you notes to people who send us referrals.

Prospect: Her name's Debra Tucker. She said she's been a client for years. I think her agent's Shelley, but the receptionist said Shelley's on vacation.

Jane: Yes, Shelley's out and I'm handling her clients while she's away. Although I don't know your mother personally, Melinda, I'm happy to help you. Why don't you tell me about yourself and why you want insurance for your Ford Taurus?

Prospect: I just got divorced and need to get my own insurance policy. According to what my lawyer said, my husband's insurance is only good through the end of the month.

Jane: What do you know about your current auto insurance, Melinda? Did you handle it or did your ex-husband handle it?

Prospect: He handled everything. I've never done this before, but I know I want state minimums.

Jane: Why is that?

Prospect: I'm sure that's all I can afford. I'm a single mother now, with a two-year-old.

Jane: Your financial picture is very important when you choose auto insurance coverages. Has anyone ever explained to you how auto insurance works, Melinda, or about the different types of coverages you can buy?

Do you understand the differences between the two exchanges—and the different results each CSR netted?

Jane immediately established a bond with Melinda by asking her name, showing interest in why she called, and asking who referred her. By asking open-ended questions, Jane encouraged Melinda to volunteer information. And, when Melinda volunteered information, she provided important details for which Jane did not have to ask questions.

Melinda volunteered that she was divorced, on a tight budget, and that she had virtually no knowledge of insurance or how the process of obtaining auto insurance went.

Sue, on the other hand, grilled Melinda. She also indicated absolutely no interest in Melinda as a unique individual; Sue didn't even ask Melinda her name! All she communicated was a desire to obtain information, as quickly as possible, in order to determine Melinda's eligibility for auto insurance. Sue asked the same questions every other CSR at every other agency asked Melinda when she called around for competitive quotes.

The reason Sue was less successful in eliciting information is primarily because she asked short, specific questions that elicited short, specific answers. They allowed Melinda little room for volunteering information—or even believing volunteered information was welcome.

When CSRs engage prospects and clients in inquisitions, they establish a tone of quick, to-the-point exchanges. These inquisitions give the impression that no information other than that sought by specific questions is needed or wanted.

When CSRs engage prospects and clients in conversations, they create relaxed atmospheres and encourage open discussion. It's far easier to obtain accurate information when asking for a narrative instead of a yes/no or specific answer.

If a CSR asks, "Tell me about the last accident you had," she's far more likely to get accurate, truthful information than if she asks, "Have you had any accidents in the last three years?" Why? Well, first of all, most people don't remember the dates of their car accidents. They do, however, remember the details.

For example, I was rear-ended recently—sometime within the past four months. I couldn't tell you the date without referring to my calendar. I do remember, however, that it happened on a Friday afternoon, after work, on my way to the hairdresser, at the corner of Dennis and County Streets. If I don't remember the date now, two or three months since the accident happened, can I really be expected to remember the date two or three years from now? But I remembered the details, didn't I? And, two years from now those details will tell my CSR a whole lot more than my "no" answer will when it seems as though the accident happened five years before.

We must always remember that our clients want to feel important. They want to know they're special. When CSRs conduct conversations instead of inquisitions, it seems as if they turn conversational control over to the client, which is exactly how to make the client feel important and special. The client has the conversational control—which is precisely what he or she wants. At the same time, the client gives you lots of information—which is precisely what you want!

The next time a client asks you to provide an auto insurance quote, instead of asking what coverages and limits he or she wants, ask: "What would you like your auto insurance policy to do for you?" The client certainly won't mistake you for a cookie-cutter CSR, or someone who doesn't care.

And you might actually engage the client in a beneficial conversation about insurance.

The author

Linda M. Faulkner, CIC, is a licensed insurance producer and consultant, and a member of the Certified Insurance Service Representative (CISR) faculty. She writes insurance continuing education seminars, workshops, and online courses for Faulkner Education Services and several national insurance organizations. For information on the CIC or CISR program, call (800) 633-2165 or go to:


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