Beyond comparison

8th Jun 2015

The insurance industry has changed significantly in the time it has taken Amanda Blanc to rise from graduate trainee to CEO of Commercial Lines & Personal Intermediary at AXA Insurance. Customer Focus asks how advancing technology and comparison websites were affecting relationships with customers – and discovers they’re more important than ever.

‘Not so long ago, a customer would walk in off the high street, sit down with a broker and discuss their motor insurance renewal. You’d have a relationship, and know who had a good claims history. Now we don’t get a chance to have that conversation,’ says Blanc.

As chief executive of AXA in the UK, Amanda Blanc is responsible for the general insurance needs of millions of business and personal customers – both directly,and through brokers – with an influence on business development worldwide.

It took just 22 years for Amanda to work her way from a graduate traineeship to leading a company with £2 billion in turnover. However, during that time, the industry has changed beyond recognition.

Excellent service drives business

Most obvious is the rise of price comparison websites: ‘From our customers’ point of view,’she says, ‘it’s convenient to self-serve from home at ten o’clock at night, and compare prices.

‘But there are downsides. A list of numbers doesn’t tell you much about the kind of company you’re dealing with. How is their financial security – or their claims service?There’s a trade-off for both sides.’

On the face of it, the change makes the process of buying insurance more impersonal. However,Amanda believes the ease of comparison makes customer relationships significantly more important when there’s a claim.

She explains: ‘Online, satisfaction ratings really matter – when you improve customer service, it’s inevitable that new business follows.

‘But we don’t sell a physical product. The only time an insurance contract matters is when there’s a claim. That means every single one of my people has to deliver excellent customer service.’

Managing expectations

That presents a clear challenge: ensuring consistently good experience at a time of distress.

‘When somebody’s lost all their possessions or had to move out of their home for three months, it’s difficult to ask them if they’re thrilled about how you’ve handled it,’ Amanda continues. ‘Word of mouth is unlikely, but even a star rating lets people make a more informed judgement about the value they’re getting.

‘Thankfully, a car accident or house fire is not something that happens to you every day. But that also means our customers don’t know what to expect, which makes it hard to say what excellent customer service looks like in our industry.

‘So I want us to put customers back in the position they were in before, with as little hassle as possible – and at the end of it, for them to say we’ve done a good job.’

Amanda says this is achieved by ‘being straightforward with customers – making it clear what’s going to happen, how we’re going to stay in contact and how we’re going to keep our promise to pay, so they get what they were expecting when they paid for the insurance.’

Responding to customer emotions

Although quantitative metrics have their place, Amanda feels emotional factors play a bigger role in customers’ satisfaction. ‘Obviously we measure compliments and complaints,and how quickly we deal with claims,’ she says, ‘but for me the biggest measure is how the customer feels at the end of the experience – whether they felt we were fair, and delivered what they were expecting when they bought the policy.

‘Those emotional elements are exceptionally difficult to measure. We’re implementing Feefo, a review and ratings provider, to gain quick feedback after every interaction.It’s not a long, in-depth survey, but that instant mechanism means we can still salvage the situation if there’s a trend emerging, or we haven’t quite got it right.

‘We try to pounce on small issues. Many of the complaints I see on my desk should never have got there – we want to be proactive and spot and solve problems before the customer becomes dissatisfied.’

Constantly evolving service

 This stream of feedback represents an ongoing opportunity for AXA to refine its customer processes. Amanda continues: ‘We sometimes see areas where customers are regularly interpreting the legal wording in a different way than we intended – so we’ll change that and make it clearer.

‘Similarly, we found our process for determining whether travel insurance customers were covered for repatriation after an accident was often adding extra stress, at at ime that is already difficult enough. So now we’ll always help them get home,and then discuss the cover later.’

Happily, that kind of situation is so rare that there’s no way to confirm the significance of each process change on satisfaction outcomes. For Amanda, however, the over all trend is proof enough.

