Speaking with Insurance Business UK,
chairman and co-founder of Emerald Life Steve Wardlaw said his foray into the world of insurance has been a change of pace. He was previously a partner at US law firm Baker Botts, becoming the first English-qualified associate to join the business and running the company’s Moscow branch for eight years, but has now taken the first steps into his insurance career.
“To be honest, this is probably the most boring midlife crisis I think anybody has ever had,” Wardlaw said. “No Ferraris, no tattoos, no affairs, just ‘I should leave law and do insurance’.”
Emerald Life launched at the end of March this year as an insurer that supports the LGBT community. Along with Heidi McCormack, former executive director of new business development for General Motors in Russia, Wardlaw founded the company to address what he describes as an inequality of experience in the financial sector for members of the LGBT community. There are plans for the Emerald Life brand to enter other financial services, but Wardlaw said insurance made for an excellent starting point.
“Because it’s necessary and people don’t think about it as a very exciting part of their lives, they sometimes accept the fact that they’re not getting the service they should,” said Wardlaw.
The biggest difference Emerald Life is focussing on is delivering an improved customer service.
“When you got down into the detail, people would still justifiably grumble and say ‘look I’m just not getting the same service as my straight sister or colleague in the office, and sometimes I don’t want to call the insurer because they will always presume my partner is of the opposite sex’,” said Wardlaw. “Or there will be a kind of awkwardness in the call when you have to come out, or they don’t understand the kind of varied and diverse family structures that exist nowadays.”
The decision to start Emerald Life wasn’t just based off anecdotal evidence. Before launching, Emerald Life conducted a YouGov survey of both LGBT and straight consumers regarding their opinions of insurers. Complaints included unclearly written policies, misleading promotions and slow claims processing, but the survey also generated a list of issues specific to LGBT people.
Seventy nine per cent of the LGBT community surveyed said they would change the way insurance companies treat them, particularly around call centre language and the lack of depictions of same-sex couples in advertisements.
Wardlaw said minor changes as to how customers are treated can make everyone feel comfortable, in particular citing how a call centre operator asks for the name of a partner.
“Because as soon as somebody says, and this is a big one, ‘what’s her name?’, then I’m in a quandary,” he said. “I can’t now answer because I wasn’t quite ready at this stage of the conversation to come out, but I have to come out now. I didn’t want do that, we hadn’t built the relationship, all this kind of stuff. There’s ways that we’ve trained everybody to manage the process.”
Another key area is making sure transgender customers are addressed correctly. Wardlaw said these changes aren’t complicated, but require some thought put into how data is organised and presented to operators on the phones.
“The advantage of starting now, rather than say 15 years ago, is the system that we have is quite nimble and flexible compared to some of the old legacy systems that insurance companies have to try and work with because it’s just too vast a project to replace them,” he said.
Wardlaw also said Emerald Life is working hard to win back the trust of customers the insurance industry lost in the past.
“Lots of people have a very long memory, particularly our target market aged around 45-50, of insurance companies treating gay men very badly during the onset of the AIDS crisis of the late 80s and early 90s,” he said. “In those days you still needed life insurance when you were taking a mortgage, and the shutters came down if you were a gay man.”
So far Emerald Life has received a considerable amount of positive feedback from both LGBT customers and a significant minority of straight customers who are also on the company’s books.
Another area of focus is advertising. Wardlaw said using same-sex couples in advertisements is important, and something bigger insurers are slowly beginning to do, but if images aren’t reflecting changes within the business it’s just marketing.
“I’m inviting a same sex couple to come into my branch now, and if I’m doing that, I think that couple would have the right to expect that the customer journey had changed, that people weren’t assumptive or had a problem dealing with any of the issues that they may have,” he said.
Emerald Life isn’t currently working with brokers, but plans to expand into the area as the company grows. Wardlaw said brokers who treat customers respectfully and don’t make any assumptions will create better customer relationships with everyone, not just LGBT customers.
“Listen to customers, make no assumptions and if you can do that in the correct framework, you’d be surprised how honest your customers will be with you, and that’s true in financial services generally as much as insurance,” he said.
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