Canadian Underwriter

The challenges of closing your doors in smaller communities

March 25, 2020   by Adam Malik

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Gillons Insurance has 11 offices throughout Northern Ontario, but several are located in communities with around 1,000 (and sometimes fewer) people. And so closing their doors to walk-in clients is a big deal to people living in the area.

In rural communities — Gillons has offices in Emo (population 1,300), Rainy River (population 800), and Longlac (population 1,000) and some are in remote areas, like Sioux Lookout Red Lake — customers rely on coming into the office to pay bills and speak to their brokers about their policies, said Myles Kuharski, commercial lines account executive who works out of the brokerage’s office in Thunder Bay, Ont.

An aerial view of Rainy River, Ont., from of the town’s promotional video.

Being able to work face-to-face with clients as often as they do may not be something that is done in the big cities across Canada. “The customer relationship, being up north [in Ontario], is very much an in-person [experience],” Kuharski explained. “We try to see people as much as possible. So the verdict is still out on how that’s going to go with renewals and new business opportunities given the circumstances.”

Being able to get reliable high-speed internet in rural communities can be a challenge as well, noted Chad Leibel, CEO of Leibel Insurance Group, which has its head office in Edmonton. When a lot of demand is placed on the telecommunications service, it can put a strain on reliability.

“The internet speed sometimes for people living in rural areas – if you’re running your computer through the internet, [or] if you have someone at home that’s streaming Netflix – you’re going to have an issue with the reliability,” he said. “A lot of people try to use WiFi, but it’s not very reliable and it’s not very fast.”

In a bigger centre such as Thunder Bay, Ont. (pop. 110,000), it’s easier to deal with customers through remote video connections or over the phone. “I’ve had to change some in-person meetings to WebEX or a teleconference format where we use video to get that ‘in-person’ atmosphere,” Kuharski said. “It’s a little challenging when it comes to sharing screens and going over renewals and proposals on the computer, but I think people are understanding given the current circumstances.”

It’s just another one of those adjustments brokers are making as they transition to work away from the office.

“I think we’re all entering new territory on that, I’m sure,” Kuharski said. “With the change in what’s happening with businesses all across Ontario, their needs are changing a little bit. So being available is important.”

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