Improved training and treating staff well can create key routes to increased sales and sustainable profits

I’m a big fan of

technology. Insurers have invested significantly in systems that have speeded transactions and put brokers in the driving seat, but it hasn’t stopped many of them complaining about the service.

Even more depressing, perhaps, is that it is the same old complaints that I hear about the underwriting fraternity: we’re slow to respond, elusive when called on to make decisions, and we rarely return calls. In other words, good though we are at processing business, we still have a way to go to deliver service through helpful people who interact intelligently with our customers.

Fortunately, change is on the way: there is a growing recognition in the boardroom that great service is what turns customers into promoters of your company. The new focus comes from the idea that strong customer relations builds a path to sustainable profitability. As Jan Carlzon, the legendary chief executive of Scandinavian Airlines, once said: “We have 50,000 moments of truth every day.” He was referring to each time an employee came into contact with a customer.

Having a clear vision of precisely what the customer wants is a prerequisite of delivering good service, so we need to listen. For years, police chiefs in New York thought the only way to build public confidence and satisfaction was to cut the murder rate: they made no headway whatsoever; in fact, things got worse. Then it was discovered that one of the biggest public concerns was travelling on the subway. A blitz on small but manageable issues followed: controlling litter and tackling antisocial behaviour. Officers were told to travel on the subway and interact with the public. By putting themselves in the shoes of their customers, a dramatic turnaround was achieved.

Listening to customers and staff is fundamental to shifting the balance in customer service. There’s no point in developing sophisticated IT and CRM systems if employees aren’t trained to use them. There’s no long-term value in staff acquiring skills without the career-development that will move people into effective positions.

That’s why at Towergate induction training, staff surveys and competency frameworks play a key role. We are introducing ‘job family’ frameworks that clearly outline what each person needs to get from one level to another. We undertake surveys to measure employee satisfaction and this year we’ve set up a roadshow to show staff the actions taken in response to their suggestions.

As the manager of a youth football team in North London, I see my role as working with players to improve. My challenge is to get everybody at Towergate asking themselves the same question every day: “Where have I provided great service?” I get people to look at John Lewis and Pret A Manger, where the most important driver in staff selection and promotion is how helpful employees can be. This creates a virtuous circle, and ultimately increases sales and profits.

Customers will always respond positively to dealing with well-trained people, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the value of the best delivery systems. It is, perhaps, about the balance between going forward with flair and getting behind the bal

l. But maybe that’s a metaphor too far in these football-saturated days. IT

Clive Nathan is chief executive of Towergate Underwriting.