August 17, 2015
Insurance Needs a New Vocabulary
by Paul Carroll
Lots of industries face criticism because they talk the talk but don’t walk the talk — the computer industry, for instance, long talked about making machines intuitive but required users to work their way through manuals and memorize long series of steps before they could accomplish anything. But the insurance industry doesn’t even talk the talk yet.
Sure, everyone is talking about improving the customer experience, but look at the words we use. Many are opaque — the industry talks to itself, somehow unaware that customers are listening and are turned off by the gobbledygook. Some words are even offensive — we’re saying things to customers that we really don’t want to be saying.
We have to at least get our talk — our vocabulary — straight before we tackle the much deeper issues and figure out to really engage customers and address their evolving needs.
My least-favorite word is one so widely used that few will find it offensive: “adjuster.” My problem: If I’m filing a claim, I don’t want it adjusted. I want it paid.
Yes, I realize that processing claims is complicated and that all sorts of adjustments need to be made. I also realize that no industry simply pays when a claim is made against a company. But if you send me an “adjuster,” you’re telling me right off the bat that you don’t trust me, and that’s a lousy way to start an interaction. It certainly isn’t any way to start a relationship, which is what insurers insist they want with customers these days. Don’t trust me, if you must, but send me a “claims professional” or simply a “customer service representative.” Don’t send me an “adjuster.”
Less offensive but still unnecessarily bad are words like “excess” and “surplus.” The insurance may be categorized as excess and surplus to you, but not to me, the customer. I’ll thank you to treat my needs with the respect they deserve (says the customer).
Some words need to go away because they already have meanings — and they aren’t the meanings assigned to the words by the insurance industry. A binder is a plastic cover with three rings that you buy for your kids at this time of year as they head back to school; it is not temporary evidence of insurance. An endorsement is something you put on the back of a check — or at least used to, before banks simplified deposits. An endorsement is not something that modifies an insurance policy.
Mostly, many terms need to be revisited because they are opaque, and often archaic:
- “Underwriting”? How about “assessing risk”?
- “Actuary”? That’s a legitimate word, but I prefer the European form: “mathematician.” (“What do you do at XYZ Insurance Co.?” “I’m the mathematician.”) “Mathematician” just seems friendlier.
- “Capitation” and “subrogation”? Important functions, but there have to be layman’s terms that can be substituted.
- If I’m buying life insurance, good luck getting me to grasp intuitively the difference between whole life and universal life; “whole” and “universal” are practically synonyms in this context.
- “Inland marine”? Please.
While we’re at it, let’s do away with the acronyms. All of them — at least on first reference, and mostly in subsequent references, too.
Changing the language will be hard because so many in the industry subscribe to what I think of as a 19th century sort of approach to business: Let’s make things seem as complicated as possible to justify the existence of lots of experts and intermediaries and to demand nearly blind faith by clients. This is sort of the “don’t try this at home, folks,” approach to business. Leave the complicated terms to us.
The approach has worked for insurers for a very long time. It has worked for doctors and lawyers. If a cynical T.A. in a philosophy class in college way back when is to be believed, it worked for Hegel, too — he supposedly wrote a short, clear version of his big idea (thesis/antithesis/synthesis), and no one took him seriously; he then wrote a 1,000-page, nearly impenetrable version, called it merely the introduction to his ideas and found lasting fame.
But things have changed since Hegel wrote in the early 1800s. Now, if I want to remind myself about Hegel, I turn to Wikipedia and its clear, little summary; I don’t crack open The Phenomenology of Spirit. Change has accelerated in recent years, to the point where even doctors find themselves having to communicate more with patients in plain English.
If doctors can simplify how they communicate about the mind-boggling issues involved in medicine, then the rest of us can figure out how to talk the talk in insurance. We need to begin by taking a hard look at every term we use and revising many of them, from the perspective of a total newbie customer, so we talk to customers the way they expect us to talk to them.
That’s the only way to lay the groundwork for the broad improvements in the customer experience that we all want to deliver and that customers are increasingly demanding.