Have you ever considered the damage done to broker client relations by the introduction of email in the early ‘90s? Or the telephone in decades preceding that? With the introduction of insurtech, and all that goes with it, it seems we are merely entering another phase in the depersonalisation of insurance and business in general.

But there are two golden threads that run through the story here. One of broker relations with insurers, and the other being the insurer vs broker vs end-consumer.

Look, there’s no denying we would likely still be painting fire marks on buildings, as they did with the birth of insurance in the 17th century following the Great Fire of London, had it not been for the influence of technology on our industry. But some are waking up to the fact that all this fastidiousness and efficiency is steering us away from a good old conversation with clients, an essential ingredient in the success of broker business.

In a world where consumers can instantly research alternative options to your offering, and a cheaper one at that, loyalty serves as the Velcro between you and the client. “The way to build that loyalty is by providing a fantastic service experience, one which builds an affinity for your brand,” says Alison Treadaway, director at Striata. She explains it is impossible to grow a rapport with your client without any interaction after the initial sale. “In the absence of any additional value from you, the consumer is left with the basic criteria of product and price; and with the amount of information instantly available, they will chop and change services without a second thought.”

Berniece Hieckmann, an executive at Metropolitan Retail, says this strong relationship leads to holistic decisions that deliver for the client in the long term and protect against short-term business “with a damaging churn”.

However, Treadaway paints a picture of an ever-increasing digital ‘insurancescape’ thanks in part to the millennial segment who largely want to do their business online. “[They] are not fond of the phone, as their interactions are online, by email and via instant chat,” she adds. It’s worrying then that half of the insurers aren’t ready for this change, as noted in a report by Bain & Company.

Face-to-face selling will become a fraction of the market, Treadaway warns, and brokers will have to become more digitally accessible, both during the sales cycle and as a means of servicing policyholders.

Offer your clients a choice of how to engage, and it will be key to retaining them, and give sufficient information online so they can do the necessary research if they choose to do so. Also, make the purchase decision easy by minimising paperwork and enabling the customer to do as much as possible online, she explains. Once the purchase is completed, clients must be able to review their cover, make changes and submit a claim via multiple digital channels.

Hieckmann also makes reference to the omnichannel in which advisers serve as enablers for clients and key transactional behaviour can be handled by technology. The most significant change should be in our attitudes towards our clients, she says. “It’s about having a more side-by-side and open attitude towards our clients regarding financial information and treating them with far greater dignity.”

Metropolitan has taken heed of what companies like Mr Price have done in furthering client relations, by changing till configurations so the client sees everything. “We must allow people to ‘touch’ their finances and to experiment with technology, so we have redesigned our branches in ways that ensure screens are viewed together and nothing is hidden; and we have redesigned how we communicate information in terms of clarity and visual elements,” Hieckmann explains.

Go out and prosper

“Verity, you need to go and find out the date of your underwriter’s birthday, his hobbies and what he does on the weekends,” recalls Verity Lyndon-Stanford, senior property broker at Aon, of her employer’s words during her time as a young up-and-coming broker at the company, where she qualified through the graduate scheme. “People don’t want to talk about work all the time and in building a rapport you build trust, which is key to our business,” she adds.

It’s the ‘informalising’ of a formal relationship that keeps you centre of mind with clients; something you certainly can’t achieve in an email relationship, she notes. Lyndon-Stanford’s experience of South Africa is that brokers conduct a discerning amount of business via email. “Most of it,” in her words. Having spent time in the London insurance industry, she says, “What I miss about London is the buzz of doing business, constantly meeting people, learning from others and transacting business in a personal but more productive way.”

Know your peers, grow your network and go introduce yourself. Trust me, it makes working life more fun.

This is not to say it doesn’t happen in the South African insurance sector, just that it doesn’t happen on the scale it should. “In London, there is Lloyd’s where all business is transacted face to face and people are at the heart of this thriving global marketplace,” says Lyndon-Stanford.

The broker relationship with insurers is crucial, particularly when structuring multifaceted and often global deals. The easiest and most efficient way to structure these deals is sitting on opposite sides of sheets of paper, explains Lyndon-Stanford, “scribbling diagrams to demonstrate how your clients’ processes work, drawing structure maps and thrashing out the detail. This is the most satisfying, when you are working together, negotiating but also considering the other’s viewpoint. This is how you get your best terms, by not hiding behind a computer.”

Lyndon-Stanford, the founding member of the Insurance Young Guns (IYG), feels she learnt the hard lessons from underwriters, mostly through piercing questions on the essential details of a policy: would this work for a certain situation; how would it be triggered; what are the elements insurers like or dislike?

For brokers, this career and knowledge development is priceless and can only be learnt from peers. “One of the main focuses in setting up the IYG was my experience in London and the ability to network with ease. It’s also an excellent argument for the central role of insurance institutes, which focus on meeting with peers or networking, along with education and philanthropy, she explains. “Know your peers, grow your network and go introduce yourself,” she stresses. “Trust me, it makes working life more fun.”

Automation should not be seen as a threat to customer relations, believes Treadaway of Striata, and while insurance companies focus on products and complex pricing structures, industries like banking and retail are simplifying customer engagement with technology. These digital touch points can promote your brand and build loyalty, she emphasises. Insurers are losing out on having no control over the lifecycle of their customers. Those who don’t address this digital transformation are going to fall further behind with their customers and profitability, Treadaway explains.

This is not just a story about cellphones, websites and who has the best algorithms, says Hieckmann of Metropolitan, “It is about the critical need to keep face to face and call centres as part of the financial service mix because the category often requires the re-assurance of an individualised and human connection rather than an impersonal online platform. But that has to be provided in a way that gives the customer the choice and enables them to switch seamlessly between channels. It’s also about delivering far more transparency and accessibility.”

Where the telephone, email, and now robots may have stolen significantly the face time that cemented relationships in the past, how many of us has it served to connect in the last few years? A life without it is incomprehensible. Having said that, nothing beats good conversation around a table, phones facing down.