Independent research into customer service has found a high level of distrust of insurers, especially in dealing with claims. Against this background a panel of experts discusses the problems in customer relations

Chair: How is the insurance industry coping with rising customer expectations?

Tony Poulton: To some extent the insurance industry has been its own worst enemy in raising expectations against a background of customer who are more knowledgeable in terms of their rights. I don't believe insurers are investing sufficiently in the claims operation to deliver that promise. I wouldn't want to tar all insurers with the same brush, but we have seen claims operations in difficulty.

Chris Hannant: The claims process is one of the key things for insurers in their relationship with their customers. Across the board, customers are becoming more demanding, so the industry has a challenge in constantly trying to reach those rising expectations.

Angus Watson: The claim is the one place where you find out whether the insurer is a good insurer or a bad insurer, and most seem to be coping fairly well.

John Michael McLeavy: Customers will demand more and continue to demand more in the future, so we'd better get used to it.

Angela Darling: The problem with meeting expectations in many cases doesn't come from handling the claim but what the customer expects to receive from insurance. Insurers need to provide sufficient information to the customer when they take out the policy

Poulton: It's down to both insurer and customer to make sure they understand each other's expectations, and that the product being bought actually meets the requirement of the customer.

Chair: How realistic is it to expect extremely detailed policy advice at the point of sale?

Fergus Curran: I don't think it's an option not to. You've got to be as clear as you possibly can, and the difficulty is the sophistication of the products now and getting the message over clearly.

Darling: Insurers have done a good job in this area in the last few years by looking at their policy wordings.

Chair: Is there a problem with the skill levels of those dealing with customers?

Poulton: Claims handlers nowadays don't have the same skill level that they did five or ten years ago because of the drive to reduce transactional costs.

Darling: We sometimes find if there is a question of policy wording, that staff aren't adequately trained and competent enough to make decisions.

Watson: Communication with customers that is key to making sure that the claims handling process goes smoothly, and you need to train staff for that. We've got to prepare our claims handlers in terms of giving them the back-up and the training. At the end of the day the customer experience will be down to that telephone call and the conversation they've had.

Poulton: We need to give claims handlers at the sharp end more accountability and the ability to be more freethinking in the way that they handle claims.

Chair: What is the future role for the intermediary in service standards?

Fergus Curran: A lot of intermediaries are affinity groups that aren't going to recommend you unless you are providing a reasonable service. Brokers, intermediaries and affinities all have the role in making sure services are up to scratch.

Padraic Mills: The broker has to add value somewhere along the chain. The key part that the broker can do is provide advice.

Chair: Does outsourcing have a role in the customer's perception of service?

Watson: There is a place for third party administration (TPA) outsourcing. It's finding the balance that suits you best as an organisation. There are all sorts of opportunities to look at things objectively and try a better and smarter ways to do them, which will often involve a TPA.

Darling: The initial reporting of the claim might be something that insurers think could go to a call centre in India, whereas other aspects of a claim may not while maintaining service standards.

Curran: What you are seeing is increased experimentation with people trying outsourcing. It's too early to tell what effect it will have on service standards.

Chair: What challenges does the industry face over automation and the use of technology with regards to service standards?

Watson: Technology must be there to help the human being deliver the service as opposed to substituting the human being. You will never get to the point where that process is so tightly defined that it can be delivered by technology.

Hannant: Claims handling needs a combination of the two, people and technology.

The panel:- Chair - Sean Gough, Lighthouse- Angela Darling, GISC head of policy- Terry Poulton, Claims Group, client service manager- Padraic Mills, AXA UK, IT director for AXA in Dublin- John Michael McAleavy, Filenet UK, responsible for UK insurance business- Fergus Curran, Cox Claims Management, managing director- Angus Watson, Hiscox Insurance Company, claims adjustment services manager- Chris Hannant, ABI, head of market regulations specialist lines- Chris Blaik, Filenet UK, market