As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast at this time last year, I started to get messages from some unusual sources. 

Living in Connecticut, I was potentially in the storm’s path – a fact that apparently didn’t go unnoticed to a number of businesses I patronize.  In the days leading up to the storm’s landfall, among the companies I got e-mails from were: 

  • My electric utility, providing a phone number and web address to report outages, as well as information about emergency shelters and how long food can keep in freezers and refrigerators without power. 
  • My credit card company, offering assistance should my family and me need emergency financial, medical or travel assistance. 
  • An airline I frequent, notifying me of schedule disruptions and a temporary waiver of ticket cancellation and rebooking fees. 
  • An online retailer, advising me of delays in shipping packages to some affected areas, and providing a phone number for more information. 
  • A local arborist I had used years ago, providing his contact information should I need to have storm-damaged trees removed from my property. 

But one company I never heard from… was my insurer. And they never heard from me, because, fortunately, I didn’t experience any damages from Sandy. 

Checking with friends and family in the Northeast, I learned that many of them, too, hadn’t heard a peep from their insurers. 

This speaks to one of the greatest missed opportunities in the insurance industry – the chance to engage policyholders in a meaningful way that has nothing to do with claims. 

When insurance carriers think about their customer experience, many tend to focus on claim handling.  This obviously makes some sense, since claim time is the ultimate “moment of truth” in the insurance business. 

(Never mind that many Sandy claimants were underwhelmed by their claims experience, as reported by Consumer Reports and J.D. Power.  Carriers may focus on claim handling, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at it!) 

Here’s the issue with concentrating on claims:  most of an insurer’s customers are unlikely to experience one with any frequency.  (And, if they do, then that carrier – and its underwriters – clearly have a bigger problem on their hands.) 

So if an insurer relies on the claims experience to endear itself to customers, that’s going to leave a lot of people feeling neglected…  which is sort of how I felt thinking back on my Sandy experience.  J. Crew was considerate enough to contact me as Sandy approached, but not my insurer? 

How is it that the company tasked with helping me manage life’s risks had nothing to say to me, no advice to share, in the days before Sandy’s landfall?  Their silence was made even more conspicuous in light of how many other businesses did proactively reach out to me (some with far less obvious ties to the situation). 

Hurricane Sandy presented insurers with an incredible opportunity to demonstrate their value – not just to claimants, but to all customers. 

But insurers routinely fumble these opportunities because they don’t grasp what really matters to people:  Not their auto insurance, but their automobile.  Not their homeowner’s insurance, but their home (and the people living in it).  Not their business insurance, but their business. 

Instead of interacting with customers across these more meaningful dimensions, insurers bombard people with unintelligible policy documents, irrelevant cross-sell offers and feel-good advertising.  Is it any wonder why consumers show little love for insurance companies? 

Advances in this regard don’t necessarily require huge capital investments or an army of Big Data scientists.  It just hinges on insurers shaping their products, services, and communications around one simple question:  what does my customer really care about? 

In the case of Sandy, people cared about preventing damage and minimizing the storm’s impact – not just dealing with claims in the aftermath.  With a simple e-mail, as Sandy drew near, insurers could have reminded homeowners to secure loose items on their property, encouraged business owners to dust off their contingency plans, or even just provided contact information for their Claims department. 

There were countless ways that carriers and their agents could have engaged policyholders on the eve of the storm, informing and reassuring people who were in harm’s way. 

But, at least based on my experience and those around me, many insurers elected to remain silent, following the industry’s traditional and decidedly reactive approach to managing customer relationships. 

With that business model, consumers will continue to view insurance as a grudge purchase – an intangible product for which they pay, but are never quite certain if they’ll see any benefit in return. 

That’s a poor foundation for any business, and hardly a formula for turning policyholders into raving fans.