Filed Under:Agent Broker, Agency Management

Snow daze: How insurers survived a record winter

Record snows created a host of issues for Boston-based adjusters. Photo: evantravels/Shutterstock
Record snows created a host of issues for Boston-based adjusters. Photo: evantravels/Shutterstock

The Massachusetts winter of 2015 broke multiple records and caused misery for drivers, homeowners and insurers. February was the snowiest month in Boston since 1872, with 64.8 inches of the white stuff. New records were also set for the snowiest 30-day period, with 94.4 inches between January 24th and February 22nd, and the all-time snowiest winter at 110.6 inches set shortly thereafter.

“Ice dams” quickly became the dominant topic of conversation at work, home and in the news.

Everyone was talking about ice dams: “What causes them?” “How can they be prevented?” “Who should I call for help?” and, of course, the ever-popular, “Will my insurance cover the damage?” 

Related: 5 secrets to improving customer service after a catastrophe

An insurance carrier’s reputation can be made or broken depending upon its ability to respond to customer needs after a catastrophic event, or even a series of events like those experienced this past winter. Key challenges faced by carrier leadership teams during these stressful times included effectively responding to the questions above and many others, the dramatic influx of claim volume, and keeping employees fully engaged to handle high impact service demands.

An organization can have a spectacularly detailed catastrophe response and communication strategy, but without the right talent to execute it at the moment of truth, failure becomes a looming possibility. While strategy is key, delivering a superior customer experience really begins with selecting, developing and retaining the talented individuals who will fully embrace a company’s commitment to extraordinary service.

Insurance is a business of emotion. People call when they need help during times of crisis, and emotion is often intricately tied to their needs. The impact of selecting employees who understand these needs and demonstrate a deep commitment to helping others in a highly technical and sometimes emotionally charged environment cannot be underestimated.

Snow storm

(Photo: Igumnova Irina/Shutterstock)

During the interview process, a focus on technical skill sets, potential for advancement, and corporate cultural alignment is important. Even more significant, however, is vetting the candidate’s behavioral stress response, including their ability to be calm, helpful and flexible. When a catastrophe hits and customer expectations spike to new highs, will the candidate respond and behave in the way the company not only wants them to, but needs them to? Considering the very real possibility that employees will be personally dealing with their own weather-related home, auto and family issues while being asked to deliver stellar service experiences to others, identifying resilient talent must be a priority. 

Related: Using technology to manage catastrophes

While some will call it cliché, to overlook the absolute need and power of effective communication is a fundamental mistake—even with the right talent. Communication is vital, and it can—and must—take multiple forms. It starts with a well-thought-out communication plan that is prepared long before an event occurs. The strategy should address all potential hurdles, including disaster recovery and business continuity issues, and must fully maximize all of today’s communication channels and mediums. For example, what is the best way to leverage technology and social media effectively to communicate with customers and agents? Which messages will be sent at what frequency? All of these questions must be considered when developing a comprehensive communication strategy.

Even the best plan will need tweaks, and the unique, back-to-back weather events of the winter of 2015 certainly proved that. As the relentless snow piled up by the foot, agents and customers continued to seek guidance from carriers in unprecedented numbers, forcing continued modifications in the frequency, method and content of communications. Being able to foresee new or unanticipated questions, digest them, and display the agility to respond directly, consistently, and quickly is critical. To be successful, the claims leadership team needs to be highly transparent and remain nimble and open to updating the strategy as the situation dictates. 

People often think of communication needs in terms of their impact on external partners, but the highly successful leadership teams also recognize the acute importance of effective internal communications. Providing detailed information and updates to the claims professionals who will be interacting with agents and customers is crucial to everyone’s success. When employees are kept informed, they are better positioned to effectively respond to the emotionally charged calls they receive throughout the day. This approach adds a strong consistency to marketplace messaging and keeping the brand’s promise. 

Workers clear snow from a roof in Boston, Monday, Feb. 16, 2015.

Workers clear snow from a roof in Boston, Monday, Feb. 16, 2015.  (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Continuous and transparent communication also helps drive higher levels of employee engagement as it keeps people actively involved in developing the overall catastrophe response. Claims professionals are the best situated to provide real-time feedback on the questions and concerns they are hearing, thereby enabling the leadership team to respond quickly to their needs and requests. If the right talent has been selected, they will want to deliver a superior customer experience and be part of the solution when a problem arises. With this in mind, leaders should not only encourage feedback, but actively and continually seek it out. Embracing employees’ ideas and suggestions will encourage even more valuable recommendations. 

Related: 10 secrets to improving customer service after a catastrophe

Most importantly, with regard to communication, one must never forget that frontline claims professionals are the most vital part of any response and communication plan as they are the first carrier touch point for a customer who has suffered a loss. Understanding that most customers want to hear from the company to whom they have been paying their premiums, not necessarily a third party that represents the carrier, it is essential that the claims professional is well-informed. If the initial interaction is handled effectively, there is a higher probability that the claims process will work smoothly and efficiently toward resolution. 

While striving for perfection is the goal, it will never be consistently achieved, which means there will always be opportunities for recovery. Embracing this eventuality is not to accept sub-par performance, but a reality driven by the heightened demands associated with a catastrophe. Leaders should consider formalizing a recovery strategy to ensure that those opportunities, which are without question more frequent during catastrophes, are handled effectively and efficiently.  

The recovery strategy should also include a method to effectively let frontline claims professionals who are working tirelessly to provide superior service despite high claims volume, know that the occasional “hiccup” is anticipated and the leadership team is fully prepared to stand behind them and play an active role in assisting them with the recovery process. 

Great leaders continually seek to learn. They are never satisfied with the status quo. They take every experience, good or bad, and work to understand where there are opportunities to improve. Whether it is a major change in protocol or a minor tweak to an internal process, there will, and should, be things that will be done differently the next time a catastrophic event happens. It is not a matter of “if” but of “when.” 

Joseph Salerno is vice president of claims at Arbella Insurance Group. He can be reached at


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