Tag Archives: jargon


Are Conferences Still Worth the Effort?

I am beginning to wonder more about insurance conferences.

Over the course of my career, I have attended and spoken at numerous external events, some good, some less so. I have presented in the English language and through simultaneous translation and had translators stand by my side and paraphrase what I have said. In reality, I have had no idea what they said, and if it made sense. Who knows?

Paul Carroll’s recent article about the insurance industry’s use of impenetrable language has never been more timely – occasionally I’ve had to explain technical insurance issues in layman’s terms, so that the translator could interpret what I had said. Hiding in jargon doesn’t work in this sort of multi-lingual environment.

But the main reason for writing is to comment about insurance conferences themselves. Are they in need of reinvention? Is the old format reaching the end of its useful life? I don’t mean vendor-organized events, which are explicitly in your face. You’re really in no doubt that this is a marketing vehicle. Big vendors can summon 20,000 people to hear what is new.

What I am talking about is the indirect “third party” event that lands in our in-box with amazing regularity. Attendance numbers on some of these events can be so small that when attendees on free passes have been stripped out (sponsors, exhibitors, speakers), the target audience can be very modest indeed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love standing in front of an audience and sharing my ideas and experience. If we are anything, Insurance Thought Leaders are evangelists, and we want to share what’s on our mind and engage with our audience. But even after 30 years of speaking, I still get nervous and have to go through a personal ritual of preparation. Want to know why? It’s because no one better knows their own business and the business of insurance than the people we speak to, and they are the toughest of audiences to work with.

What that means is that insurance conference audiences attend for one of three reasons: to learn, to reaffirm their thinking or to network. Let’s take these in order.

If you attend a conference to learn, what is it about your organization that it doesn’t provide an adequate training environment? If your focus is individual learning, is sitting in a room watching multiple presentations the most effective way? Won’t you learn more from personal discussion, from coffee with a mentor or from sites like this? (You are less likely to learn if you are checking your e-mails while the presentations are being made.)

If you attend to reaffirm your thinking – well, you are probably well-informed already, and I would be very surprised if what you learn at a conference makes you think too much differently.

And networking? Well, knowing what the competition is up to is always interesting, but how much are they really going to give away? And aren’t the really interesting things happening in other customer-facing industries, such as retail and telco? Customers are setting the insurance benchmark based on the service they are receiving in other verticals.

As the innovation exec of a major global insurer once said to me, “Tony, I know what my competitors are doing. I need to know what innovation is happening in other industries, and how I can take that into insurance.”

We have a new generation of buyers – well-informed, insightful, skeptical, more experienced. They remind me of when I moved from the vendor side to the client side more than 20 years ago and created internal capabilities for insurance carriers that helped transform their models and aspirations. Poacher turned gamekeeper. I wasn’t the first to cross that particular Rubicon, and I’m certainly not the last. (I’m not entirely sure that I have been forgiven by some professional colleagues.)

So – back to conferences. Insurance marketers are increasingly questioning the return on investment for sponsorship. Are they getting to the right audience? Has the audience changed? Do speakers need to be better? Is the presentation format adequate for today’s informed environment?

Aren’t attendees entitled to ask the same questions?

Are some of today’s conferences increasingly mainly for the benefit of the organizers, not the industry?

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.