In OCTOBER last year, Lewes in East Sussex was one of the many towns in England to be devastated by floods. More than one year's rain fell on the town in just one day.
Residents were left without homes as the River Ouse burst its banks and brought with it a torrent of water, which reached over 6ft high in places, flooding homes and gardens and damaging building structures.
Lewes, once a picturesque town, became a disaster scene. Streets were strewn with furniture, carpets and personal belongings, piled up outside homes and consigned to scrap heaps after being contaminated by sewage and oil in the floodwaters. Cattle and sheep in the surrounding fields were drowned and swept along by the water and drivers were forced to abandon their vehicles and watch as they were washed away.
On visiting Lewes now, businesses are just beginning to re-open and residents are starting to return to their homes.
Some cases are worse than others – many homeowners have endured the winter living in caravans in their own backyards, as repair work is carried out, and are still not back in their properties.
The job of the insurers
Richard Moxon, claims adviser for Royal & Sunalliance (RSA), has been dealing with claims in the area for four years. He was the first on hand to deal with claims in Lewes after floodwaters had subsided.
At the time, he and other members of the RSA “crash team” were working seven days a week to get claims moving. One of the most important parts of Moxon's job now is to try to keep homeowners calm when they are making a claim.
“In many cases, the person is either angry about what has happened or just mortified. Empathy to both reactions is necessary,” he says. “At their lowest, they think they have lost everything and I try to explain what we can do to redress the situation.”
His workload has only just started to let up after seven months and there is still much more to be done.
Dealing with devastation
Ann and Don Chisholm, a retired couple, are flood victims who are having their claim dealt with by RSA. The couple are currently living in a temporary flat provided by the insurer after the basement and ground floor of their terraced house were ruined.
Unfortunately, their home was built with flint and has only just dried out. Now there's the job of returning their home to its former state – plaster is being ripped down and re-done, the electrics are being re-wired, the boiler moved and a new kitchen put in – and they've not even chosen new furniture yet.
However, Mrs Chisholm has nothing but praise for the work of RSA. In fact, she says, from the moment the claim was put in, the company has been “more like a partner than an insurer”.
After talking to neighbours, she adds, the couple feel lucky to have had no problems with their claim.
Horror stories abound in the area about insurers who are not contactable when there are queries and do not call back, builders who turn up unannounced and work too quickly, with mould later appearing on the walls of homes which have been redecorated before being properly dried out. One customer was told by their broker to get a letter from the police to confirm that there had been a flood.
The Chisholms have been insured with RSA for all their married life but Mrs Chisholm admits: “We were thinking about changing just before the flood as we were not happy with our premiums and cover levels. But now we realise you get what you pay for.”
Moxon, who is assigned to the Chisholms' case, believes that there is a psychological aspect to claims such as this one and the priority must be to help get things back to normal as soon as possible and to make sure that the customer is completely satisfied.
He says that, in order to be a good insurer, “customer obsession” is the key.
“It's important to have a good working relationship with contractors, to make sure they get the job right, and then relay exactly what is happening to the customer,” he says.
As rates in the insurance market are very similar, Moxon believes it's important for the claim to go right: “If it does, the company has a customer for life.”
The Chisholms' case is not unique – Moxon is dealing with dozens more in the area. One bungalow has had to be practically rebuilt from scratch after floodwaters tore down internal walls.
He regularly makes return visits in the case of more serious claims to check how work is progressing. But he does not just deal with flood jobs – his everyday work is varied and can include claims for anything from fires to thefts and accidental damage.
In the case of burglaries, the priority is to re-secure the property and then to advise customers on what they can do to improve security. He prices the extent of the loss and then liaises with suppliers and contractors, to ensure that goods are replaced and repairs done as quickly as possible.
It is, he says, important to have reliable and reasonably-priced contractors, to ensure that the job is done well.
It's a people thing
As Moxon works from home, he spends about four days a week on the road, visiting claimants. The fifth is spent doing paperwork at home, although he admits that this sometimes spills over into evenings.
Claims advisers work in teams of ten, which meet once a month.
Moxon has a total of nine years' claims experience. He started off working in the direct motor arm of the business, then moved into high net worth household. But he reckons his present job is the most rewarding. “As a claims adviser, you have the ability to turn people's lives around,” he says. “And it's also good not to be stuck in an office all day.”
The October flood was the most memorable time of his career so far. “As part of the emergency response team, I was running on adrenaline,” he says. “I was proud of our fast response and believe that we had the best presence of any insurer at the scene.”