‘We’ve had a clear improvement in the number of complaints to the Financial Ombudsman Service, and fewer of them are being upheld, because of changes we’ve made,’she says. ‘Our customer satisfaction ratings have improved, and we see more new business coming from customer recommendations.’

The impact of technology

The insurance products on offer, their distribution and the methods of customer interaction have all changed dramatically, in the last five years alone. But Amanda believes technology is also allowing insurers to be more flexible, and more creative.

‘Customers were telling us: “When you take my car into the garage, I’ve no idea what’s happening to it” so we’re trying to change that. In some garages now, you can even log onto a webcam and see the repair as it happens.’

Far from making insurance less personal, she continues, automated systems that handle the most basic claims in a fraction of the time could free resources to offer a more supportive, bespoke process – taking account of the individual circumstances – when it comes to complex claims.

‘In a few years we might use drones to assess a claim – or let customers show us a property using FaceTime. We need to keep thinking about ways we can use the technology available, and what customers would expect us to do.’

Sensitivity and choice

Equally, the availability of technology is making emotional intelligence increasingly critical in determining how and when each service should be delivered.

Amanda recalls: ‘In last year’s floods, people needed to wait for the water to recede before we could help. That’s quite a sensitive thing to explain, and a digital or recorded message wouldn’t have been acceptable.

‘However, if someone’s electricity has gone off and they just want to make a quick claim for their freezer contents, they’ll probably be happy that they can just email us a couple of documents, and we can pay them digitally in ten minutes without needing to talk to us at all.

‘But it’s not just the type of claim that varies,’ she adds, ‘it’s the type of customer. My 95-year-old grandparents wouldn’t want to scan their food bill, whereas a 20-year-old would think nothing of it.

‘It’s about giving people options – not forcing them. There’s nothing more frustrating than a service process that’s designed with the company, not the customer, in mind.

‘We’re constantly thinking: if you were a customer, what would you be upset about,going through this process? Any new process or product design starts with different types of customer groups, to ensure we’re doing the right thing.’

Insurance in the relationship economy

Amanda says customers’ shifting expectations have produced ‘a fundamental shift of mindset’over the last few years.

‘We realised that benchmarking ourselves against other insurers is actually quite irrelevant,’ she explains. ‘Customers’ expectations will be created by experiences with their best service provider; we have to be as good as that.

‘So we’ve upped our game significantly, and looked at the best retailers, the service companies, and the sharing economy – that’s where our customers would expect us to draw our inspiration. We’re not there yet, but we’re well on our way.

‘Ensuring great service across 4,000 people? It’s complex. But having great people makes a massive difference.’

To equip those people, AXA’s claims handlers are given the opportunity to develop a breadth of experience within the department, dealing with customers of different kinds.

‘They start taking claims, learn and develop and move into more complex parts of the business,’ Amanda reveals. ‘That gives us a great mixture of experience, so getting the culture right isn’t hard to do.

‘Technology,clear rules and guidelines will help. But simply sharing experiences can be powerful – what worked well, or how we screwed up and what we’ve learned. The culture is about knowing we’re never at the final destination; the world is always changing, so it’s never finished.’

Sharing a common goal

Ultimately,Amanda believes, a single, customer-oriented vision is key: ‘The claims team,the directors, the managers: we all need to understand that we’re here to deliver a great customer service, and need to be flexible about how customers can deal with us.

‘It doesn’t matter if you work in the post room or you’re a senior director, everyone needsto know where we’re going, and how we’re getting there. We’re constantly working on that, because what good looked like five years ago doesn’t work now.’

Reflecting on her experience, Amanda concludes: ‘When I came back to AXA, the business was ina bad shape. We weren’t profitable, and customer retention was falling. But four years later we’ve improved massively. Many great people have worked hard to transform the business.

‘Unfortunately,bad things do happen to people. Making things as easy for them as possible isour life’s work – and as I look around now I’m confident we’re ready to take on that challenge.’

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