A muscular window-cleaner winches his way up the building, past an office full of delighted young women on their morning break. Sound like the Diet Coke ad? That means a job well done for AXA Assistance's concierge service, which was asked by a wealthy chief executive to recreate the famous scene for his daughter's 21st birthday surprise.
The concierge service, part of AXA Assistance's “lifestyle” section, even found the actor from the original television commercial to take part in the stunt. But assignments can get tougher than this.
“Can you arrange for Omar Sharif to play bridge with my mother?” was just one unusual request.
Lifestyle services may sound light-hearted, but they play a serious part in AXA Assistance's business, which includes the usual roadside assistance, provision of plumbers for burst pipes and massages for occupational health problems.
As strategy and marketing director Di Stafford points out, people are becoming busier and a company that helps them manage their time by providing add-on services will pull ahead of the market. She predicts assistance companies will begin to place greater emphasis on this type of service.
AXA Group formed the company in May by amalgamating subsidiaries Inter Partner Assistance (IPA), Access 24 and Medical and Industrial Services (MIS) but has only just officially announced the merger, having opened its headquarters in Redhill.
“We held back from announcing the merger until we had all the legal work done,” Stafford says.
AXA Assistance's new managing director, Elena Miguens, previously general manager of IPA, was instrumental in merging the companies. She says: “Prior to the merger, we identified enormous synergy between the three operations, particularly in the area of health.”
Miguens, who set up IPA's Buenos Aires office and worked there for nine years, is very experienced in repatriation issues, another important area for AXA Assistance. The company has glowing references from travel assistance customers, including one man whose 70-year-old mother fractured her leg after falling down a flight of stairs in Pakistan and had to be returned to London.
“Even arriving back at Heathrow, the paramedic who met us at the airport was extremely helpful and drove her straight back to my mother's home, helping her inside and to the living room. What was amazing was that he didn't even ask for directions – he seemed to know the route door-to-door,” he said.
Miguens has touted greater efficiencies and enhanced assistance products and services. As a result, Stafford says other assistance companies are watching to see what AXA Assistance produces. “I think they saw IPA as a bit of a sleeping giant, because it was good at keeping existing accounts but not good at chasing new business,” she says.
“AXA Assistance wants to grow and, as part of that restructuring, we've put more of an emphasis on business development. Assistance traditionally has been a fairly unexciting market and we want to redefine that.”
AXA Assistance's competitors say they are not yet concerned by the merger, but will be interested in any changes in the company's strategy.
First Assist general manager Christina Fairclough says: “I can't see any evidence that there are going to be any major changes. You can never say never, but it would have to be an idea so earth-shattering that none of the other assistance companies had thought of it.”
Mondial special projects manager Peter Nott says IPA has always been sizable and the merger has only brought in “some minor players”, thus making little change to market dynamics.
“I wouldn't envisage it will have any foreseeable effect on the assistance market,” he says. “If it changed its focus or plan, almost anything could happen, though I've seen no sign of that.”
AXA Assistance client development director Simon Hancox says no changes will be made immediately.
“We'd like to get our operations working as effectively and efficiently as we can before we go out and hit the market in terms of larger players, but we'd be looking at our insurer, financial services and travel market relationships,” he says.
“The breadth of our service is probably wider than most other people can offer – we have motor, property, travel, lifestyle, employee assistance, occupational health, legal, medical information and health and safety.”
AXA Assistance already provides the NHS call centres with triage software and has deals to provide motor and property assistance to several big insurers. It offers assistance on the back of Thomas Cook's travel insurance and has a joint venture arrangement with the Home Service (GB) to provide utility and property assistance.
It will operate as a white-label provider to insurers and continue to use the IPA name where underwriting is involved, because it is still the legal underwriting entity in the UK.
It has 37 offices worldwide, but will concentrate on Europe, where it expects business to grow with the introduction of the European Council's fourth Motor Directive.
“The directive says that, if insured vehicles travel abroad, the insurer needs proper representation in those countries and we can provide that,” Hancox says.