November is the perfect time to pause and consider those for whom we are grateful. For those of us who list among our pursuits “insurance instructor,” students will always be at the top of that list. Particularly those who, over the years, have truly inspired, invigorated or simply stumped us with their questions and examples. Ranging from deadly serious to seriously funny, these “scenes from real life” render even the most creative and well-crafted theoretical classroom illustrations or examples downright embarrassing in contrast.

Although certain topics are more prone than others to inspire a multitude of student questions, Errors and Omissions (E&O) represents the true motherlode. For me, over all the years, one student’s plaintive plea still stands out among all the rest. Not just for the question or the implications of its answer, but for the near desperation, exasperation and resignation clearly expressed in her voice and body language. Her hand reluctantly rose. “I hate to ask this,” she began.

“Maybe I’ll hate to answer,” I replied, “but let’s give it a shot.”

“The neighborhood around our agency has changed considerably in the last few years. A whole new culture has moved in, and many of the adults don’t speak English. Do you know how weird it is to have parents applying for car insurance and their 12-year-old is translating for them?”

“And why does this worry you in the context of an E&O class?”

“Because they don’t understand what I’m saying! Worse, they are getting it through the words of someone else who probably understands even less!”

“So what you’re saying is you believe your E&O risk is greater because these folks don’t speak English?”


I had to laugh. “You know what your far bigger E&O problem is? Assuming the ones who speak English understand you!”

So what?

How many others have been led onto the rocks of E&O by this siren song of “I’m sure they know what I mean” assumption? Astute agents and staff must not only be cognizant of forms language and salient policy issues, but they must also be able to translate often complex wording into language comprehensible to a prospect or insured untrained in the esoteric coverage arts.

I often think of this as a game show titled “So What?” Experienced players know the rules. Here’s a basic summary:

Contestants are given a series of key insurance terms. They must imagine explaining that term in a real-life situation to a typical prospect or client. If the client or prospect still fails to understand the term, particularly to the point at which they will refuse to pay for it as they cannot fathom why it should have anything to do with their risks or needs, then the client or prospect simply responds to the presenter’s pitch with a hearty “So what?” For every “So what?” asked before the client or prospect finally fully understands the potential personal impact of the term, the presenter is penalized. Too many penalties and the contestants’ torches are snuffed, they are voted off the island and their personal contact information furnished to a randomly selected group of plaintiff’s attorneys.

For every “So what?” asked, the presenter is penalized. Too many penalties and the contestants’ torches are snuffed, they are voted off the island and their personal contact information furnished to a randomly selected group of plaintiff’s attorneys.

Translation barrier

(Image: Thinkstock)

Getting through the barriers

The key to avoiding “So what?” responses and successfully playing the game is to understand what is said in your clients’ minds:

  • Absent your level of training, experience and focus, or a significant past claim specifically related to the policy we are discussing, I likely have no clue about coverages or their potential impact — positive or negative — on my real life.

  • When confronted by confusing or complex language, my natural instinct is to assign greater importance to any term I do grasp. Hence, in any scenario involving such language — insurance, legal documents, finance, or tech gadgets, for example — I will focus the entire conversation on price. Not because I’m cheap; that is simply the only term in the conversation I’ve understood.

  • Despite what you have been taught or read, my main interest in buying your product is not protection. For me, the “good night’s sleep” that insurance is famous for providing is not a result of obtaining a safety net against risk, but the relief of getting the state/DMV/landlord/mortgagee/lender/general contractor off my back.

  • Sure, all that protection is probably nice to have. But since my house will likely never burn or flood — seriously, what are the odds? — and there is no possibility of an auto accident in which I, a clearly superior driver, will ever be at fault, all that coverage is just overkill. Just hand over the minimum I need, I’ll pay the price and no one gets hurt.

  • If I’m wrong about any of the above, it’s on you to convince me. After all, I can just continue ignorantly along, paying you as little as possible, and probably never have a claim that matters enough to care about my choice.

  • If I do have a major claim, I can always sue you. After all, as a reasonably intelligent human being, I would have listened happily if you had properly explained the risks I was running.

Return to our fellow agent and her non-English-speaking prospects. Can you now see why, from an E&O or other standpoint, she was probably better off dealing with her new prospects? Because she would have to discard all assumptions about their possessing any knowledge of insurance, either local legalities or coverage, she’s more likely to:

  • Make her explanations clear and concise.

  • Be willing to take the necessary time to clarify and respond to questions.

  • Avoid any shortcuts that could only lead to misunderstanding or accusations of misleading or prejudicial sales tactics.

Despite our agent’s fears, the 12-year-old represented not an obstacle, but a major advantage, for two key reasons:

  • Our agent is not only more aware of her need to explain complex coverages and terms to her prospects, she is extremely conscious that those explanations must be clear to a 12-year-old. How many E&O claims have arisen from an agent or staff member assuming too much knowledge on the part of prospects simply because of their age, dress or position? As any number of scammers targeting doctors, movie stars or other supposedly intelligent adults have long known and profited from, professionals may be the smartest in the room in their profession, but their knowledge of personal finance and investments? Zero.
  • If her prospects didn’t care about getting the insurance right, and were just looking for a low quote and minimum coverage, they likely would have left the 12-year-old home. No doubt they could have stumbled through the transaction somehow, but if they got it wrong, who cares? But when people are truly concerned about getting it right, what do they do? They turn to a person they trust — someone who understands the applicable details well enough to help them make a good choice. In this case, understanding those key details required someone they trusted to not only have a knowledge of a language in which they felt inadequate, but who would have their best interests at heart. And who better than a trusted family member? Rather than an E&O risk, the presence of the 12-year-old confirmed that her prospects were taking the situation seriously.

I’ll always remember that question as one of the best. It was real; it forced consideration of not only basic coverages, but also of how we must deal with often false or misleading assumptions of ourselves or others; and it reinforced the premise that the key to any successful win-win transaction is clear and effective communication. Multiply that by the hundreds or thousands of questions I have been asked via classrooms, mail, faxes or e-mail, and they represent treasure far beyond any college or professional training.

So if you were one of those over the past 40-plus years who thought you were the student but were actually the teacher, I can think of no better time of year than now to say a simple and heartfelt “Thank You!”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Chris Amrhein, AAI, is an insurance educator and speaker, and serves as the chief fun officer at