Communication is an important tool for a company to use in a variety of situations. from selling to legal explanations. Kate Foreman explains how specific skills will improve information flow and comply with the GISC rules

Hard skills and soft skills are terms often used, but seldom really defining what we actually mean by them. Selling could be termed a `hard' skill; it is necessary to have to compete in the commercial world. But selling is not a skill in itself, it comprises a number of component skills which include: having adequate technical and product knowledge; negotiating; presentation; telephone use; listening; and questioning.

All but the first are examples of the soft skills needed to succeed in selling. The last two are, in fact components of what are often described as communication skills.

Let's look at communication skills as an example of how soft skills aren't just a bonus to your firm, but an essential element of staying ahead in business.

The fact that humans communicate in such a complex way is one of the main features that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. However, we shouldn't feel too smug, because we often don't communicate very effectively at all.

So how do we know when we are not communicating effectively? Well, in the insurance business the answer is that we often find ourselves in litigation with a customer or an insurance provider. Stop and think about the some of the reasons why we don't communicate well:

  • We don't think about the message that we want to convey;
  • We don't consider who the message is intended for;
  • We don't think about the language that we use;
  • We assume that people will understand what we mean;
  • We omit or add details that might change the meaning of what we say;
  • We leave people with the wrong impression.

    How does this relate to the insurance business? Are we being clear in explaining the effects of a warranty, or an exclusion or a waiting period? What if we are using jargon? The GISC rules are very clear: "...we will...make sure that all the information we give you is clear, fair and not misleading." [Section C GISC code for private customers, our commitments, 1.1].

    Make assumptions
    The code also makes it clear that we may only make assumptions or take into account prior knowledge of terms and conditions when the customer is a commercial one. [Section D the commercial code, practice notes No 9] and even then we must not assume too much. Only recently in Court a judge questioned whether the words "condition precedent" were sufficient to convey the effect of such a term.

    Stop and think for a moment. Have you ever actively trained any of your staff in the art of good communication? We tend to assume that if an individual is: (a) good enough to have got the job and (b) continues to be good enough to still be doing it then their ability to communicate must be good.

    This may be so, but the likelihood is that there is room for improvement. Also, don't forget that you (and maybe other members of staff) may be responsible in future for the assessment of competence in others and this is an area where the ability to communicate effectively is vital.

    Listening skills
    Think about who, in your opinion, is the best chat show host on television. And the worst. Now try to identify the difference between the two. The answer invariably lies in the interviewer's skill of listening and encouraging response and openness.

    If you want your customer to disclose any potentially relevant information, you need to listen to what they're not saying and encourage further thought on their part. This simple activity is often called `active listening'. It isn't something that most of us do very often; you may be preparing your next question or response, or you might even be considering what you're going to have for lunch. It is an essential part of effective communication that we learn how to focus on listening.

    In ancient Greece a gentleman called Zeto of Citium said: "We have two eyes, two ears and one mouth and we should learn to use them in that order".

    Non-verbal communication
    `It's not just what you say, it's how you say it' has always been true. Research has shown that over 90% of our impact is accounted for by voice, tone and appearance and only 7% is down to what you actually say. Gestures and expressions are deemed to be eight times more powerful than the actual words that you use.

    Couple this with a multi-cultural society, where gestures and expressions can have alternative meanings and you begin to realise the impact of non-verbal communication.

    Questioning skills
    The ability to ask the right question in order to elicit accurate information is critical to good business in insurance. Therapists, detectives and doctors all use this skill (some more effectively than others). There are a variety of questioning techniques, but generally there are closed questions - questions that ask for specific information, and open questions - questions that encourage expanded information.

    When might they be appropriate? Well, closed questioning should be used to gain specific, factual information - dates of birth for example. They are also used to `steer' a conversation. You might want to elicit accurate claims information and asking a question that requires a yes or no answer should be your first approach.

    However, you will probably want to follow it through with an open question, where you want to know as much detail as possible, either because the customer has answered yes to the question, or because you think that they may not have understood you or there is something in your experience that tells you that this is not the full picture of the risk or the customer.

    If we consider questioning in the context of the GISC Regulatory Code, we have a duty to ensure that we know our customers well enough to be able to either offer them the most appropriate policy, or identify that we cannot fulfil their requirements.

    Only by gathering information through a grasp of non-verbal skills and active listening and questioning can we hope to achieve this and to make a fair presentation of the risk.

    This week's questions
    As we identified at the beginning of this article, the whole issue of soft skills is a large one, but by identifying the areas that are most likely to positively affect our business, we can also positively improve our compliance and competence.

    There are no multiple-choice questions this week, but two little communication conundrums that clearly illustrate how the use of insurance jargon may leave your customers less than enlightened. They were written by a Professor of English to demonstrate the use of language. The purpose of the exercise is to illustrate how alien what we say may be or write to a customer who thinks in plain English See how long it takes you to identify the two pieces printed below - answers next week.

    Example 1
    Scintillate, scintillate globe vivific,
    Feign will I fathom thy nature specific,
    Loftily poised in the ether capacious,
    Strongly resembling a gem carbonaceous.

    Example 2
    This second example is intended for those who think selling only applies to acquiring new customers and not to looking after your existing customers.

    "A singular specimen of the scientific class avis, contained within the boundaries of the upper prehensile, is equivalently valuable as a doubled inventory of that item located in a low spread thicket."

  • This week's article is written by Kate Foreman of RW Associates, an expert on soft skills training in a regulated environment who is assisting with the Insurance Times Train the Trainer and Compliant Sales programmes. For more details about Insurance Times training in 2002 contact Catherine Wallace on catherine@instimes.co.uk.

    Last week's answers: 1 C; 2 B; 3 D
    The most correct answers to the Christmas CPD article are C,A,B,A

    Literature
    Body Language, Allan Pease
    ISBN O-85969-406-2
    Personality at work, Adrian Furnham
    ISBN O-415-10648-6
    CII AFPC H15 Text Book
    How do we Choose? Mary Tuck
    ISBN O 416 82330 0