Canadian Underwriter

Back to Basics on Customer Service

May 17, 2017   by Michael McKiernan

Print this page


When Adam Mitchell took the reins at Mitchell and Whale Insurance Brokers in 2008, he embarked on a digital transformation that he hoped would spark explosive growth at the family-owned business.

The Whitby, Ont.-based broker put technology at the heart of the operation, with a string of innovations, including a website chat-bot that can interact with customers without the need for a human controller, theorizing that they would help him turn strangers online into clients.

And the ploy was successful…perhaps a little too successful.

“We completely overcooked on the sales,” Mitchell says. “There was so much new business coming in, we had serious trouble scaling the service side.”

He says he learned the hard way that bringing in new customers is only part of the job. Holding on to them once you’ve got them through the door can be just as tough, if not tougher, Mitchell says.

“You can have all the automation you want, and the flashiest self-service portals and website widgets, but if you can’t then pick up the phone when somebody calls into the office, they’re still going to hate you, because you weren’t there when they needed you,” he says. “It quickly became apparent that there is no point chasing new policies until you can do the basics wonderfully.”

That back-to-basics approach included a tracking system for missed calls, and a healthy dose of accountability.

It turns out clients don’t really want that type [online claims submission] of experience at the time of a claim… that’s when they really need to talk to someone…”

“The number of calls that go through to voicemail are pulled and then shared with the entire team every day. The point is not to blame any one person. We’re working as a team to get to 100 per cent,” Mitchell says. “You want to get as close as you can to perfect before you start trying to build more technology and digitization on top.”

Man vs. machine

At MacLeod Lorway, a Nova Scotia brokerage with several offices across the province, president Stuart MacLeod takes a zero-tolerance approach to voicemail, demanding all calls be answered within two rings by a person.

“Nobody is ever calling to say how happy they are with their policy. They’re calling because they have a problem and they need service of some sort,” MacLeod says. “If you put them on hold or give them a computer telling them to push one for claims or whatever, it’s just going to annoy them further.”

Once they’ve nailed the basics, Sherif Gemayel, the president of Calgary-based Sharp Insurance, says brokers can use technology to make life easier for their customer service representatives. He says the introduction of his firm’s mobile app dramatically cut the number of incoming calls to its call centre, as clients took advantage of the ability to access their pink slips, and payment information, and to make change requests from their phones.

“No two clients are the same in terms of expectations for how they should be served, so it’s important to give them options. Some will use the mobile app, others prefer the online portal, and some will call. Lots don’t want to talk to us at all but, when they need to, we’re there,” Gemayel says. More than half of the company’s clients use the app, allowing his call staff to handle twice as many clients as the industry standard, says Gemayel, who also licenses the technology out to fellow brokers so they can take advantage of its features.

“Not only has it boosted our retention rate, but it has increased our efficiency. We’re now able to handle more clients with fewer people, while maintaining a high level of service,” he says.

The personal touch

At MCT Insurance, Halifax-based Liz Cosgrove, head of its Atlantic Canada operations, says outgoing “care calls” are just as important to the company’s high retention rate as incoming ones.

“Touching base with clients can happen any time, but often it’s in advance of a renewal, to make sure there are no surprises, and also to make sure the information you have on their situation is accurate,” she says. “It’s not that we don’t want new business, but I like to say that retention is what turns the lights on every day.”

It’s not that we don’t want new business, but I like to say that retention is what turns the lights on every day.”

“If you’re not speaking with clients and working with them on a regular basis, your rate is going to slip,” Cosgrove adds.

Crystal Underhill, a broker with Reith and Associates in St. Thomas, Ont., prefers in-person meetings with commercial lines clients at their businesses ahead of renewals.

“We review how their year went personally and professionally and take a look at any life or business changes that may have arisen,” she says. “Clients truly appreciate this meeting as it shows them that we care to dig deep into their coverage, build a lasting relationship and know what makes their business tick day-to-day.”

