No claims? Bonus

Still from More Than insurance ad

Brands become admired, respected and loved by carefully considering the way they communicate and behave at multiple touchpoints throughout the customer journey. Insurance companies are no exception. Even if they don’t immediately understand the financial benefits of getting this behaviour right – from the loyalty, advocacy and repeat business it instils, for example – they are mandated to do so by bodies like the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

In my recent experience, however, it seems that when it comes to the crucial and potentially sensitive touchpoints associated with making a claim, insurance tends to be less about financial service and more about hard-nosed business.

Now I'm sure there are insurance brands out there who do things better than others. It's quite possible that the care and support so eloquently captured in this More Than ad is indeed borne out by reality:

But my anecdotal evidence from two quite meaty insurance claims in the last year or so suggests that insurers still have some way to go if they're going to live up to their branding promises.

If, like most people, you’ve never had to claim for anything more substantial than a mobile phone or a replacement windscreen, you can count yourself lucky. Not only have you avoided being the victim of anything worthy of a serious claim, you’ve also dodged the claim process itself, which – in my experience at least – makes you feel like a victim all over again.

Damp’s quids

My first claim was to do with a damp problem in my flat caused by a leak from the property next door. I'll spare you the details of a protracted chain of increasingly frustrating correspondence with the owners (a housing association) and the local council. The upshot was that eventually I was told I could make a public liability claim against the housing association’s insurance policy.

My claim, based on an armful of quotations from damp specialists, builders, carpet fitters, redecorators and cabinetmakers, was eventually settled in full. It had taken more than two years to resolve the problem, but I felt I’d got to the right result.

When the plaster came down, however, the full extent of the damage was revealed. The damp had penetrated far further than the surface damage suggested and dry rot had set in. The additional repairs and treatment basically doubled the bill, but when I called my previously affable contact in the Zurich claims department she was unmoved. Dismissive even.

Naively (as it turns out) I had accepted a “full and final” offer and there was no possible way of increasing my claim or making a new one. I had become a closed case. A statistic. And no amount of pleading, persuading or shouting was going to change anyone’s mind.

Chastened, embittered and five grand out of pocket, I did at least now have a marketable flat. I duly went ahead with plans to sell it, and a few months later moved a mile or so down the road to a smartish terrace in New Cross, a perennially up-and-coming corner of London that’s not without its problems but has a great buzz about it.

And three months later someone set fire to my car.

Fire sale

It turns out modern cars are amazingly easy to torch. The fire investigator said it could have been as simple as putting a match to some rubbish in a plastic bag and throwing it in the gutter. The predominantly plastic bumpers would see to the rest.

Anyway, I awoke one Monday morning to the sound of a car alarm, went to the window to see if it was mine and saw flames engulfing the back of two cars (mine included), parked a few doors down on the opposite side of the road.

The fire brigade turned up quickly and did their thing. The police took a few statements, promised to look into CCTV footage, but told me not to hold out hopes of catching the culprits (for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me that they would). And within about an hour of my rude awakening I was sat in my kitchen, dazed and confused, calling my insurance company to find out what happened next.

To be fair to Admiral, the initial call was handled brilliantly. The first question on hearing what had happened was: “Are you OK?” There was warmth, genuine concern and helpfulness at this stage. It wasn't quite like the More Than ad, but the sentiment was pretty close.

A burnt-out Porsche

I’ll even forgive Admiral for the fact that I had to climb back into my ruined and stinking car to help steer it onto the back of the recovery truck later that morning. It wasn’t their fault that the contractor turned up on his own. The same can’t be said of what came next.

Having gathered up all the official reports and established that I had indeed been the victim of a mindless act of vandalism, I was handed over to the tender mercies of the claims department, who offered me a little over £6,000 to replace the car. Good luck with that.

Now this car was a lot of fun. I bought it from a mate about four years ago, an indulgence on my part but one that I felt my grandfather (who’d left me some cash) would have approved of. My friend had owned it from new and hadn’t stinted on the service and repairs. I’d (more or less) kept up that attitude so it had a full Porsche service history and a still pretty trivial 46,000 miles on the clock. By my reckoning, replacing it through a London dealer would cost at least £10,000.

I was told that the offer was so much lower because it was bought privately in the first place, despite the fact that the vast majority of similar cars (especially ones in good nick) are sold through dealer channels. My argument was met with some sympathy but not much else (an extra £200). Unfortunately, I didn't have Harvey Keitel on the case:

Over the next week or so I fell into a routine where the offer mysteriously crept up each time I refused it – usually in £200 increments – after my claims handler had “spoken to the engineer”.

At one point I resorted to Twitter in an attempt to engage with someone other than the claims handler. All I really wanted was a second opinion from someone who might have had a different agenda. Whoever mans Admiral’s Twitter account was at least helpful and constructive. It was encouraging to see this bit of the brand experience was in full working order. Unfortunately the online form I was directed to wasn’t, so we never did have a detailed conversation. The net result of my social media foray was a call from the same claims handler offering to bump up the settlement to £7,500. A bit more like it, but still not enough.

Eventually we reached the “retail value”, which is apparently the Glass’s Guide average forecourt price for the past month. Not any forecourt I could find, but by now I was well and truly fed up with the process and agreed to settle. The figure was about £1,800 higher than the original offer.

Fair enough?

The financial services industry is not exactly known for instilling trust and bonhomie, which is why the FCA has put in place initiatives like Treating Customers Fairly (TCF).

I’m sure Admiral would claim that, objectively, I was handled according to the TCF claims code. It could point out that the figure it offered me was “fair”, at least according to the letter of the policy; it could certainly claim it was prompt (no complaints there); it could argue that it was pretty clear about how it was behaving (although I can’t help thinking “the engineer” is about as transparent as The Banker on Deal or No Deal); and it could argue that any “conflicts” were handled (usually by throwing another £200 at them).

But does this really equate to “fairness”? If my settlement ended up being nearly 30 percent higher than the initial offer, how “fair” was that first figure? And how fair is it that having my car torched means I have to take on the persona of a rookie second-hand car salesman, haggling for the best price with an experienced buyer who does this kind of deal every day?

Being thrown into that role was uncomfortable for me. And I’m a reasonably level-headed individual who’s pretty good on the phone. Someone more vulnerable or less confident would – there’s no other term for it – have been ripped off.

I’m not so naive as to think that some claimants aren’t trying it on. And I understand that brokers have responsibilities that mean they can’t throw cash around willy-nilly. But equally there must be countless people out there who have fallen victim to events beyond their control, only to be bullied and browbeaten by claims handlers before – the final indignity – settling for a sum that doesn’t cover what they’ve lost.

Honest brokers

It surely doesn't have to be this way. Many brands are, like More Than and Direct Line, already implying they're changing the way claims are handled. And I fervently hope they're living up to those promises.

In today's socially connected world, the difference between what brands tell us about themselves and what we know of their reality is shrinking all the time. And, in this era of increased transparency, comparison websites and easy switching, it's more vital than ever that there are no weak links in the customer service chain. Sure, you still need to balance customer service with business imperatives, but my experience suggests the balance currently tips heavily from the customer's interests to the insurer's the minute the claim reaches the business of cold hard cash.

An insurance brand that can successfully live up to a promise of a fair, human-to-human experience throughout its customer engagement is sure to command the kind of respect and loyalty that has been in short supply in the financial services industry of late. It would certainly get my business.

Now: can anyone lend me a car for the weekend?


  • Customer service
  • Branding
  • Insurance
  • Regulation