Raising the Experience Bar
Commercial insurance has recently faced several major challenges. Economic distress has made it difficult to profit off of investments, thereby necessitating profitable underwriting to drive returns. In addition to soft rates, exposure bases (i.e., U.S. GDP) are flat, if not effectively down, and interest rates are at historic lows.
As a result of these and other pressures, the overall commercial lines market has shrunk since 2007 — from $241 billion in 2007 to $222 billion in 2012 — and has been recovering very slowly over the last five years. Difficult economic conditions and saturation of a highly fragmented market has increased competition, leading commercial carriers to improve their value proposition by offering a better customer experience for both the end insured and producers.
Commercial carriers have every incentive to invest in improving the customer experience.
In contrast with personal lines (e.g., private passenger auto insurance, for which most carriers struggle to promote a superior customer experience and divert consumers’ attention from price), ease of doing business and other value-added services — even as basic as advice — greatly influence placement.
From the lower end of small commercial to the largest commercial accounts, producer experience and, by extension, the experience of the insured has increasingly become a critical factor in a carrier’s ability to acquire and retain clients. An underwriter’s product expertise and local market knowledge often takes precedence over price.
In the meantime, shifts in customer expectations, access to information and diversifying needs are creating networks of increasingly self-directed, self-organizing and self-aware groups. This has broad implications for the design, manufacture, marketing, pricing and servicing of commercial insurance.
Small and medium enterprises increasingly interact and transact through a variety of channels. PwC’s recent Future of Insurance research shows that 49 percent of SMEs now use the Internet to supplement or replace agents and brokers in their search for commercial insurance.
As a result, investments in technology, customer data and analytics across the spectrum of carriers — from small to large commercial — are raising service expectations. Based on their business and operating models, carriers need to judiciously select and prioritize on which business and technical capabilities they should focus.
For instance, a niche market positioning that targets only a very narrow customer segment may require specific capabilities that are relevant to only that segment, such as specialized risk control services for medical facilities.
The distribution model also should greatly influence the types of customer experience-related capabilities in which to invest. For example, middle market carriers with numerous local offices will have to expend more effort, such as on guidelines and training, to promote a consistent customer experience.
Also, different sources of distribution will value different kinds of experience. While national brokers tend to be more transactional in nature and favor speed of processing and decision-making, small regional producers typically value coverage advice and are not as concerned about ease of doing business.
Regardless of a carrier’s business model, technology has been a consistent source of differentiation and an enabler of a superior customer experience, driving efficiencies throughout every stage of the sales funnel and customer life cycle.
New Customer Acquisition
The ability to collect and analyze customer data is the foundation of superior marketing capabilities. Better understanding of buyer behavior, demand for specific products or coverage, and pricing trends help carriers identify the most profitable market segments and growth opportunities.
Agents and brokers are increasingly leveraging new technologies such as social media to increase brand presence, generate leads and engage customers online. Underwriters at leading commercial carriers and MGUs likewise should promote their expertise in a given industry segment and/or line of business through “likes,” posts, retweets, blogs and articles on social media platforms.
Multiple social media outlets can help brand and disseminate thought leadership to engage both current and prospective producers.
Another key component of superior customer experience and producer productivity is ensuring that producers clearly understand a carrier’s risk appetite so they do not spend time on submissions that are likely to be rejected. This is an issue for many commercial carriers that struggle to effectively communicate their underwriting appetite, both internally and externally.
In fact, independent technology companies have emerged to address this problem by offering a new category of services to agents and brokers. For instance, there is now a search engine that gives agents and brokers a sense of insurance companies’ risk appetites, thereby allowing them to quickly find the right insurer for a particular risk.
This results in an improved quote ratio from carriers and provides more options to the prospective insured. It also saves time for everybody concerned.
The process of shopping and purchasing commercial insurance is still relatively complex. Future of Insurance research noted that nearly all non-insured small business owners cited the complexity of the process as one key reason for not getting coverage.
Ease of doing business is a key part of a superior customer experience and falls on the strategic agenda of most commercial line carriers, which are:
• Investing in streamlining and automating the underwriting process;
• Actively finding ways to simplify the data collection process by eliminating non-critical questions from their applications;
• Avoiding redundant information capture (i.e., re-keying); and
• Pre-populating submissions through third-party data services.
