Tag Archives: hegel

Catastrophes and ‘Do Little’ Syndrome

Cliff Treese of Association Data brought some statistics to my attention involving earthquake (EQ) insurance in California. Going back as far as 2001, the percentage of properties without EQ insurance were:

Homeowners       84-88%

Dwelling               95-97%

Commercial         89-93%

So, only about 15% of homeowners, 10% of business owners and 5% of dwelling owners buy EQ insurance. Why? Lots of studies and surveys have been done. It’s too expensive. It doesn’t pay much, especially for partial losses, because of percentage deductibles. “It’ll never happen to me.” The government will take care of me. “I thought my regular insurance covered this.” And on and on.

One of my favorite quotations is from Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who said, “The problem with Americans is that we’re fixers rather than preventers.” This is so true in so many ways. Following Hurricane Harvey, it was widely reported that only about 15% of flooded properties had flood insurance. We’ll see what happens, if anything.

See also: Harvey: First Big Test for Insurtech 

While we can’t prevent earthquakes and hurricanes, we can prevent, to a large extent, their financial impact by buying catastrophic insurance. Private insurers sell EQ coverage and, underwritten by the NFIP, flood insurance. Yes, in many cases, it’s expensive, but what are the alternatives when the exposure is so real? As I posted last week, is it time that such coverage was mandated and included, with a federal terrorism-like backstop, in standard policies covering property damage? Such a solution would be complex and difficult, but what are the alternatives?

And, while Gen. Doolittle’s quotation is so often true, it may be even more true that, increasingly, the problem with Americans is that we’re not preventers OR fixers. In the meme I used for last week’s post, I used another quotation from the German philosopher Hegel, who said, “History teaches us that man learns nothing from history.” This may be illustrated in a recent USA Today story about repetitive flood properties with this excerpt:

“Instead, NFIP embraced a “flood-rebuild-repeat” model that has spawned an almost $25 billion debt. The National Wildlife Foundation estimated in 1998 that 2% of properties covered by federal flood insurance had multiple damage claims accounting for 40% of total flood insurance outlays, and that more than 5,000 homes had repeat claims exceeding their property value. A recent Pew Charitable Trust study revealed that 1% of the 5 million properties insured have produced almost a third of the damage claims and half the debt.”

NFIP paid to rebuild one Houston home 16 times in 18 years, spending almost a million dollars to perpetually restore a house worth less than $120,000. Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston), has almost 10,000 properties that have filed repetitive flood insurance damage claims. The Washington Post recently reported that a house “outside Baton Rouge, valued at $55,921, has flooded 40 times over the years, amassing $428,379 in claims. A $90,000 property near the Mississippi River north of St. Louis has flooded 34 times, racking up claims of more than $608,000.”

See also: Time to Mandate Flood Insurance?  

Wow. Fully 2% of properties insured for flood account for 40% of all flood insurance payments. A $120,000 home was rebuilt 16 times in 18 years at a cost of almost a million dollars. Another home has allegedly flooded 40 times and still another property 34 times, racking up combined payments in excess of a million dollars. WHY? Apparently because we’re not fixers OR preventers AND we learn nothing from history.

Insurance Needs a New Vocabulary

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.