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Don't get even, get ethical: build trust to counter industry criticism.

Welcome again to March, when we traditionally join with The CPCU Society and many other fine insurance organizations by devoting this article to a topic pertaining to National Ethics Month.

And what could be more ethical than considering how to respond when someone strongly implies we aren't?

Recently my favorite "keep-my-finger-on-the-pulse-of-the-industry" forum--namely, Facebook--lit up with insurance folks linking to and crying out against a recent article posted on MSN. Provocatively titled "10 things your auto insurer won't tell you," clearly it had succeeded in the holy grail of all web news postings. No, not beginning a spirited, thought-provoking discussion among interested and lucid readers--starting a flame war.

In no time, the comment counter soared. Soon it became clear that nearly every comment fell into one of two camps: those for whom the author merely confirmed all their existing suspicions of what a low-down, scum-sucking industry we are; and those in our industry contending the author had confirmed their existing suspicions of what low-down, scum-sucking persons the typical industry critics are.

In the Internet world, where success is often measured by size of reaction as opposed to intelligence of the content, mission accomplished!

So what does this latest dust-up have to do with Ethics Month?

Ah, digital grasshopper, attend: The key reason this article and its ilk resonate and stir passions is because it plays to the simple truth that most folks trust our industry about as far as they can throw their computer. And we're talking desktop here, not iPad.

And the reason for that simple truth is a lack of trust. Note this mistrust is not necessarily due to actual bad experiences with insurance. Rumors suffice. In seminars, even agents can't wait to share the latest horror stories of the carrier that is only out for itself: stiffing legitimate claimants, cutting commissions, playing games with eligibility or talking about the irresponsibility of other carriers in refusing to charge adequate premiums while leading the race to the bottom.

Is it any wonder with the plethora of attorneys and consumer writers out there with a vested interest in profiting from a bad insurance industry image that we struggle to win the hearts and minds of the public--to say nothing of regulators? The real kicker is there are more than enough bad apples out there to furnish an abundance of true stories to feed those negative narratives.

From an ethical standpoint, we can't defend the bad apples. And we score no points with anyone by trotting out the old excuse that every societal segment from commerce to congress to congregations has their share.

But what we can and must do is throw our best efforts into approaches and actions that are specifically designed to meet our industry's No. 1 ethical objective: build trust. Out of necessity, our products are often complex, our mathematics obtuse, and the purposes of our underwriting and claims procedures not always clear. At a foundational level, all we sell is trust--that if the client will faithfully pay us now, we will faithfully be there when they need us most in the future. We take their money, hand them some paper or a PDF that most can't make heads or tails of even if they did read it, and basically say, "Trust us."

So here is my ethics question: In your organization, do you have a definite policy and procedure that at every possible opportunity, with every contact with a client or prospect, you are focused on building trust? Do you measure all of your interactions with others on the basis of, "Will this build or weaken trust?"

For example, many well-meaning insurance folks who responded to the online article missed a golden opportunity when they elected to take the "get-even" response over the "build-trust" option. Sure, it feels good to let the other guy "have it" once in a while. But who wins when the "discussion" boils down to "Yo mama!"?

Consider these actual quotes from comments responding to the article (some were stronger, but this is a family magazine):

"This entire article is nothing but a bunch of lies."

"You are full of lies. The entire article is telling truth that you are... All insurances are greedy and don't care about their customers."

"This article is hogwash."

"... the one thing for sure, all insurance companies will stick it to you if they can."

Well, that certainly covers the playground approach of, "You're an idiot. "No, you are." "Am not!" "Are so!" No wonder Socrates drank hemlock.

Then there was this digital explosive:

"So far, in my 20 years of having car insurance I have been nothing but disappointed and frustrated with such a corrupt and slimy business group. I have therefore come to conclude that Insurance companies hold the perspective in my life as one step up from child molesters."


Not every comment simply took a side.

But far too many respondents who thought they were taking the middle ground actually just drove the knife in deeper. Consider this mixed blessing from a consumer:

"I personally hate insurance companies. They clearly are out to screw customers, but having said that ... I think insurance agents get a bad rap. I think it's the insurance adjusters who are criminals."

Then there were the industry folks who, while decrying the overall tone of the article, couldn't resist the opportunity to take their own shots at the insurance world:

"Do yourself a favor; get a good independent broker and let them work up options for you. Then when you have a claim, you will have someone to help you and guide you through the process, and fight for your rights as a claimant. The agent who works for the insurance company or you got off the TV is not going to do that for you, is s/he?"

May I point out a basic truth? When someone is attacking your industry as a whole, saying, "Well, yeah, the rest of those insurance guys are crooks but not me!" isn't a rebuttal but a self-inflected wound. To paraphrase Queen, "And another trust bites the dust."

The comments quoted above were typical of the majority of responses to the forementioned article. A few brave insurance souls tried to wade in with a sometimes detailed defense against the points made in the article. But even these suffered from an overdose of "technosis," thinking references to specific policy language or claims procedures would win over the skeptics. If the goal had been to pass an exam, they were spot on. But if the intent was to build trust, their efforts were lost on readers who saw the technicalities as proof insurance is deliberately complicated as a conspiracy to keep regular folks in the dark.

An ethics focus offers the opportunity to move the discussion away from "sound and fury" and at least nudge it toward trust-building.

For a brief example, consider article point No. 8: "Your mechanic works for us." It warns against "direct-repair" programs where the insurer recommends the claimant choose from a pre-approved list of repair shops, sometimes with incentives such as waived deductibles. The assertion is these are sweetheart deals, with the shop and insurer in cahoots to fleece the unwitting consumer. Many of the insurance responses ran along the lines of "no, we don't do that--you can go anywhere you want."

Interestingly enough, many repair shop folks wrote in protesting this was all the insurance carrier's idea, and even if the carrier was taking the low road, the repair shop would do the right thing by the client. Once again we take the hit in an argument that follows interesting logic: "The article is dead wrong, unless of course you aren't buying that, in which case it is at least dead wrong about us, but not the insurance industry, and if you still aren't buying, then at least believe it's still the insurance industry's fault, since we were only following orders."

So how may a possible ethical "trust-building" response go?

"Yes, we do have such programs. The intent is to be certain you have available reputable shops that you and we can trust to do the work correctly at a fair price. If you have someone you prefer to use, we ask only that they also agree to those two goals and to deal with us directly on any disputes or newly discovered hidden damages we may have missed in our original inspection. The bottom line is to restore your car to you in a manner that meets our promise as provided by your insurance policy."

I am not trying to wordsmith or play attorney, just illustrate one approach that seeks to avoid sound and fury while remaining accurate, clear and confirming the promise made at the time they purchased the coverage will be met.

May I suggest an Ethics Month exercise? Look up the article at Review the 10 points. Ask others both in and outside the industry for other common criticisms of our industry. Then develop your own personal open, honest and clear "trust-building" response to each. Tell those others of your intent and ask them to review your responses and make suggestions. Then consider posting some of the criticisms, and your response, on your website, blog, newsletter or anywhere you communicate with clients and prospects.

This won't change the world's opinions in a day. Building trust requires a long-term, consistent commitment to ethical dealings in everyday relationships.

And that's just fine. Because in honor of Ethics Month, let's all remember: Instead of cursing the darkness, it's better to light a candle--not a flamethrower.

Chris Amrhein, AAI, is an insurance educator and speaker with more than 30 years in the industry. he also is the chief fun officer of and author of "Yes, Virginia, There is Insurance." You can contact him at
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Title Annotation:Policy Issues
Author:Amrhein, Chris
Publication:American Agent & Broker
Date:Feb 26, 2011
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