Canadian Underwriter

COVID-19 operations

May 6, 2020   by David Gambrill, Editor in Chief

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Some Canadian brokers may long for a return to simpler times — a utopic future in which the novel coronavirus runs its course through the body politic, and then all of us return to our offices and resume operations like things were before COVID-19.

But Kenny Nicholls, president and CEO of Western Financial Group, one of Canada’s largest brokerages, isn’t among those who pine for a return to the status quo. In fact, he believes working remotely from home during the pandemic will shape the brokers’ future long after the coronavirus is gone.

“I don’t know what the new norm will become after all of this subsides,” Nicholls told Canadian Underwriter in mid-March, soon after the federal government started telling people to work from home to slow down the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. “The world is going to be very different. But we will have learned a lot of lessons from this. A lot of the way business was conducted prior to COVID might ending up looking very different.”

How so?

“I think [the brokers’ response to the pandemic] will allow us to provide these self-serve options [to consumers] while still allowing people to have access to experts and making sure that, at any point in their journey, consumers have an expert behind them to make sure they have the coverage they need,” Nicholls said.

Before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic on Mar. 11, many within the industry pondered how to offer to consumers digital self-service alongside the broker benefits of choice, advocacy and advice — all key elements of the broker value proposition.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 into Canada quickly shut down that academic debate. Twelve days after WHO’s declaration, provincial governments across Canada ordered the closure of all “non-essential” businesses. In Ontario and Quebec, as in other provinces, insurance was listed as an “essential service,” and thus exempt. However, as of press time, the vast majority of insurance professionals in Canada are working remotely from home.

An Internet meme posted on LinkedIn by Ontario broker Adam Mitchell, president of Mitchell & Whale, is telling: A picture shows a multiple-choice question that asks: “Who led the digital transformation in your company?” The answers are: “A. CEO. B. CTO. C. COVID-19.” A red circle appears around the answer C.

But even if it took a global pandemic to expedite the brokers’ pivot to digital services, many brokers feel the outcome will showcase their value.

“We feel that the new norm will reinforce the value of the broker and the need for an insurance expert for most insurance transactions out there,” Nicholls said.

He added that the emergency circumstances led to brokers offering insurance “in such a way that we don’t have to meet face-to-face, but we can do it using a variety of other options. I hope that would be the new norm.”

For example, during the pandemic, Western Financial unlocked a new way to connect with its clients digitally that they hadn’t used prior to the pandemic.

“One of the great innovations we had is a form for quoting on our website,” Nicholls said. “We realized it could be used as well to allow customers to communicate with us, if for some reason they could not communicate with us in any other way. We’ve assigned it an additional triage team.

“We are open for quotes; we are open for business. Through this form, we are fielding various questions from customers, or people who are not our customers but who may not be able to reach out to their brokers.”

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