Against a backdrop of stricter lockdown restrictions, brokers tell Insurance Times that they are unimpressed with insurer service as some have ’attempted to shirk their responsibility’

From 17 October, the UK introduced a regional, tiered lockdown programme, designed to mitigate the spread of coronavirus using a series of measures that aligned with the number of cases in each locality.

Many northern areas, such as Greater Manchester, Lancashire and South Yorkshire, are in the highest risk tier, tier three, meaning that individuals have to adhere to a severe tightening of the lockdown regime.

The stricter measures imposed as part of tier three in the north has had a knock-on effect to brokers operating in this part of the country. Of concern, however, is that many Northern brokers are “disappointed” with the service being provided from their insurer partners at this time.

For example, Barry Thompson, director at Thompson Brokers, member of Compass Networks and former president of the Manchester CII, told Insurance Times that he was “a little disappointed with the service levels of some of our insurers”.

He continued: “They weren’t the greatest before this situation and I can’t help but think it has given them the opportunity to hide behind this as an excuse when really more personnel are required to give the service levels brokers deserve.”

This view is shared by Yvonne McKnight, co-owner, operations and marketing director at Affinity Brokers and Broker Network member councillor for the Scotland region.

She said that she expects “a much better service than is being offered now”.

“We had sympathy for insurers at the beginning of the pandemic given the lack of infrastructure in place, but it’s now [eight] months later and the service levels have not improved.

”It’s worrying given there are no signs insurers will be returning to their offices any time soon,” she added.

“Hard market conditions mean brokers need earlier engagement from underwriters and more contact with insurer [business development managers], not less.

“The insurance industry’s reputation has taken a beating and we need insurers to work with brokers in partnership to try and re-build trust with clients.”

She believes the dip in insurer service could be linked to a “lack of infrastructure” for homeworking.

She explained: “I think brokers are coping far better with the lockdown restrictions than insurers have.

”With insurers, it appears there was a lack of infrastructure to operate from home effectively and as a result the service levels have reduced greatly - it’s been pretty poor.

“Brokers have been able to adapt more quickly as we tend to be smaller organisations. There has been little impact on broker service levels or availability.”

Romero Insurance Brokers managing director for commercial insurance Simon Mabb emphasised that insurers need to “work alongside us rather than against us” during this lockdown squeeze, adding that he expects “fairness” from insurer partners – “it’s something they’re committed to in theory, but that many have avoided in practice”, he added.

Mabb continued: “Business interruption cover is a topic that will no doubt loom over us for many months to come. And whilst some insurers have done the right thing, many have attempted to shirk their responsibility.

“As a clients’ representative, it’s our job as a broker to hold insurers to account and make sure they deliver on their promises.

“Our simple expectation is that insurers continue to work alongside us rather than against us, be flexible and understanding and do the best for the most important people – our policyholders – wherever restrictions hit.”

Some insurers, however, are using brokers as their “eyes and ears” when it comes to identifying clients’ needs, especially as fluctuating lockdown rules once again cause businesses to close their doors.

Michelle Taylor, head of regional trading and distribution at Zurich, explained: “Even in these unprecedented times, insurance remains an advice-led industry and our broker partners are still our eyes and ears into what the customers need.

“As the environment and rules of how we work and live are constantly changing, so are the pressures and needs of the UK’s SMEs and broker advice remains key in managing and servicing those.”

Hospitality hit

There is a consensus among brokers as to the clients that are requiring the most help to navigate the tough tier restrictions and national lockdown.

Neil Thornton, managing director for retail at GRP, cited “the leisure sector, high street retail and taxis” as hard-hit sectors, while Taylor listed “hospitality and leisure and non-essential retail”.

McKnight added that “pubs, restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions have been hit badly” and that many of her clients are feeling “frustration, disappointment, resignation”.

Thompson agreed, noting that many of his hospitality sector clients “are very worried about the future of their businesses”.

Referencing the “night-time, leisure and hospitality industry”, Mabb continued that “countless studies have shown that traceable infections from this sector hover around 3% to 4%, making it one of the smallest risks. Yet we’ve seen the sector hammered with some of the hardest restrictions”.

He added: “Our biggest concern lies with our more vulnerable clients, who are powerless against some of the more draconian and unfair restrictions imposed upon them without scientific backing.

