What skills do adjusters need for professional success in 2014? Certainly, technical skills are a must. This includes a working knowledge of law, medicine, construction, insurance policy content and interpretation, and subject-matter expertise specific to the claims they handle. Aside from technical skills, though, successful adjusters need soft skills.

Don’t think that just because these skills are called “soft,” that they are easily acquired.  While most people would agree on the types of hard skills needed for claims success, there is less consensus regarding which soft skills are essential. Nevertheless, I will nominate six soft skills essential for today’s claims professional.

#1.  Listening

Hearing and listening are not synonymous. “God gave us two ears and one mouth and we should use them in just that proportion.”  As seasoned claims people, we understandably feel we must show our expertise. Silence discomfits us, and we feel compelled to fill the void with our own words.

Sometimes, take-charge approaches work against us though. Instead, switch the frequency from “send” to “receive” mode. Keep the ears open and the mouth closed. Kevin Hromas, a Houston-area claims specialist, recalls his stint as a Mississippi “cat” adjuster post-Katrina.  He often sat on a home’s concrete steps with an insured, because that was all that was left of the structure. They just talked. Hromas adds, “Sometimes we prayed.  Sometimes we cussed. Many times, I just listened.”

According to Hromas, listening “is the one thing that too many adjusters, managers and executives don’t do enough of.” Everyone is too “busy” getting to the next claim. His suggestion: “Stop for a moment the next time you converse with someone and consciously think, `Am I listening to this other person … or am I thinking about what I’m going to say next?’” He asks, how many lawsuits could we avoid with just another hour spent doing nothing but listening?

#2.  Empathy

By definition, adjusters work with people under stress. They would not contact an adjuster unless misfortune had visited. Not only are they stressed, they may be angry at whatever or whomever caused their loss. They may take out anger, unjustly, on the claim professional. Sadly, many people hold adjusters in low regard, lumping us with bill collectors and used-car salesman. (Have you ever seen those TV ads run by personal injury attorneys?) This shapes a negative impression that many consumers have of adjusters as people out to shortchange them.

Adjusters with soft skills possess empathy and see beyond these factors, putting themselves in the proverbial shoes of the person who has suffered a loss. They realize it’s not personal! They have a thick skin about barbs aimed at them. Yet they do not develop a hard-shell or cynicism. They realize that one of the positives about working claims is being able to help people in times of need. This requires empathy, a key soft skill.

#3.  Emotional intelligence

Daniel Goleman popularized this term in his book of the same name. It involves the ability to “read” another person’s mood and react appropriately. Emotional intelligence is a key soft skill for successful adjusters facing angry claimants, skeptical plaintiff attorneys, demanding bosses, abrasive coworkers, demanding vendors and reluctant witnesses. Each person merits a different approach and demands that adjusters gauge the mood and emotional state of the person with whom they interact.

#4.  Emotional self-control

Successful claims people exercise impulse control. They might love to give the claimant or policyholder a piece of their mind. They might pine to invoke Johnny Paycheck, telling the boss to “take this job and shove it!” They could fantasize about telling a prickly client to take the business elsewhere. Maybe they tire of being the lightning rod for irate claimants, policyholders, vendors and attorneys. Often adjusters feel like punching bags, absorbing shocks and blows from multiple angles. By the end of the workday, they feel beaten down. However, successfully navigating the rocks and shoals of a workday requires that adjusters master their emotions and curb the impulse to do what feels natural, to strike out and retaliate.

#5.  Time management

Time is the adjuster’s scarcest resource and is nonrenewable. We can argue semantics as to whether or not anyone can truly manage time. Time management is actually self-management, working productively and making sure that each decision and action on a claim file maximizes the return on investment. This means adjusters must be able to identify each hour and each day their – Most Important Thing. They prioritize and constantly reassess plans in light of new demands, case assignments, policy changes, and unforeseeables.

Jason Tuccy, a claims team leader in the Tampa, Fla. area, says time management is a crucial soft skill for successful adjusters. Particularly vital, he believes is the ability to properly prioritize tasks, to see the number one focus and then, the ability to complete the highest priority items consistently. “You must be able to walk away,” Tuccy maintains, “as you will never finish all of your work. Otherwise you burn out.”

Adjusters are professional jugglers. They have many balls in the air at one time: caseloads, phone calls, e-mails, meetings and projects. Today’s claims professional faces distractions and challenges that adjusters of 30 years ago did not: social media, e-mail, web surfing, smart phones, instant messaging, etc. So many stimuli vie for adjusters’ attention that it is tough to focus on tasks requiring sustained thought. 

#6.  Adaptability to change

In claims operations as in corporate America, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today’s adjuster work environment is dynamic. Change comes daily, often without warning.

You get a new boss. The company switches to a new software that you must learn from scratch. Procedures change for the company or for clients. Layoffs ensue.  Your employer is acquired by or merges with another company. Two of your adjusters quit or transfer to another department. You have to relocate to another branch.   A key attorney you rely on for claim defense retires, relocates or repositions her practice to the plaintiff side. Your settlement and reserve authority is slashed. The boss returns from a corporate retreat, brimming with ideas from the latest book by the business guru du jour, holding the panacea for operational problems.      

To paraphrase a bumper sticker, “stuff happens.” Change is inevitable in the dynamics of a claims department. The ability to roll with the punches and adapt to change is critical.

Scott Kilgras, a senior claims representative with Mutual of Enumclaw in Medford, Ore. says, “The hardest thing about being an adjuster is balancing two very different sets of personality traits.”  First, he notes a claims adjuster must be dispassionate. Amidst confusion, uncertainty and wide ranging emotions, an adjuster must see evidence logically, avoid addressing problems personally, and approach decisions on a fact-based and logical basis. Second, Kilgras adds that an adjuster must balance the logical dispassion with genuine warmth, sincerity and empathy. “Many unsuccessful or unhappy adjusters don’t lack the training to do the job,” Kilgras states, “they lack the basic personality traits to be claim adjusters.”

It’s a wonder that we call these six traits “soft” skills.  They’re hard to master but critical to success in any business environment.  

Successful claims professionals will blend a toolbox of technical expertise with finely honed soft skills to launch their careers and drive their companies to success.