The modernisation of the Australian insurance industry has yielded several trends, including an increased emphasis on technology, greater automation and increased centralisation. But while all of these trends have definite positives – few brokers would argue for a return to the days of filling out forms by hand and sending off faxes – there are those who buck the trends, too.
In 2012, when insurers around the country were in the process of centralising their operations, Berkley Insurance Australia was doing the opposite. CEO Tony Wheatley was looking for ways to decentralise, opening offices in Western and South Australia to ensure that local communities could be effectively served.
“Being able to provide locally is a big part of our success,” explains Kirsty Owens, state manager for SA. “We’ve really gone from strength to strength as a result.”
Barbara Stenning, national head of claims, echoes that sentiment. She notes that for a variety of reasons, the insurance industry at large hasn’t always had a good reputation with the general public. Putting a local face on the business can go a long way toward dispelling negative preconceptions.
“Whether you’re a broker or underwriter, you’re constantly making critical decisions on the part of the insured – and in truth, making decisions that affect them directly,” Stenning says. “Being local gives you a much better understanding of all of the nuances and personalities involved.” She adds that local knowledge of the system you’re working in is critical. It also means clients have easy access to a decision-maker, which greatly affects their ability to obtain positive outcomes.
The human touch
Insurance has become far more automated and technology-based as providers strive to find ways to streamline and speed up their processes. But people will only communicate with you effectively if they trust you, Owens points out – and listening is crucial to understanding clients’ needs. Many of the brokers Owens deals with in South Australia have known her for 20-plus years, so they feel comfortable approaching her for guidance even when she might not be able to write the risk.
“I really enjoy this part of the job,” she says. “Collaboration is more than just getting the deal done – it’s about being the broker or client’s trusted adviser. I think communication has fallen victim to automated processes in a lot of ways; that’s why at Berkley Insurance Australia, our foray into online platforms has always been about maintaining that ‘local broker, local underwriter’ motto.”
Owens explains that while online platforms certainly have a place in the modern insurance environment, Berkley doesn’t want them to totally replace human interaction. She feels that the social isolation caused by COVID-19 has actually helped push things in the right direction on this front. As workers all over the country were forced to transition to working from home, “I noticed a remarkable increase in communication, both internally and externally,” Owens says. “I’d like to think that this is one of the positives that has come out of this unprecedented situation, and I hope that in a post-pandemic world, we can maintain this need for quality human interactions. I suspect that the days of the big corporate functions will move to being a thing of the past as we focus on the more personal one-on-one interactions.”
The new rules of communication
That’s not to say that the first half of 2020 has all been smooth sailing, of course. In the wake of the pandemic, Stenning says client expectations are understandably running extremely high.
“From the perspective of claims management, processes and delivery haven’t really changed at all,” she says. “BIA has always followed the rules of its founder to ‘play fair, pay early’. As a result, our key process has always been directed towards appropriate outcomes for all stakeholders. On a day-to-day basis within my team, what has changed is how we communicate. The team isn’t in the o ce together day to day; you don’t have that extended experience from start to fi nish – everything has to be managed via different forms of communication, which we are all learning from each day.”
“Whether you’re a broker or underwriter, you’re constantly making critical decisions on the part of the insured. Being local gives you a much better understanding of all of the nuances” Barbara Stenning, Berkley Insurance Australia
The starting point of any claim is consideration of the insurance contract and how the words have been interpreted by the decisions of the courts and their jurisdictions. Because those interpretations aren’t always consistent with the claimants’ expectations, Stenning says that open communication, mutual respect and consistency in approach (something BIA is known for in the Australian market) are key when bringing parties to the table. Stenning also reminds brokers and insurers to remember that when a claim is made, it’s usually one of the worst times in the insured’s life.
“Someone has made a claim against an insured, and their world starts falling apart – financial consequences are foremost in their minds, causing concerns,” Stenning says. “Even if they haven’t done anything ‘wrong’, it doesn’t change that it feels overwhelming and pretty awful.”
This is an area where brokers can really contribute, she believes. Given the increasing complexity of insurance policies and their attendant exclusions, Stenning strongly advocates putting a human face on such situations.
“Unfortunately, I think there’s been a bit of a tendency in the industry to gloss over certain issues,” she says. “But we’ve got to be very open and clear in communication and really thoughtful about it. As one of the key front-facing representatives of the industry, it’s crucial to be encouraging greater public education around the purchase of the policy.”
“Collaboration is more than just getting the deal done – it’s about being the broker or client’s trusted adviser” Kirsty Owens, Berkley Insurance Australia
The road to recovery
Moving forward, Stenning believes clients will be looking to brokers to find more tailored solutions for their insurance needs.
“It’s all about risk transfer for their business at the end of the day,” she says. “Clients need to be cognisant of what it is they’re trying to transfer so they can manage their insurance spend and expectations.”
Given the variety of disasters that have already battered Australia during 2020, both Stenning and Owens believe the insurance landscape could look quite different post-COVID-19. The top priority will be ensuring that everyone in currently fragmented teams is following proper processes.
“From a planning perspective, we need to consider tripartite outcomes,” Stenning says. “You’ve got the insured, the benefi ciary under the policy and the insurance business as a whole. Failing to appreciate these considerations and keep them forefront of mind leads to consequences for each party.”
Stenning isn’t sure that any insurer has a full picture of what the future might look like yet. “Looking through the lens of the claimant, they’re going to be looking at getting payments fast,” she says. “Given the disruptions caused by wider circumstances, they’re not going to want to wait for court timetables, which have been slowed down by events across the globe. I think we’ll probably see a lot more emphasis on informal settlements and mediation.”
It’s on the industry as a whole to help rebuild trust, she adds. “By keeping local and keeping in contact, communicating efficiently and meeting needs, I think we can go a long way towards doing that.”