Last week I went to Lincoln to buy a house. The house was not for me but for my sister, who was thinking of retiring there. It was an interesting experience. It set me thinking about the way forward for the insurance industry.
The housing market in Lincoln was thoroughly researched, using the internet, of course. The majority of estate agents had a site, although the quality varied enormously. Some sites were excellent; comprehensive and up-to-date. Others had been set-up using a basic package and were a poor advert for the company. Those without a web site did not get a look in.
Telephone calls in response to internet viewing revealed the sites were not as up-to-date as I hoped. The housing market seemed to be moving very quickly, too quickly for some agents.
Three houses worth viewing were identified, and appointments made. The great day came – cold and pouring with rain. Arriving in Lincoln well in advance of the first appointment, we visited the estate agents for an update and a map!
Most of the five agencies visited seemed very busy with phone customers and were wary of passing personal trade. Even after explaining we wanted to buy a house for cash that day, the service levels were not very good. Lack of interest was clear. Lack of knowledge by one or two was alarming. Every road had to be looked up on the A to Z. We were turned down for a map by the first four agents (out of stock) and offered a photocopy by the fifth. We got just one new lead and a possible appointment.
The three prearranged visits were hopeless. First, we visited a house that would have taxed a DIY enthusiast with £15,000 to spare. The second house had a 'to let' sign outside but was for sale. It had been painted white for the lettings market. What did all that white-covered anaglypta cover up? The garden was 12 square metres of concrete. The third small two bed house had just one toilet which was 50 feet from the bedrooms and down a steep flight of stairs – fun for an elderly person at night!
Plan two quickly emerged as we drove between viewings. There were nice 'for sale' advertisement boards outside some properties with helpful phone numbers. A quick call on my mobile got the price, basic details and, after a few searching questions from the agent, an appointment to view if we wished.
We did so wish for seven other properties that day; much better options than so far offered. It was perhaps because we could see houses in the car that we liked, and areas that were acceptable. We rejected many more than the extra seven we visited because of the price or the look of the house or the location. We did the same on the internet but with very different results.
We found two suitable houses and are trying to buy one or other but both sellers may not be all they seem. It may be that the owner of our preferred house dislikes the thought of a cash sale, though it would be a cheque. I suspect it will end up in another car journey around the 'for sale' signs.
The lessons appropriate for the insurance industry relate to the need to be multi-dimensional – internet, personal contact, phone and print. To have the right product and to make a concerted effort to get the product to the customer. Above all to provide good levels of service. I received the best service, consistently, by phone.
That is why service levels in the insurance industry sometimes worry me. Last week one top ten insurer informed me on the phone that it would be best to put my enquiry in writing as there was no one in the office (one that housed several hundred people) capable of providing an answer. The letter went nine days ago and I await life from the other end.
Are we innovating as quickly as other industries? How many insurers will offer £50 if a claim is not settled satisfactorily in two weeks? How many acknowledge customer letters in a week? How many charge loyal customers more on renewal than new proposals? Which would win universal praise from intermediaries for first class service?