Let's Watch Our Language

How can we reinvent the customer experience when insurance's insular language limits our ability to entertain outside perspectives?

During a podcast I recorded last week with Capgemini's global insurance lead, Seth Rachlin, we went on at some length about a pet peeve of mine: the insurance industry's archaic and often downright unfriendly language.

While I've hit this topic before (most notably here), I haven't exactly seen much change in the past several years, so I'll keep harping on the problem. I realize that not everyone focuses on language as much as I do -- coming from a family with half a century as copy editors at the Wall Street Journal will shape your perspective -- but I believe that insurance's insular language limits our ability to entertain outside perspectives.

As the saying goes, "We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us."

The particular issue that set Seth and me off is the notion of the "customer." That's hardly an archaic or unfriendly term -- in normal use. But insurers often refer to brokers and agents as their customers. I love brokers and agents, but, sorry, they aren't the customers. The people who pay the premiums, who face the risks, who file the claims -- those are the customers.

At a time when we're all supposedly focusing on the customer experience, how can we even begin to get it right if our language steers us toward serving those who sell rather than those who actually use our products?

Almost as bad: In just about every industry, interactions are handled by "customer service representatives." Why can't insurance use that term? Why send me an "adjuster," whose title suggests that either the insurer doesn't think I'm bright enough to get the claim right on my own or that I'm downright dishonest and need to be checked out? The adjuster can do exactly the same job as always. Let's just give customers a friendlier term.

Or: Why are payments to customers referred to as "losses"? When a bank or mutual fund sends me money I've earned, it's paying me interest or capital gains. Corporations pay me dividends. None of these firms talk about losses just because money has moved from them to me. So, why does the insurance industry refer to a payment on my behalf to a doctor as a "medical loss"? Why is a payment to help me recover from property damage in a storm a "catastrophe loss"? Why isn't a "loss" called a "payment to a cherished customer to help the person/business recover in a time of need"?

Yeah, that's a bit long, but surely "claims" or "paid claims" could replace "losses."

Just changing three terms -- "customer," "adjuster" and "loss" -- would go a long way toward reorienting the industry's thinking and lead to a friendlier experience for customers, but let's not stop there. Here are some other changes that the insurance industry should make immediately to its language to make it more accessible to customers:

  • Binder → temporary insurance
  • Rider → addition or supplement
  • Endorsement → amendment
  • Underwriting → pricing risk
  • Excess lines, surplus lines, subrogation, capitation, inland marine (inland marine!) → something that is meaningful to the customer....
  • What else? (I'd welcome thoughts in the comments section here or on LinkedIn, where this will also be posted.)

I realize that jargon can make us seem like we have inside knowledge. When my closest childhood friend went to medical school, he told me that running straight down the middle of our torsos is a narrow bit of fibrous tissue that looks like a white line. "It's called the linea alba," he said. "You know what that means in English? The direction translation is, 'white line.' But you sound smarter when you say it in Latin."

I also realize that those in the industry understand all the terms and thus feel no need to change. But if we're really to get outside our own heads and see the world from the customer point of view, then fixing our language would be a great place to start.

Stay safe.


P.S. Here are the six articles I'd like to highlight from the past week:

The Next Wave of Insurtech

With automated claims processing, the turnaround time for settlement will be measured in minutes rather than days or weeks.

Insurance 2030: Implications for Today

How employees will be recruited, trained and retained will be quite different – and organizations need to start on that journey today.

Rise of ‘Product-ism,’ Fall of ‘Project-ism’

Firms struggle because they view AI initiatives as small projects rather than a product requiring continuing maintenance and investment.

2020 Catastrophes; Preview for 2021

If this spring La Nina holds together, the central plains could get back to seeing severe weather that was lacking last year.

Life Insurance Is Ripe for Change in 2021

Under the incoming administration, the focus on consumer protection regulation will rise for financial services, including insurance.

Increasing Regulation on Climate Change

In 2021, climate-change actions by U.S. regulators will create both challenges and opportunities for insurers.

Paul Carroll

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Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership.

He is also co-author of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the Future We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050 and Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993.

Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.


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