Insurance shakes off its ‘boring uncle’ persona

Technological innovation is the driving force behind the insurance sector’s need to transform its lacklustre reputation, with digital know-how and empathy now topping the list of skills staff need to better serve customers
Young people in office

Unfairly or not, the insurance industry has long endured a reputation for being dull. And it has – so the sneering logic goes – attracted similarly uninspiring people. A 2016 Spectator article, in which it was labelled “the boring uncle of the financial services family”, encapsulated the general attitude. 

In the six years since its publication, though, the insurance industry has been forced to undergo a seismic transformation. As a result, it appears to be breaking free from its avuncular cocoon.

The insurance market has been heavily disrupted following decades – if not centuries – of sticking to the same old business model and broadly similar products. The threats posed to traditional approaches by innovative insurtechs (technology innovators within the insurance sector), allied with the need to provide cover for a rapidly expanding range of emerging tech-related risks, has shaken the boring uncle from his lethargy. 

Growing risks faced by the industry include cybercrime, autonomous vehicles and data privacy. Lob in a potential Third World War, climate change, Brexit and coronavirus, and suddenly, insurance is a hugely topical and exciting industry in which to work. 

Many acknowledge, however, that Matrix-style speed-learning may be necessary to keep pace with the change.

Indeed, 30% of 975 Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) members admit that, in 2022, “gaining the right skills and knowledge to best serve customers is the biggest challenge they face”. 

Chief customer officer Gill White says CII research, published in late January, found that insurance professionals “recognise they need a combination of technical knowledge, skills and behaviour to secure the trust of the customer and help them improve their financial resilience”. 

Insurance staff require specialist knowledge and empathy 

Those looking to excel in an insurance career require “a comprehensive understanding of our sector: its fundamental principles, its market and products, and the laws and regulations that govern it,” she advises. 

And more than ever, leading candidates “need specialist knowledge to provide expertise, especially when technology is reducing the administrative burden, speeding up processing, and freeing up time to focus on more holistic advice and support”.

White adds: “Our challenge, as insurance professionals, is not just to understand the risk – and how products and services can transfer, mitigate or manage it – but to apply the right behavioural skill set to innovate quickly and apply the right solutions.”

The ability to think as if you are a customer and put their needs at the forefront of every decision you make is crucial to our success

And that’s the crucial point: acute situations require empathy. Those armed with compassion, knowledge and the technical ability to use real-time data to offer insights and the best deals will put the customer at ease.

To stand out in an increasingly crowded insurance market, Cardiff-based Admiral Group, founded in 1993, recruits staff who can follow its “customer-first” philosophy, be sensitive to their needs and use technology to inform interactions.

“As an insurer, we deal with serious incidents and distressing circumstances, so our agents, empowered by the data at their fingertips, provide exceptional customer service,” says UK chief information officer Alan Patefield-Smith. “It’s not about the system or the data; there has to be a human element to understand the customer need.”

In insurance, trust is a must

The events of the past two years have altered what customers prioritise from insurers, he says, with trust now “the number-one facet, above price, for the first time”. 

Patefield-Smith identifies a “holy trinity” that can help to foster customer trust. “It’s about surfacing the right data, then presenting the data to the agent at the right time and the agent having the right philosophy.”

Notably, Admiral Group, which has more than 11,000 employees, is the only company to have been named one of the Sunday Times Best Companies To Work For every year since the list began in 2001. With 87% of staff reporting that it’s a “great place to work”, the company has few issues attracting top talent. But to retain workers, investment has been poured into development programmes to build career paths “with mobility at the core”.

Traditional insurers, such as Admiral Group, must compete for talent with innovative insurtechs seeking to scale at speed, and with a start-up approach that may appeal to younger generations. Anthony Beilin, co-founder and CEO of Collective Benefits, an insurtech company launched in 2019 to build a safety net of cover for freelancers and gig-economy operators, says he wants to employ “creative problem solvers”.

“The ability to think as if you are a customer and put their needs at the forefront of every decision you make is crucial to our success,” he says. “Ultimately, this requires a blend of a smart, forward-thinking mindset and compassion – skills you may not originally consider when applying for a job in the insurance sector. These softer skills, as well as a firm grasp of the fundamentals of insurance, are vital for career success.”

Seeking creative problem solvers

Beilin urges traditional and insurtech employers to “use the evolution of customer needs and changing markets to think out of the box” in terms of insurance products and developing skills. “It is time to accept that the tried-and-tested methods are not an effective way to attract emerging talents or to close the widening knowledge gap,” he continues.

“For instance, we’d like to see more companies avoid the standard ritual of sending employees on a traditional training course and explore new learning avenues – such as internships with tech companies and trialling new courses to increase understanding of digital-user experiences.” 

Encouraging employees to extend their understanding of how non-traditional sectors create modernised user experiences enables them to develop new skills and gain technical knowledge of the industry, he adds. 

White agrees. To those considering a career in the industry, she says: “If you want to make a massive difference to people’s lives, enter the insurance profession. By deepening your knowledge and enhancing your skill set, you can build a highly rewarding career shaped around your talents and pursue an extensive range of paths throughout your working life.”

Boring uncles need not apply.