Canadian Underwriter

Claims Advocates

September 27, 2012   by Stefan Dubowski

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How are people expected to cope when, having just repaired their homes and businesses after one natural disaster, another catastrophe piles on, setting them back even further? Welcome to Alberta. The province has experienced a number of noteworthy weather events over the last few years, and that has the claims team at Calgary’s Renfrew Insurance Ltd. operating at full capacity.

Sacha Carey, Renfrew’s director of claims, and Katherine Rumford, customer and claims service representative, have to stay at the top of their game to deal with claims resulting from Alberta’s temperamental weather, such as the hail storm in July 2010, the windstorm of November 2011, and the wildfires that devastated Slave Lake last May. In addition, the ups and downs of the Alberta construction market are another area where their capabilities are put to the test, ensuring Renfrew’s clients get coverage for some unique claims arising quite literally from the shifting landscape in the province. In all these situations, careful management of client expectations while forging strong working relationships with insurers and suppliers are critical keys to success.


Carey and Rumford point to the weather as one of their main challenges. It’s not a matter of if, but when the next catastrophe will come, they say—and lately, Mother Nature has been impatient.

“You’re still dealing with the Slave Lake rebuild and there are already fires starting this year,” Carey says. “You have to make sure contractors, adjusters and we ourselves are taking advantage of the downtime, or taking advantage of the good weather in January, February or March for reroofing, because we don’t know if it’s going to snow in June in Calgary.”

Convincing contractors, adjusters and other service providers to prioritize customer service is the key, she says, explaining that Renfrew needs its partners to be particularly careful about job tracking and client communication in order to process claims efficiently.

Relationships are important. As Carey says, the stronger the connection between the service provider and Renfrew, the easier it is for Renfrew’s claims department to request the best service from its partners. Carey and Rumford forge those ties by attending providers’ business functions, aiming to get to know the people behind the company signs.

Managing customer expectations is also important, Carey says. “Perception is everything, and if you can control expectations, then their perception of what’s happening will be that much easier on them.”

She points out that when dealing with the aftermath of a hailstorm, windstorm or any other event impacting many people, it’s crucial that the client understands that he isn’t the only one affected. So while he may want his business repaired within the week, that might not be feasible.

When customers in Slave Lake demanded to know why service partners weren’t on site to help begin repairs as soon as possible, Renfrew’s claims department explained that it wasn’t safe yet because the heat from the fire was still causing ammunition stored in people’s homes to go off. Having that knowledge and imparting it to clients helped policyholders understand that sometimes patience isn’t just a virtue, it’s a lifesaver.

Renfrew also uses its claims expertise to inform its sales side, gathering information that could help brokers and customers mitigate risks well before an incident occurs. The sales team can consult with the claims department to pinpoint exposures, helping to ensure that the client has the most appropriate coverage.

What’s more, if an insurer needs an independent adjuster, Renfrew’s claims department not only sources that, but also engages the adjuster early in the process, and verifies that the adjuster has the appropriate experience for the job. That makes for a smooth and efficient claims process, Carey says.

Shifting Foundations

In addition to changing weather patterns, Carey and her team are also dealing with a booming construction industry and a changing legal landscape around certain kinds of claims. For example, Rumford points out that for the longest time, building settling was excluded in most property policies, so carriers denied claims associated with settling. But that changed after the Engle Estate took  its insurance company  to court.

Engle was the owner of a commercial property in Calgary. In 2006, construction started on the adjacent property, including excavation and pile-driving. In 2007, the floors, walls and ceilings of Engle’s property began to separate. Eventually the structural stability of the building was threatened.

When Engle sought coverage, the insurer denied it based in part on the settlement exclusion. In court, Engle argued that the settlement exclusion applies to settlement due to natural causes, not manmade situations such as a neighbour’s construction project. Justice G.C. Hawco agreed, finding that the settlement exclusion only excludes settlement due to natural causes.

