Claims advocates can guide customers through the unfamiliar and sometimes painful process of a claim
“The insurance industry says it wants to help the client through the claim process, but it does a terrible job.”
That’s an odd statement coming from a successful, service-oriented independent agent. After all, independent agents pride themselves on maintaining relationships based on service. And that is usually the case, says the quoted agent—except when it comes to claims.
That statement also might readily be echoed by frustrated clients when they suddenly find themselves facing a life-changing experience that results from an accident, damage to or destruction of property, or an act of God.
“Why do I get shoved off to the carrier’s 800 number whenever I call with a claim?” queries one client. “Where is my agent in all this?” “Seems like he cares about me only when things are going well,” complains another. “The company adjuster knows nothing about me. Why isn’t my agent handling this?” laments another.
Too often, in the eyes of the client, when a claim occurs the agent simply gathers information and then hands the client off to the company claims adjuster, sometimes with a quick “Call me if you have a problem.”
“All the time the agent is hoping that there isn’t a problem and that the customer won’t call back,” says Eric Most, CPIA, co-owner, vice president and chief marketing officer of Tampa, Florida-based Most Insurance, which was honored as the Rough Notes Agency of the Month in May 2013.
According to Eric’s brother, Craig Most, CIC, CPIA, who also is a principal of the multi-site agency, that’s where the trouble starts. Clients feel abandoned and shunted off to an unknown entity in a sometimes distant place. That’s necessary, of course; checking out the events and determining coverage is the job of an adjuster who in all likelihood works from another location. Agents want to help their clients, but “they’re terrified of claims, because they don’t want to offend the carrier,” says Craig. It’s a kind of Catch-22.
To the Mosts, what seemed to be needed was a dedicated individual—a claims advocate—who could lead the client through the unfamiliar and sometimes painful process of a claim, from beginning to end. That person would be responsible for informing the client of what will happen; presenting a timeline; communicating with, informing, and even challenging the carrier if it denies a portion of coverage; then reporting back to the client.
Throughout the entire process, the claims advocate would hold the client’s hand, making sure that everything keeps moving until “they’re whole again. We treat our clients as we would treat our own mothers, and work to make them whole again,” says Craig. This helps to build a closer relationship between the agent and the insured.
Empathy is a key word in the agency’s lexicon. The Most agency has morphed this concept into its brand: Most Insurance Cares. Craig observes, “An 800 number is intimidating and unfriendly. The adjuster is methodical, but not necessarily warm in his or her approach to settling a claim.” Working from a remote location and not personally knowing the client makes for a “just the facts, ma’am” situation. On the other hand, the claims advocate can ask, “Are you okay?” and begin the process, all the time sharing with the client what is to be expected.
At the other corner of the country, the same philosophy prevails in the offices of Parker, Smith & Feek (PS&F), the 2008 Rough Notes Agency of the Year. Based in Bellevue, Washington, PS&F also has offices in Portland, Oregon, and Anchorage, Alaska, and is one of the 50 largest independent insurance brokers in the country.
The agency has a private client group that serves high-net-worth individuals in its territories. According to PS&F Vice President, and Marketing and Communications Director Melissa Willhite, “As a privately held organization, we handle all of our clients with the same level of importance.” Walking a client through the entire path of a claim is a given. Even before the specific title of claims advocate was created, our company had emphasized this concept.”
Claims Supervisor Patty Mort, herself a claims advocate, says, “Our philosophy is to stay in touch with clients and make sure that their experience is a good one.” Communication with the insured is a top priority, and it results in time efficiency. “It’s better to spend time up front gathering the necessary facts to facilitate the claim process,” she emphasizes.
PS&F’s departments function in a team atmosphere. According to Private Client Group Manager Currie Baker, Patty informs the personal lines staff of the claims that are in process. They can then help determine if there are gaps in coverage and “create bridges,” Patty says. “They’re aware at all times. They know what team member needs to be involved, and all are jointly responsible for the satisfaction of the client.”
Many PS&F private client group clients also own or hold executive positions with firms that obtain their commercial insurance and employee benefits from the brokerage. These individuals expect nothing less than the same customer experience they receive in the servicing of their insurance programs. “A client’s experience across all departments should feel seamless,” Currie says. “Internal communication is critical to keep all stakeholders abreast of any activity.”
The Most brothers believe that team members at their agency see the word “advocate” as a beacon, calling them to “do the right thing.” “Do unto others” plays well there, they say. As with the advocate, all employees look out for someone else’s well-being, they explain, and all profit from being held to a high standard.
Because all members of the staff are included in the advocacy process, they can use information they pick up from one customer’s claim—or their response to a claim—as a way to encourage another customer to add coverage or increase limits. This sometimes is accomplished subtly, says Craig, by using stories, like: “When Mrs. Jones included this coverage in her policy, Chuck, I immediately thought of you. It might make you feel safer if you included it too. If you were to have a claim, there would be a higher level of financial protection.” This friendly approach helps to build a closer relationship between employees and insureds.
A win for the agency
What does an agency gain from this claims advocate/team effort? According to Craig, first of all, “It lowers loss ratios.” It also aids in retention and referrals, he notes. In addition, he says, “An agency often will receive better treatment from its carriers because they know that the advocate is informing and questioning to protect and insulate the client.”
Patty says PS&F also has profited from the claims advocate program. Retention, reputation, lasting relationships, and employee pride in client service are among the key benefits. In addition, she says, “The response from clients is positive.”
Not surprisingly, some of hose clients are PS&F employees—from all departments and locations. And those employees have claims. “When they do, and when they experience first hand the advocate-based service we offer, they become even stronger walking, talking billboards for the company,” she notes.
According to Craig, the Mosts have made—or are making—changes within their agency, based on insights they’ve gained through the claims advocate program.
First, the agency is streamlining and automating the survey it asks clients to fill out once they’ve gone through the claims process. “We’re doing that to make it more likely that clients will fill it out,” Craig notes. “Our ultimate hope is that clients will affirm that we’ve succeeded in treating them the way we would want to be treated if we were in the same position.”
The agency also is creating a pocket guide that will explain to customers how the claims process generally goes. “Among other things, it will explain what to do and what happens,” he adds.
The agency also has become more diligent about sharing information broadly among its employees. “Cross-training other employees helps more people build good relationships with policyholders,” Craig says. “In the Monday morning calls we hold with all of our offices, we share information on some claims that have happened. Shared stories arm all employees to look for areas in which they can improve the agency/client relationship.”
Alice Ashby Roettger is a freelance writer and editorial assistant at Rough Notes magazine.