Paul Cousineau explains how the success of a claim can be influenced by using disaster recovery firms

Disaster recovery need not be a disaster at all if it is handled correctly from the start. The most critical period of any claim is usually one to two days after the loss date, during which time, any mistakes made can lead the claim down a very rocky road.

Getting it right first time, and getting it right quickly, might be a mantra for many in the insurance industry. But is it practised?

A common error is made even before the disaster occurs. The homeowner, the most important person in any domestic claim, is the only person absent from the meetings that put the claims procedures in place.

This 'oversight' has effectively created the legacy of claims handling which does not meet the needs of the homeowner within the terms of his policy cover. Service providers know that if a claim starts wrongly, it ends wrongly, and the acrimony resulting from the mis-management of the claim costs time, money and reputation - attributes which no industry can afford to lose.

More damagingly, claims procedures are not meeting the needs of the homeowner. It is critical that before any work commences we understand the personal circumstances of the homeowner, identifying belongings that may have significant sentimental value, or items needed urgently.

I am reminded of a claim which highlighted this very issue. A disaster recovery company had already been to the affected property and there was a skip in the road outside filled with items deemed unsalvageable. The homeowner was seen rooting frantically through the skip, heaving a sigh of relief when he pulled a rotten blanket from the rubble.

"This is the comfort blanket for my baby," he explained. Relief quickly became anger as he complained to the disaster recovery company about throwing away an item they dismissed as rubbish and assumed was easily replaced. The blanket was subsequently cleaned, but this 'near miss' created an understandable bad feeling on the homeowner's part, and the claim became protracted and costly.

The specialist's value both to the homeowner and to the insurer is regularly lost in this way. Why? Because there is a lack of understanding of the homeowner's needs, and the capabilities and skills of restoration companies who can meet these needs successfully. Frequently, by the time specialist providers are brought on board, the damage has already been done.

On average it takes almost eight days for a disaster recovery company to be called in to carry out restoration work. After such a delay, dealing with an already exasperated homeowner can diminish its effectiveness and chances of a complaint-free resolution.

Too often, delegated authority allows disaster recovery companies to rush in quickly and make snap judgments or decisions on matters they are not expert in.

As a result, far too many items are cashed out that could be restored, costing more to the insurer and, as the above example illustrates, sadness and anger when items of personal value are involved.

Equally, no one is measuring what is being thrown away. Historically this didn't matter, since the technology and skills to restore items did not exist. Now it does. Yet without recording what is being replaced and what isn't, how can you manage and develop best practice in supply chains?

Service providers have already learned that the gentle touch at the start of the claim - when the homeowner is still struggling to come to terms with the incident - is vital to make a good first impression.

"What happened? Is anyone hurt?" are simple questions, often overlooked. Contractors and specialists have realised it is essential at the start of any claim to try to understand how the homeowner is dealing with what has happened, and how to treat him accordingly. No two jobs are the same, and it is this complexity that makes disaster recovery a unique area of claims handling.

Specialists have become skilled not just in what they can restore, and in the quality of restoration, but also in their handling of distressed homeowners. They make inventories of items on site before removing them, and can store them safely after restoration has taken place if this is beneficial to the homeowner.

These items of sentimental value might be clothes, antiques, heirlooms, jewellery or even photographs. Restoration skills have developed rapidly and need to be fully incorporated into the claims supply chain.

Every layer of the chain needs to understand how every other layer works and what those working in that layer bring to the table. The jigsaw needs putting together. With the FSA now looking into claims handling, there is no better opportunity for the industry to make this happen.

To get the best out of service providers and plug cost leakage, a line of linear communication from the top of the supply chain to those dealing with the customer needs to be in place. Protocols should identify the homeowner's needs and automatically lead to a course of action which involves the providers most suited to deal with the different aspects of the claim.

In effect, the disaster site should be treated in the same way as a crime scene. By getting the right team of experts to the scene quickly, the clues are still fresh and the mystery is easier to solve.

To learn the lessons from Carlisle and elsewhere, a supply chain model that can be developed on a claim-by-claim basis, to include catastrophes as well as individual domestic incidents, needs to be formulated.

It is my belief that the insurance industry, in using supplier panels, has the correct platform on which to build such a supply chain model. By employing a third party administrator, or a single liaison that links the homeowner and his needs with the suppliers best equipped to fulfil these needs, the jigsaw can be speedily put together.

The right people can be at the loss site at the time when they are most needed and are at their most effective -- at the beginning. IT

' Paul Cousineau is director of Certified Restoration Drycleaning Network