“Sadly, there are some clients so throttled by government restrictions that they may struggle to survive without more help. That’s why we’re working tirelessly to support them through the toughest restrictions.”

Business booming?

IT, working

Despite the hospitality sector struggling as a result of the lockdown measures, Barry Thompson, director at Thompson Brokers, noted that technology businesses are instead seeing the upside of a greater demand for digital services.

He said: “We insure an IT company whose business is booming and they realise how lucky they are whilst feeling sorry for hotels, bars and restaurants that are always going to be the first hit due to the social aspect of their businesses.”

However, Simon Mabb, managing director for commercial insurance at Romero Insurance Brokers, emphasised that “no sector has been left untouched by restrictions and it’s important not to forget this and make sure everyone gets the support and reassurance they need”.

Essential communications

But what does this support from brokers look like? Primarily, it comes down to maintaining trusted relationships and delivering regular, effective communications between insurer and broker, broker and client.

GRP’s Thornton said: “The latest restrictions come at a challenging time for many businesses that are struggling with the hardening market across many commercial lines.

“In an ideal world, our people would be working through the implications of higher premiums face-to-face with our clients. The uncertainty they are facing is exacerbated by other factors such as Brexit and the downturn in the economy.

“It underlines the value of the deep and long-term relationships we have with our clients and that we have given them early warning of the increases in rate we’re now seeing.”

Thompson added that reaching out to clients can also help with mental wellbeing, by providing regular and consistent socialising.

He said: “We have a diary system to make sure we reach out to all our commercial clients at regular intervals.

“It might be just to pass the time of day, but people at this time need to know they have support and we can provide that.

“A friendly ear is essential as I fear the mental health of our whole nation is being affected by this terrible disease and we must all play our part in helping one another through it.

”I think it has given us an opportunity to nurture our relationships and prove that brokers have an important part to play in people’s lives.

“Perhaps when we come out of this terrible time the powers that be will reassess and concentrate on the most important factor of our Industry, which is the people.”

McKnight, on the other hand, is utilising more digital means to support her client base, including holding online meetings via platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

“Brokers, like us, are investing in digital services so clients can access information 24/7. These include access to risk management portals and e-services,” she explained.

Romero Insurance Brokers has decided to re-vamp its claims operation in response to meeting clients’ needs during the pandemic. This includes the launch of its ‘Claims Service of Excellence’ to enable claims to be dealt with in-house.

“At a time when there are so many uncertainties, being able to offer the certainty that our clients always have someone in their corner, we’ve found, has been reassuring and invaluable for our clients,” Mabb added.

From the insurer perspective, Taylor added: “As insurers, we must provide the clear communication, speed, capacity and agility that brokers require from us to deliver good customer outcomes in these uncertain times.

“While short-term interventions such as payment breaks and support for mid-term adjustments on cover might be helpful for some, we need to stay focused on delivering long-term.

”This requires us to listen to broker and customers’ needs and feedback, using technology and digital capabilities to aid the servicing process, including being available and responsive through a variety of channels, such as online platforms, live chats and telephony and via our regional network.

“Now more than ever it’s important for us to provide efficiency and access to support brokers when they need us the most.”

Goodbye face to face

Although a mainstay of the broking profession is networking and relationship building – primarily via face-to-face meetings – this has been hampered by the Covid-19 restrictions around social distancing, affecting how brokers conduct their business.

video call

Yvonne McKnight, co-owner, operations and marketing director at Affinity Brokers and Broker Network member councillor for the Scotland region, said that her business has had to close its office once more due to the restrictions in her area.

She said: “We had just re-opened our office and all staff returned; we were carrying out face-to-face meetings with clients again; it wasn’t ‘normal’, but it felt like we were moving forward.

“Unfortunately, with the tighter restrictions being reintroduced we have taken the decision to temporarily close our office again and reduce face-to-face client meetings. In-person meetings are only held when absolutely necessary.”

For Barry Thompson, director at Thompson Brokers and a member of Compass Networks, digital communications are simply not as effective.

He explained: “Our skill set is built on trust, integrity and close relationships built up over years and meeting your client is a key element of that process.

“Yes, we can Zoom and FaceTime, but nothing replaces that personal contact that makes us stand out in our businesses.”