The Engle decision is indicative of the kind of unique situations Carey and Rumford are facing such as sinkholes. Sinkholes are not uncommon in Calgary. Sometimes large enough to swallow an entire car, these pits appear unexpectedly in parking lots and other areas, particularly when the affected property sits beside an excavated area prepared to accept the foundations of a new building. The excavation can undermine the integrity of the soil supporting the adjacent property, so over time—especially if the excavated area is left open for a number of years—the soil beside the nascent development can erode, leaving voids that could eventually become sinkholes.

But for people living in one of Renfrew’s client’s developments, a sinkhole not only consumed a car, it also threatened residential insurance policies. When the hole appeared at the back of the building—perhaps the result of the excavation down the road (the pit had been left open for three years)—Renfrew’s client (the condo corporation) was covered for damage. But the eight condominium units in the building were under separate policies and different carriers.

“Almost every one of them had a different idea of how they should respond, including denying that they had any claim,” Carey recalls.

The Renfrew team decided that they couldn’t just leave the unit owners to fend for themselves. “We contacted every single insurance company and advised them of what was happening and the magnitude of it,” Carey says, explaining that once the insurers were armed with information about the reasons for the damage, they were in a better position to assess their clients’ situations.

That Renfrew’s claims department would reach out to carriers on behalf of people who aren’t even Renfrew clients probably wouldn’t surprise Walter Waugh. As vice-president of operations for Western Canada at Crawford & Company (Canada) Inc., an independent claims solution company, he says Carey and Rumford have an excellent reputation.

Waugh says they “have a strong desire to deliver excellence in customer service to all of Renfrew’s clients and they expect the same of their independent adjusting partners.

“The two provide timely and insightful input on claims experiences and claims outcomes and are without a doubt adding significant value to the entire claims process.”

Bruce Dowbush is a satisfied Renfrew client who would agree. The brokerage’s claims department did more than expected, he says. Owner of CoverAll Painting, a construction company, Dowbush says his truck was stolen, but recovered by police a week later. “For the most part it was in good shape… but when the garage was going over it, the transmission was suspect. The technician said it had to be overhauled or replaced.”

The insurer would only cover the cost of a used transmission. Since the truck was only a few years old, Dowbush pushed for a new one. Still, the carrier refused—until Rumford got involved.

“She and the people she works with stepped into a delicate situation and got the insurance company to talk with the technician at the garage, to realize that this was not an appropriate replacement, that it wouldn’t be equal value to the loss.”

The carrier agreed to a new transmission. “I was impressed with not only her loyalty to me as a customer,” Dowbush says. “It reestablished my relationship with the carrier and confirmed that my years of loyalty to Renfrew were merited.”


“It’s very hard to find quality people who work hard and who are willing to go above and beyond what’s expected of them,” Carey says, explaining why when Rumford, a former adjuster at Crawford, asked her for a job reference, she responded with a job offer.

The respect flows both ways: Rumford says Carey and the Renfrew staff seemed unusually committed to their clients, prioritizing the human aspects of the claims process.

“You don’t always see that personal touch,” Rumford says.

For her part, Carey entered the insurance industry following a career as a hairstylist. One of her customers was a vice-president of ING Direct, who encouraged her to enroll in insurance courses at Mount Royal University. Carey took the VP’s advice, and soon started working at ING as an adjuster. Her career took her to Marsh Canada, and Alberta Health Services before she was hired by Renfrew to develop the claims department, where she would apply the lessons she’d learned in previous posts about how claims teams should operate.

“A lot of brokerages look at a claims department as a cost centre, not necessarily a revenue generator,” she says. But she disagrees with that approach. The claims team can help boost sales by addressing customer concerns about the claims process.

Claims can also make or break the customer’s trust. “There’s nothing worse than a brokerage losing clients because of a claim,” she says. 


Advice for young brokers

Looking to serve a particular niche or type of customer? Join groups associated with the target audience. Carey and Rumford are members of the Adjusters Association of Alberta and the Southern Alberta Risk and Insurance Management Society. This helps foster connections with adjusters and service providers, with an eye towards developing relationships that might help Renfrew fulfill claims more efficiently. “It’s not only a way to educate yourself; it’s also a way to meet potential new clients,” Carey says.


Copyright 2012 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the June 2012 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.