Michelle Tremblay, the managing director at Windsor, Ont.-based St. Clair Insurance Brokers Inc., says personal touchpoints are a great opportunity to build relationships with clients. As part of an effort to encourage this type communication, her company has done away with renewal letters altogether.

“People just get them and toss them in the garbage anyway,” Tremblay says. “Because our focus is on commercial lines, it’s super important to make sure they understand why they’re paying a commission to us.”

The company’s recent growth spurt – it has acquired three brokerages in as many years – has provided a great excuse to reach out to clients outside of the normal renewals process, according to Tremblay.

“Our brokers can talk to them about what’s happening, where we’re heading, and make sure they feel secure with us,” she says.

Happy frontline staff equals client retention Tremblay says customer service considerations are also a big factor when she’s plotting her company’s continued growth.

“People think these transactions are all about money, but for me, the big focus is on the people. If your producers aren’t happy or buying in, then they’re not staying. And if they’re not staying, then neither are the clients,” she says. “Good customer service and retention is tied to your employees and the culture of your workplace. If you can foster an internal culture that makes your people proud of the business they work for, then they want to do well for you.“

MacLeod says he pays above the industry average to reflect the importance of his frontline staff to the customer experience.

“We also have little perks like paid holidays for staff on their birthdays. And last year, we marked our 40th birthday by giving everyone an extra paid week of holiday for the year,” he says. “Happy and contented staff are going to be more productive. They’re the most important key to [client] retention.”

Stepping up on claims

Another chance for brokers to drive home their value to their customers comes in the unfortunate, but inevitable, minority of cases when a claim needs to be made on the insurance policy.

“I know there are a lot of brokers who like to keep their distance during the claims process. They’d rather clients dealt with the insurance company directly,” Tremblay says. “But if you’re not going to assist them when the policy you sold them is actually showing its value, I don’t know when you ever would.”

…if you’re not going to assist them when the policy you sold them is actually showing its value, I don’t know when you ever would.”

Tremblay got a chance to put her philosophy into action last September when Windsor’s drainage infrastructure was overwhelmed by a storm that dumped 200 millimetres of rain in just 15 hours, damaging the homes of around 200 of her clients.

“It’s extremely time-consuming to get involved with claims, especially with that type of catastrophic loss, but our employees want to reach out and show they care,” Tremblay says. “That’s why our retention rate is 96 pet cent, even after the acquisitions.”

Julia Marshall of Gold Key Insurance in Strathmore, Alta., says her firm actively advocates for its clients during claims.

“Most people are not familiar at all with the process, so it’s nice for them to feel like they have someone on their side,” says Marshall, who is also president of the Insurance Brokers Association of Alberta.

Working in a smaller town also makes it easier for her firm to go the extra mile for clients.

“Sometimes when you get a big claim, like a fire, an adjuster will want to come out, but people are not always comfortable with the idea of a stranger in their house,” Marshall says. “We can hop in the car and be there when the adjuster arrives. It’s a good opportunity to support a client.”

Cosgrove says her company likes to check in regularly with clients during the claims process, and will often act as a go-between with the insurer for commercial clients who have suffered larger losses.

“We had a client recently where we arranged a meeting between them, the insurer and a contractor to negotiate a claims settlement,” she says. “We met in advance with the client, and were able to ask questions at the meeting about issues that either they forgot, or were uncomfortable raising themselves. Some are fearful that if they rock the boat, it’s going to go badly for them.”

For Gemayel, the claims portion of Sharp’s mobile app provided him with some valuable information about his customer’s preferences when faced with a crisis situation.

“We put a lot of time into creating this amazing claims-submission experience. But out of our 12,500 users, we only ever get maybe one request per month,” he says. “It turns out clients don’t really want that type of experience at the time of a claim, when the adrenaline is pumping. That’s when they really need to talk to someone, and get the comfort of speaking with a live person.”

But once those chaotic moments have passed: “That’s when they go back to the app. They can track the status of their claim, find out about their adjuster, when they’re getting their replacement car, or about their payout,” he says.

Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the May 2017 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.