’Working for an insurance company – specifically in claims – allowed me to apply my law degree,’ says chief claims officer

The circumstances of James Nicholson’s entry into the insurance industry will be a rarity to many readers. Unlike the vast majority who stumbled into the sector, he deliberately chose a career in insurance with the intention of “understanding customer needs” in the claims space.

Nicholson made the choice as he was intrigued by the “opportunities” a “big insurance company” could provide a young law graduate like himself.

At the beginning of 2023, he assumed the role of chief claims officer for Zurich UK and recently shared the details of his career journey – from graduate scheme to leading the claims department – with Insurance Times.

Explaining his decision to enter insurance, he says: “After going traveling, I decided that I didn’t want to pursue my Legal Practice Course (LPC) and become a solicitor.

“My goal was to work for a large corporate company that would provide me with opportunities. So, I applied to two graduate programs – Aldi and Zurich.”

With a hint of humour, he reflects on the decision he had to make between the graduate programs offered by the two firms, noting that Zurich was the superior choice due to alluring career opportunities.

“I ultimately joined Zurich because working for an insurance company – specifically in claims – allowed me to apply my law degree,” he says.

“I have always enjoyed and continue to enjoy extracting technical nuances from claims and applying legal principles.

“There are a significant number of legal principles involved and when I think about the team I work with, their ability to interpret insurance policies and apply legal principles in line with court decisions is unmatched.”

Learning customer needs

As part of his journey, Nicholson assumed the role of head of expert and commercial claims in February 2017 as part of a transformation within Zurich’s claims department.

It was at this time that he met Zurich’s UK head of retail David Nichols, who became a mentor to him.

Nichols was UK chief claims officer back then and his mentorship, alongside the experience Nicholson gained, was where he gained an understanding of the importance of meeting customer needs in the claims process.

Nicholson explains: “I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience from working alongside David.

“His working style was exceptional and we shared a mindset focused on continuous improvement, reshaping and modernising our approach to claims.

“I was primarily dealing with expert claims at the time, which had limitations in terms of modernisation possibilities. However, we found ways to make improvements, particularly in areas such as quantifying losses and facilitating payments.

“We maintained strong communication and collaboration with our customers, embedding large loss scenario workshops into our approach. This allowed us to gain a comprehensive understanding of the factors driving our customers’ needs.”

Throughout his career, Nicholson has valued mentorship and collaboration to achieve continuous improvement in the claims sector.

He notes that something he has maintained throughout his career is a desire to “understand [claims] at a customer level, before putting process changes in place”.”

Nicholson says that he always keeps the question “how do we continuously improve and modernise the claims process?” at the forefront of his mind.

Claims in 2024

As the new year approaches, Nicholson switches from talking about what he has learnt in his career to what he believes will constitute the future of the claims space.

As an important part of understanding customer needs in the claims process, he stresses the importance of investigating fraudulent claims in a “speedy way” so as the “customer is not left hanging.”

Earlier this year in June, police warned that there has been a rise in bogus insurance claims amid cost of living pressures.

The Insurance Fraud Enforcement Department (Ifed) revealed that opportunistic insurance fraud cases rose 61% year-on-year.

Unfortunately, Nicholson believes that the cost of living crisis will “drive more activity” in the fraudulent claims space in the new year.

“We have seen an increase of fraudulent claims over the last two years,” he notes.

Zurich detected a 31% increase in fraudulent property claims during the year and a 7% rise in fake casualty claims.

However, the insurer reported that it prevented some 3,460 fraudulent claims last year. These prevented fraudulent cases were worth roughly £20,000 per claim – equivalent to an average of £195,890 per day.

Zurich is using digital tools to battle the uprise in fraudulent claims and is investing in new software to uncover fraudsters who attempt to hide their identity by providing false name or address details.

Nicholson explained that the insurer is utilising technology as part of a Net Reveal Property and Casualty (P&C) Claims Fraud Solution.

Net Reveal is part of British multinational firm Arms, Security and Aerospace (BAE) System and analyses vast amounts of data when assessing how to proceed with various matters.

“Zurich has the capacity to identify fraudulent claims and it is top level,” finishes Nicholson.