Beyond the initial step of capturing customer and coverage information, workflow management solutions enable better up-front triage and orchestration of account clearing, rating and quoting activities.
In an increasingly large number of small commercial segments, complete systematization of product rules and automation of underwriting decisions enable straight through processing — a commercial carriers’ ultimate goal as they strive to reduce quote turnaround times.
Some commercial carriers may choose to implement tiered service models to facilitate a superior customer experience for their most valuable producers.
Customer Relationship Management
Once a deal closes, carriers continue to look for ways to improve the producer and policyholder experience. Some carriers increasingly handle several policy administration transactions (e.g., endorsements, bill payments) on behalf of producers.
Policy administration service provision is increasingly taking place online. Even for large, multinational accounts, carriers have rolled out and continue to invest in self-service platforms that allow brokers and customers to focus on risk management, loss control and other value-added activities instead of premium payment tracking, loss reconciliation and other administrative activities.
Many carriers also have started to effectively utilize mobile computing (e.g., smartphones, tablets) to empower agents, claim adjusters, risk inspectors and customers by providing them on-demand access to both existing and new information and services.
In addition, data analytics are playing an increasingly important role, and can enable innovative value-added services, some of which may be disruptive enough to be successfully monetized and re-position a carrier’s business and/or operating model.
For instance, sensor technology has already started to transform the crop insurance business by reducing the need for traditional insurance coverage (i.e., insuring farmers against the loss of a crop or reduced yield from a crop), thereby enabling carriers to focus instead on preventive loss control services.
Sensors embedded in a field can measure the level of moisture in real time, which can then help determine the necessary level of irrigation and drive optimal watering. Several manufacturers have equipped their machinery to communicate with sensors and help farmers determine when a field is ready for harvesting.
Sensor technology also can provide real-time feedback on large scale disasters. Photos facilitate estimating damage, and mapping tools allow carriers to dynamically and automatically assign adjusters, contact customers and estimate Cat losses.
Sensor data provides carriers with real-time information on what has been damaged — Has the boiler broken? Is the basement flooded? Is there smoke damage? Is there mildew, rot or termites? Likewise, sensors can trigger customer alerts when there is minor — not just major — damage.
This presents the opportunity to stave off greater subsequent damage, as well as create pre-populated claims forms and even fulfill a claim before a customer knows the extent of damage.
Innovation has raised the bar for the customer experience and service expectations in the commercial lines sector. Commercial carriers must continue to invest in technology and find ways to harness customer data to remain competitive in the short-term.
Coping with Cancellations
Airlines typically can offset revenue losses for cancellations due to bad weather either by saving on fuel and salary costs or rerouting passengers on other flights, but this year’s revenue losses from the worst winter storm season in years might be too much for traditional measures.
At least one broker said the time may be right for airlines to consider crafting custom insurance programs to account for such devastating seasons.
For a good part of the country, including many parts of the Southeast, snow and ice storms have wreaked havoc on flight cancellations, with a mid-February storm being the worst of all. On Feb. 13, a snowstorm from Virginia to Maine caused airlines to scrub 7,561 U.S. flights, more than the 7,400 cancelled flights due to Hurricane Sandy, according to MasFlight, industry data tracker based in Bethesda, Md.
Roughly 100,000 flights have been canceled since Dec. 1, MasFlight said.
Just United, alone, the world’s second-largest airline, reported that it had cancelled 22,500 flights in January and February, 2014, according to Bloomberg. The airline’s completed regional flights was 87.1 percent, which was “an extraordinarily low level,” and almost 9 percentage points below its mainline operations, it reported.
And another potentially heavy snowfall was forecast for last weekend, from California to New England.
The sheer amount of cancellations this winter are likely straining airlines’ bottom lines, said Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for major U.S. airline companies.
“The airline industry’s fixed costs are high, therefore the majority of operating costs will still be incurred by airlines, even for canceled flights,” Connell wrote in an email. “If a flight is canceled due to weather, the only significant cost that the airline avoids is fuel; otherwise, it must still pay ownership costs for aircraft and ground equipment, maintenance costs and overhead and most crew costs. Extended storms and other sources of irregular operations are clear reminders of the industry’s operational and financial vulnerability to factors outside its control.”
