Grant Ellis tries to claim from a top five insurer for fire damage, but he's out of luck - it's Saturday

We were the victims of an arson attack recently. It was a Friday night around midnight - the perpetrators built a small bonfire in our office car park, right where all the mains services come into the building.

Both the fire alarm and the fire brigade did their stuff, but while there was little structural damage, the fire made a real mess of the electricity supply, all the alarm systems, and smoke damaged much of the decorations.

As luck would have it, I was in the office that Saturday morning, so I set to tracking down our insurer and its loss adjusters to set the wheels in motion. After all, I reasoned, if we could get power restored quickly we needn't suffer any down time at all, thus limiting any claim for loss of revenue.

As we are tenants there are two policies in force - the landlord's covering the premises (and thereby the bulk of the claim) and our own office contents policy. Each was with a different "top five" general insurer - I'll not name names as this is not a witch hunt - but you'll understand why as you read on.

I tackled the landlord's policy first. We had limited information as it is a block policy, but I had the insurer's name, the broker's name and a policy number. I tried the broker first - an answering machine informed me that it was open Monday to Friday from 9am. to 5pm. and therefore please would I leave a message. No mention was made of an out of hour emergency number.

I moved on to the office contents policy. This had a 24-hour emergency claims line, so I rang that. No one answered, despite me waiting some five minutes. So I hung up and tried again - same result. Third time lucky, I thought, as the phone was answered after three or four rings. I said: "I'd like to report a claim and arrange for a loss adjuster to visit as soon as possible."

It soon became apparent that the recipient of my call was not the brightest button in the box, as I had to hand-hold him through the whole process.

Even more galling however, was the fact that because the claim under the office policy was likely to be relatively small, he wasn't inclined to instruct an adjuster.

"What about the claim under the buildings policy?" I countered. "Surely that and the office claim make it worth while?"

"I'm afraid we can't act for that other insurer. You'll have to contact its adjusters," came the reply.

"And who are they?" I asked hopefully.

"I don't know who they use," he responded. I hung up in disgust.

Predictably, I couldn't raise any reply from the insurer's local office. On checking later I confirmed my worse suspicion that the website didn't have any emergency contact details either, although at the time I didn't have access to the internet so it wouldn't have done me any good anyway.

So I resorted to plan B.

There are certain privileges that come with position, and in my case one of these is to have the home phone numbers of a couple of directors of a large firm of loss adjusters that we use regularly. I phoned them for assistance, and they gave me the details of the two firms of adjusters used by the landlord's insurer.

Now I'm making progress, I thought - prematurely as it turned out. The first firm - it boasts on its website that it is a wholly-owned subsidiary of "the world's largest independent provider of diversified services to insurance companies" turned out not to work Saturdays either.

Even more surprisingly it didn't have any out-of-hours response or even a message service on any of the phone numbers I tried. The other one was even more difficult. My search to find any contact details drew a blank - although eventually I did track down a couple of numbers only to discover that both were discontinued.

So I gave up, and did it all myself. I found an electrician, hired the generator, got in the security guards and aided by a couple of my IT colleagues who were on call (we have 24-hour support in our business) got the place up and running for Monday morning.

Now I know some of this is our fault - the experience has highlighted flaws in our disaster recovery plans, and these have been corrected.

But if I, an insurance professional with 30 years' experience, has this amount of trouble, what chance poor Joe Public? What would he have done? What support would he feel that he had at such a difficult time? And would he not have been justified in being disappointed?

Isn't it about time we dropped our complacent attitude to customers needs? What broker can honestly say it shouldn't have some "emergency" contact number available to customers? And if not the broker, surely the insurer?

Is this not a service industry? Are we surely not obliged to provide at least a modicum of help for the people who after all pay all of our wages?

Let's hope I've pricked a few consciences.

Grant Ellis is chief executive of The Broker Network