Customer Service And The Insurance Industry: Best Practices We All Can Learn From

Customer service. Insurance industry. If these two concepts don’t seem like they go together, maybe you haven’t thought it through. As a customer service consultant, I’ve long felt that the insurance industry has specific features that make customer service—or “client service,” if you prefer–essential for success.  First, there’s the intangible nature of the insurance product.  Insurance expenditures are, if all goes well, “wasted” money for the insured, which means that in the normal course of events, a client never has a chance to find out how good the underlying coverage is; most of the time, push, happily, never comes to shove.

So, a client sizes up an insurance agency instead on what they can judge, much of which comes down to the quality of the customer service. These appraisable customer service touchpoints range from the mundane but essential (how quickly do they return my calls?) to the more subtle (Do they anticipate my needs? Do they protect me from mistakes that I, as a non-professional, may be at risk of making? Overall do they, as the expression goes, have my back?)

But sometimes push does come to shove; sometimes, the hurricane really does hit the fan. At this end of the insurance experience, insurance professionals have to be able to work empathetically with clients in times of sometimes extreme stress and even distress: when the roof is leaking, the basement flooding, the ground shaking, the loved one dying. All of which makes the importance of customer service an essential discipline—at least as essential as it is to the success the customer-focused industries and companies that usually get the customer service press: the Apples and Nordstroms of the world.

As Larry Keefe, Chairman and CEO of Starkweather and Shepley Insurance Brokerage, Inc., puts it, “We simply don’t have a business without our clients entrusting us with their business and finding us worthy of their renewal business and referrals.  In turn, we wouldn’t have those clients without our other great asset, our associates. Which leads to our simple, circular model: Our firm takes care of our associates so they’ll take care of our clients, who take care of our associates, who grow our firm.”

This approach would seem to be working. Starkweather and Shepley is the largest insurance agency in Rhode Island, which may not make them sound all that massive to those of you in the larger 49 states. More tellingly, however, they’re one of the 25 largest independent agencies nationwide for personal insurance and one of the 100 largest independent agencies overall, and are licensed to sell insurance nationwide. In the course of Keefe’s tenure, the firm has grown tenfold in revenue (to $50 million) with a target for 2020 of $70 million. Over the same time they’ve grown fourfold in staff, now employing 230 “stakeholders” (as they refer to employees) in 13 offices that cover most of New England as well as parts of Florida.

Starshep (as they call themselves internally) turns out to have made some systemic, foundational custom-focused decisions. Let’s look at three of these decisions in the hope that any one of these could make a significant improvement to most any company in any service industry or elsewhere.

1. Look to customer service models outside of your industry. Rather than only looking within its industry for benchmarks, Starshep models its customer service on the hospitality industry. This is not entirely surprising, as hospitality is one of Starshep’s practice groups; they provide coverage to some of the great hotels and resorts in the U.S. Keefe: “We consciously use hospitality as a model, and strive to provide our clients with five-star service; even though we sell insurance, we want the experience to be on the level of what you get of walking into a great hotel, and, from there forward, for every touchpoint to be as well prepared for and executed as well as what you would get from a great hospitality provider.”

2. Emphasize talent management and promote from within. Starshep is unusual in that it’s held in trust and has been since 1935, with a commitment, according to Keefe, that the firm will never be sold. “The intentions and interests of the trust are not based on returns to shareholder stock. Instead, the trust structure ensures the firm’s existence and perpetuity for the benefit of our clients and our associates.” This is an unusual position and structure in an industry environment that’s rife with consolidation, and the fact that Starshep is held in trust, with continuity of leadership, says Keefe, ‘leads to quite a stable of associates who have been here more than 25 years. Just think of the kind of continuity this brings to the customer experience.” In addition to ensuring continuity of mission, this allows Starshep to offer opportunities for professional growth to those who want it. “Our approach is that anybody who works here can aspire to be the chairman and CEO. It’s completely merit based.” Which is an essential part of Starshep’s strategy “for continuing to attract new, best-in-class talent to grow our business as existing top talent ages and eventually retires.”

3. Invest in customer- and employee-supporting technology. “Nobody would confuse us with being a high-tech firm, but we’re committed to using technology to leverage our human capital here, to heighten the client experience, and to make us more operationally efficient.” Although Starkweather & Shepley’s book of business has grown to ten times what it was when Keefe came to the company, the number of employees supporting that book of business has grown less than half as much. This efficiency has been accomplished by keeping a close eye on technological tools that support customers directly, and those that improve the performance of employees as they engage in supporting customers as well. “Even though we were founded as a firm in the early part of another century, we understand that insurance clients in 2017 want the same level of technical support that they receive in more tech-savvy industries. Your customers are the same customers who buy from Amazon, who order their latte on their mobile from Starbucks… we have to keep up, in speed and in convenience.”

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