February 26, 2019
Watch Your (Our) Language!
by Paul Carroll
Lots of industries face criticism because they talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. But the insurance industry doesn’t even talk the talk yet.
Sure, everyone is talking about improving the insurance 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 can 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.”
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.”
Less offensive but still unnecessarily bad are words like “excess” and “surplus.” The insurance may be categorized as excess and surplus to the industry, but not to me, the customer.
Some words already have meanings—and they aren’t the meanings assigned by the insurance industry. A binder is a plastic cover with three rings that you buy for your kids as they head back to school; it is not temporary 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 an amendment to an insurance policy.
Many terms are opaque, even archaic:
- “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.