Bob Mann, an independent airline analyst and consultant who is principal of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y., said that two-thirds of costs — fuel and labor — are short-term variable costs, but that fixed charges are “unfortunately incurred.” Airlines just typically absorb those costs.
“I am not aware of any airline that has considered taking out business interruption insurance for weather-related disruptions; it is simply a part of the business,” Mann said.
Chuck Cederroth, managing director at Aon Risk Solutions’ aviation practice, said carriers would probably not want to insure airlines against cancellations because airlines have control over whether a flight will be canceled, particularly if they don’t want to risk being fined up to $27,500 for each passenger by the Federal Aviation Administration when passengers are stuck on a tarmac for hours.
“How could an insurance product work when the insured is the one who controls the trigger?” Cederroth asked. “I think it would be a product that insurance companies would probably have a hard time providing.”
But Brad Meinhardt, U.S. aviation practice leader, for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., said now may be the best time for airlines — and insurance carriers — to think about crafting a specialized insurance program to cover fluke years like this one.
“I would be stunned if this subject hasn’t made its way up into the C-suites of major and mid-sized airlines,” Meinhardt said. “When these events happen, people tend to look over their shoulder and ask if there is a solution for such events.”
Airlines often hedge losses from unknown variables such as varying fuel costs or interest rate fluctuations using derivatives, but those tools may not be enough for severe winters such as this year’s, he said. While products like business interruption insurance may not be used for airlines, they could look at weather-related insurance products that have very specific triggers.
For example, airlines could designate a period of time for such a “tough winter policy,” say from the period of November to March, in which they can manage cancellations due to 10 days of heavy snowfall, Meinhardt said. That amount could be designated their retention in such a policy, and anything in excess of the designated snowfall days could be a defined benefit that a carrier could pay if the policy is triggered. Possibly, the trigger would be inches of snowfall. “Custom solutions are the idea,” he said.
“Airlines are not likely buying any of these types of products now, but I think there’s probably some thinking along those lines right now as many might have to take losses as write-downs on their quarterly earnings and hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “There probably needs to be one airline making a trailblazing action on an insurance or derivative product — something that gets people talking about how to hedge against those losses in the future.”
7 Questions to Answer before Choosing a Captive Insurance Domicile
Risk managers: Do your due diligence!
It seems as if every state in America, as well as many offshore locations, believes that they can pass captive legislation and declare, “We are open for business!”
In fact, nearly 40 states and dozens of offshore locations have enabling captive insurance legislation to do just that.
With so many choices how do you decide who is experienced enough to support the myriad of fiscal and regulatory requirements needed to ensure the long term success of your captive insurance company?
“There are certainly a lot of choices,” said Mike Meehan, a consultant with Milliman, an actuarial firm based out of Boston, Massachusetts, “but not all domiciles are created equal.”
Among the crowd, there are several long-standing domiciles that offer the legislative, regulatory and infrastructure support that makes captive ownership not only a successful risk management tool but also an efficient entity to manage and operate.
Selecting a domicile depends on many factors, but answering these seven questions will help focus your selection process on the domiciles that best fit your needs.
1. Is the domicile stable, proven and committed to the industry for the long term?
The more economic impact that the captive industry has on the domicile, the more likely it is that captives will receive ongoing regulatory and legislative support. The insurance industry moves very quickly and a domicile needs to be constantly adapting to stay up to date. How long has the domicile been operating and have they been consistent in their activity over the long term?
The number of active captive licenses, amount of gross premium written in a domicile and the tax revenue and fees collected can indicate how important the industry is to the jurisdiction’s bottom line. The strength of the infrastructure and the number of jobs created by the captive industry are also very relevant to a domicile’s commitment.
“It needs to be a win – win situation between the captives and the jurisdiction because if not, the domicile is often not committed for the long term,” said Dan Kusalia, Partner with Crowe Hortwath LLP focused on insurance company tax.
