Does customer care really exist in the year 2000? Does it exist in financial services? Does it exist in insurance? These days it appears there is a great desire to deliver increased turnover, increased profit, oh, and by the way, if you can deliver customer service as well, then that's a bonus.

Insurance companies have two main sets of customers. There are intermediaries as they are all soon to be called, who should be happy with the service they receive from insurance companies. Intermediaries may be able to identify with the comment: “It is sometimes difficult to speak to decision-makers in insurance companies. And then when you are able to contact them, assuming there isn't a voicemail in the way, it is often difficult to get them to deliver in the timescales that you are working to.”

It is, in some ways, very useful to have the cheapest possible quote, but this is simply missing the point that we are all trying to deliver what is appropriate. This, however, hides the fact that the intermediary needs to have the quote within a particular time frame and to receive, for example, a commercial quote in six or eight weeks may be just too late. We need to deliver to a timescale, as agreed with the intermediary depending on the particular situation.

The second main set of customers is the clients, or end customers as some call them. By this I mean the man or woman on the street, who let's face it, isn't overly enamoured with the prospect of spending a full two or three weeks looking for a better insurance quote for their home. Equally, it may be a small business owner who is much more interested in what level of turnover she or he is going to have this month, rather than looking at the intricacies of whether they should have business interruption cover at £450,000 or £500,000.

Customer care here means the insurance industry, whether intermediaries or insurance companies, taking time to explain what cover is required and the cover and price should be set up to protect their business, not just be as cheap as they can get it. Everybody loves a good deal, but there is a certain amount of truth in the phrase: “You get what you pay for.”

Getting it right

Is customer care important? Most people would say that it is. The difficulty then comes when we attempt to translate what this means into terms that everyone in the organisation understands, and, more importantly, adheres to.

Customer care means:

  • trying to be helpful to customers when speaking to them on the phone
  • not restricting incoming calls to two minutes, but being as efficient with the time as possible
  • policies should be received within a reasonable timescale – for new home business we issue policy details within five working days.
  • mid-term adjustments should not be a nightmare for intermediary staff to arrange
  • not promising what cannot be delivered
  • listening to the customer as well as talking to them – they are the best people to tell you how you are doing
  • delivering new ways for customers to communicate with your company.

    Getting customer care right is motivational for all involved, but how often have you heard someone say: “I had a fantastic experience with such and such a company the other day?”

    In the final analysis, customer care means having satisfied customers that will remain with your company and become profitable clients for broker and underwriter alike. It has to be remembered that the client does get something extremely valuable – peace of mind.

    Working together

    This is when we need to take human nature into account. If you asked people “Who really thinks insurance is important?”, some would probably say that it is, albeit grudgingly.

    There will be a massive difference if you ask people who have made a claim for theft, flood or fire, as they will have seen the physical devastation that can be caused by the perils we so often refer to. Virtually all of these would say insurance is very important.

    The insurance industry needs to work together to communicate the emotional cost of these events. However, we do what we can in the event of a claim and at Congregational & General Insurance, we process settlement cheques within two working days upon receipt of evidence enabling payment.

    The cynic will now be saying, “I look after my customer. I've known them for years. They will always stay with me.” The unfortunate fact is that you may not be right.

    Customers are all looking for something different. Our job, as insurers, is to group customers together and give them an offering in terms of cover, price and service that is relevant and attractive to them, working with intermediaries who can give advice and service. Once this has been done we need to continually monitor that we are meeting customers' needs by talking to them and asking for feedback. Intermediaries and insurance companies alike should do this.

    Individual concerns

    Some would argue that you have to treat people as individuals and have an individual policy written for them. While I have some sympathy with this view, I am certain that most people's needs are not hugely different from those catered for by existing insurance products. There will always be niches, and it is up to us to provide products and services to meet an individual's need albeit as part of a similar group.

    If we do become complacent, we are in danger. New competitors are coming into the market all of the time. The ecommerce revolution is beginning to gather pace, and customers will soon have hundreds of online insurance offerings. Intermediaries are in a fortunate position, however, because people do like to communicate with people. Whether visiting a high street office, via telephone, fax or email, the common denominator is exchange of information between people. This is not to say that there will not be a market for those who wish to do everything online, with no human interaction, but I would suggest that this is a niche market, at least for the time being.

    Unfortunately, again we have bad news for those that do not make customer care a priority. Customers are growing increasingly demanding across all fronts and this includes financial services. They are more sophisticated in terms of their understanding of markets and good customer service is now an expectation rather than a vague desire. I'm sure all intermediaries are well aware of this.

    As insurers, we recognise that we need to deliver to our intermediaries' expectations, and you need to deliver to your customer expectations.

    Once again, given the consolidation in the insurance industry, even with some of the new entrants, intermediaries are often not getting the “customer care” they deserve.

    Some competition in any market is ultimately good for the customer. I challenge you to seek out new markets for your home and commercial business, if you are not satisfied with the service you are receiving. Companies abound that are ready, willing and able to give service.

    So, back to my original question. Does customer care exist? I think it does, but not everywhere.

  • Roger Williams is marketing manager at Congregational & General Insurance

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