He's a customer services fanatic who doesn't complain when served the wrong starter. Can Andrew Briscoe boost the AA? Alison Boyle reports

What springs to mind when you think of the AA? Yellow vans staffed by very nice men who rescue you and your car at the side of the road? Well all that's set to change if the new managing director of AA Insurance Services, Andrew Briscoe, gets his way.

Briscoe is nine weeks into the job and has already created a daring new vision. The plan is to stop representing the AA with yellow vans. Instead the AA will be advertised as a complete service with insurance at its core. This means equal status for the broking service. Can he do it? It's too early to tell, but Briscoe has an impressive range of skills and experience, which could help him pull it off.

Briscoe joined Centrica in 1998 as managing director of Goldfish Credit Card after stints at Bupa, where he worked closely with Legal & General general insurance manager John Castagno, Clerical Medical and American Express. When Centrica acquired the AA in 1999 he also took responsibility for AA Financial Services. This was a short-lived role, as a year later he was moved to British Gas to be director of sales and customer retention.

Now back at the AA, he is ready for the challenge ahead and believes he can bring a fresh approach to the business.

"Centrica has been very pleased with AA Insurance Services and its profitability has improved year on year. The strengths I believe I am bringing to it are innovation, coupled with my experience at Goldfish, which was very much looking at well-established markets and seeing how customers can be served better."

Missed opportunities
Briscoe is fervent about customer service and during the lunch meeting the CS word is mentioned on numerous occasions. But for a man so focused on the subject, he is surprisingly calm when subjected to the poor display of CS at our meeting place. He manages to keep smiling as he is served the wrong starter and main course and made to wait some 20 minutes for his after-lunch coffee.

In fact, it is hard to tell whether Briscoe is a professional pleaser, well groomed in media- presentation or genuinely a nice man, excited by his new role.

"We feel we can branch into all sorts of areas - either motoring or insurance related and we feel we can deliver a lot more to customers and be a lot bigger and more successful," he booms.

For one, he believes the AA has missed out on massive cross-selling opportunities over the years. There are now plans afoot to integrate all the AA businesses that make up the brand, including roadside rescue and insurance, and market them as one.

According to Briscoe, the potential is huge - something the company did not realise until it looked at it properly. The AA is in contact with 45 million people each year through insurance, breakdown recovery, loans, inspection and others. Now it plans to use the initial contact to explain its range of other services.

It has already piloted the cross-selling potential on a section of customers who bought motor insurance.

Briscoe explains: "At the end of the quote we ask them if they are looking to buy a car in the next four weeks. Over 10% have said yes. There is then an opportunity to supply them with a car, vehicle inspection and breakdown cover. So it is very relevant. So far customers are seeing it as a service rather than a sale."

He does add that the cross-sell needs to be appropriate so as not to annoy customers.

For example after a breakdown, AA will ring the customer a couple of days later to do a quality check. Now they also ask if they are considering buying a new car.

Briscoe also says the AAIS has wasted its own cross-selling opportunities. It has over a million motor insurance customers and 600,000 home insurance customers, yet there is less than 10% cross-sell between the two.

"This is a startling statistic and there is a real opportunity to offer the value of the one-stop shop."

This should come as good news to its insurance panel, which is made up of all the major insurers except one - Direct Line. Briscoe is keen to bring the company on board.

Best value
Briscoe has met most of the existing insurance panel and so far they have been very supportive of his plans. And so they should. With 20 million customers, Centrica has a lot to offer.

In the past the AA has been perceived by the industry as selling on price alone, but Briscoe is making moves to change this and wants to put more emphasis on the value and quality side.

"I think customers will be far better served by the industry if they think less about the cheapest policy and more about best value," he says. "We are working with our panel members on ways to get that message across."

He adds that AAIS staff have been working hard at explaining the benefits of the policies on offer to customers, so they are not just looking at the cheapest. However, market sources are sceptical. Without considerable investment in training it is hard to know how achievable or in-depth these policy explanations will be, especially as customers will be reluctant to be kept on the phone for a long period of time, they say.

But, as Briscoe says, the AA's advertising power should go some way in helping to get the quality versus price message across.

In the past, the AA has always placed its roadside assistance at the core of its marketing drive and has only really dabbled with promoting the insurance services. Its "arguing couple" campaign last year met with a mixed response, with concerns it was portraying insurance as a distress purchase, an image the market has been keen to shake off.

Briscoe is adamant this was not the intention and says it is the first he has heard of any criticism. "The advertising campaign was hugely successful for us and it has generated a lot of interest in the aa.com website. The site generated 40% of our quotations last year and

I think that is largely down to the campaign."

He does admit that not as many of these quotations turned into sales; business generated from the website amounted to a quarter of sales overall last year. Briscoe was reluctant to talk about the campaign's cost, but the arguing couple have now disappeared from our screens.

Probably the main reason for this is to make way for the new brand strategy, which goes public in May.

"We are not relying completely on the power of the brand," Briscoe adds. "We also want our service to speak for itself."