Somehow, despite a long career as a writer and editor, I never got around to reading Bill Bryson's masterful book, "The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way," for, oh, more than 30 years. But I picked it up recently, and it fleshed out my understanding of and appreciation for English in all kinds of ways.
While I knew, for instance, that England's rulers spoke a form of French after William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel from Normandy and dispatched King Harold at Hastings in 1066, I didn't realize that the rulers spoke a language different than the common people for more than three centuries, until almost 1400. With no rules about English being handed down from on high, the language developed in a sort of free-for-all of decisions about vocabulary, spelling, conjugation of verbs, etc. in pockets all over the country. Then, just 50 years or so later, in the mid-1400s, the printing press acquired movable type, publishing took off -- and there needed to be rules.
In the crush to standardize on a language that could be printed and understood by masses of people, a haphazard approach to rules led to the mishmash of spellings and pronunciations that are tough enough for us native speakers but bedevil the many who learn English as a second or third language. As just one example: "ache" took its pronunciation from a region where it was spelled "ake" but kept the spelling from an area where the "ch" was pronounced as in Charlie.
Ruminating about the origins and development of English got me thinking about the language we use in insurance. While we talk a good game about being customer-centric, our language says otherwise.
If we really want to put the customer at the center of everything we do, we have to start by giving up on two words: "adjuster" and "losses."
While there's plenty of room to complain, in general, about insurance jargon -- and I've done my share of griping -- the core of the language issue boils down to those two words, "adjuster" and "losses," because they send exactly the wrong signal to customers.
Sending an "adjuster" to process a claim tells the customer we don't trust them. Referring to payments to customers as "losses" tells them we're going to try to minimize those payments as much as possible, even though the promise of those payments is why customers hire us in the first place.
As I wrote in 2019:
"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.'"
The switch to a term like "customer agent" just doesn't seem that hard. Yes, the term "adjuster" has a long history, but we're still allowed to move past it, just as we've moved beyond the Middle English that prevailed in the 1400s.
To quote from my 2019 self again, this time about "losses":
"Almost as bad is 'losses,' as in 'cat losses' or 'medical losses.' How about, instead: 'payments to highly valued customers in their time of need, after years of premium payments on their part'? Does Amazon record a loss when it ships me something? Of course not. And those payments on health or cat insurance aren't losses, either; they're just the cost of doing business—people don't pay those premiums simply because they like us. So, let's look at our business through the customer's eyes and book 'payments' or somesuch, not 'losses.'"
And from 2021:
"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'?... Surely 'claims' or 'paid claims' could replace 'losses.'"
Changing the term "losses" will be tougher because it's used by accountants, who have their own rules and are loath to change. The term is also less of an affront to customers than "adjuster," because the industry mostly just talks about losses when it's talking to itself or to investors. Still, no justified payment to a client should be treated as a loss -- not if we're serious about looking out for the wellbeing of our customers.
I realize that old habits die hard, but I'm going to keep trying -- and I hope you will, too. If we can change the way we talk about our interactions with customers, we'll be much more likely to improve the interactions themselves.