Brokers have been grumbling about insurers' customer service for years, so has anything changed? Cathie Bruce reports.

So the hoary old subject of customer service - or should I say lack of it - has reared its head once again. And it's the same old issues that are still driving intermediaries up the pole. Poor claims handling, overseas call centres, no marketing or business support and creaking technology.

The sad bit is that I seem to recall reading similar headlines time and time again over many years. Is it really any wonder that intermediaries have recently felt the need to vent their spleen publicly yet again?

Yet we are apparently in an era where literally billions are being invested in the latest technology to make things better while major insurers seem to launch more 'service initiatives' by the day and are constantly telling us how 'customer centric' they all are. So if the customer really is always right, where, oh where, is it all going so wrong?

Perhaps the clue is in the comment from one enlightened broker who made the point that 'the smaller the insurer the better the service'. And to my mind this comes down to three things: focus, commitment and responsiveness.

Because like my own company, these insurers tend to march to the beat of a different drum, in that they are all committed to supporting the brokers that support them.

Their people understand this, their systems are built to meet the needs of intermediaries and their customers and most importantly, they are able to respond quickly and effectively when required. After all, it's easier to steer a speedboat than it is to turn round an ocean liner.

It might seem blindingly obvious but at Groupama we find that there is real value in having regular dialogue with the broking community to seek their views on the various business propositions that we are developing.

I suspect that a good number of smaller companies probably do the same. But this sort of activity still seems to be the exception. Why is this? As one frustrated broker said to me recently: "What other industry do you know that does not consult its retailers about its products and services?

It's a good point isn' t it? Fundamental even. Yet some insurers clearly do not seem to have got the message. Or perhaps they weren't listening in the first place.

Given that brokers have been grumbling for years that service has been declining, it also seems to me to be pretty sensible for insurers to put some investment into the people and systems facing the customer. Certainly this has been the policy at Groupama. Yet the response from some major insurers has been at best innovative and at worst plain daft.

Some have just upped sticks and shifted customer service wholesale to the Indian sub-continent. Cracking idea don' t you think? And I' m sure that there was plenty of broker consultation before they did so too.

Yet what brokers yearn for is expertise on the front-line not in the back office. Surely it must make good business sense to put our best people in front of our broker customers? After all, we all want quick efficient service from technically qualified staff - don't we?

A lack of marketing support from insurers is another area where brokers have real concerns. But again, if the carrier is more concerned with going direct than investing in the future of the intermediary sector, is this really a big surprise? Once again it comes down to the real focus of the insurer' s business.

And then there's technology. Funnily enough, I think that we might be slowly getting there. But isn't it a shame that in the 21st century we still have the word 'slowly' in the sentence?

Yes, we have Imarket and yes, it's making headway. But why has it taken quite so long? At Groupama, our complete commercial range has been rebuilt and optimised for electronic trading since 2003.

The point is that if we can do it, surely it has to be possible for those with much deeper pockets to up the pace a little or even to join in the first place? I can only assume that it is a matter of priorities and if I were a broker I might be a little worried about where these might lie.

As I see it, in the end, brokers still have a choice of where they place their hard earned business and they do have a very easy way of selecting against those who regularly fail to support them or look after their interests and those of their customers.

They can just vote with their feet.

- Cathie Bruce is distribution & customer services director at Groupama Insurances.