Vermont, for example, has been licensing captives since 1981 and had 589 active captives at the end of 2015, making it the largest domestic domicile and third largest in the world. Its captive insurance companies wrote over $25 billion in gross written premiums. The Vermont State Legislature actively supports an industry that creates significant tax revenue, jobs and tourist activity.
2. Are the domicile’s captives made up of your peer group?
The demographics of a domicile’s captive companies also indicate how well-suited the location may be for a business in a particular industry sector. Making sure that the jurisdiction has experience in the type and form of captive you are looking to establish is critical.
“Be among your peer group. Look around and ask, ‘Who else is like me?’” said Meehan. “Does the jurisdiction have experience licensing and regulating the lines of coverage for other businesses in your industry sector?”
3. Are the regulators experienced and consistent?
It takes captive-specific expertise and broad experience to be an effective regulator.
A domicile with a stable and long-term, top-tier regulator is able to create a regulatory environment that is consistent and predictable. Simply put, quality regulation and longevity matter a lot.
“If domicile regulators are inexperienced, turnaround time will be slower with more hurdles. More experience means it is much easier operating your business, especially as your captive grows over time,” said Kusalia.
For example, over the past 35 years, only three leaders have helmed Vermont’s captive regulatory team. Current Deputy Commissioner David Provost is one of the longest tenured chief regulators and is a 25-year veteran in the captive insurance industry. That experienced and consistent leadership enables the domicile to not only attract quality companies, but also to provide expert guidance on the formation process and keep the daily operations running smoothly.
4. Are there world-class support services available to help manage your captive?
The quality of advisors and managers available to assist you will have a large impact on the success of your captive as well as the ease of managing the ongoing operations.
“Most companies don’t have the expertise to operate an insurance company when you form a captive, so you need to help build them a team,” Jeffrey Kenneson, a Senior Vice President with R&Q Quest Management Services Limited.
Vermont boasts arguably the most stable and experienced captive infrastructure in the world. Many of the leading captive management companies have their headquarters for their Global, North America and U.S. operations based in Vermont. Experienced options for captive managers, accountants, auditors, actuaries, bankers, lawyers, and investment professionals are abundant in Vermont.
5. Can the domicile both efficiently license and provide on-going support to your captive as it grows to cover new lines of coverage and risks?
Licensing a new captive is just the beginning. Find out how long it takes for the application to get approved and how long it takes for an approval of a plan change of your captive’s operations.
A company’s risks will inevitably change over time. The captive will need to make plan changes which can include adding new lines of business. The speed with which your domicile’s regulatory branch reviews and approves these plan changes can make a critical difference in your captive’s growth and success.
The size of a captive division’s staff plays a big role in its speed and efficiency. Complex feasibility studies and actuarial analyses required for an application can take a lot of expertise and resources. A larger regulatory team will handle those examinations more efficiently. A 35-person staff like Vermont’s, for example, typically licenses a completed application within 30 days and reviews plan changes in a matter of days.
6. What are the real costs to establishing and managing your captive?
It is important to factor in travel costs, the local costs of service providers, operating fees, and examination fees. Some states that do not impose a premium tax make up for it in high exam fees, which captives must be prepared for. Though Vermont does charge a premium tax, its examination fees are considered some of the least expensive options in the marketplace.
It is also important to consider the ease and professionalism of doing business with a domicile in the ongoing operations of your captive insurance company.
“The cost of doing business in a domicile goes far beyond simply the fixed cost required. If you can’t efficiently operate due to slow turn-around time or added obstacles, chances are you have made the wrong choice,” said Kenneson.
7. What is the domicile’s reputation?
Make sure to ask around and see what industry experts with experience in multiple domiciles have to say about the jurisdiction. Make sure the domicile isn’t known for only licensing certain types of captives that don’t fit your profile. Will it matter to your board of directors if your local newspaper decides to print a story announcing your new insurance subsidiary licensed in some far away location?
Are companies leaving the jurisdiction in high numbers and if so, why? Is the domicile actively licensing redomestications — when an existing captive moves from one domicile to another? This type of movement can often be a positive indicator to trends in a domicile. If companies of a particular size or sector are consistently moving to one state, it may indicate that the domicile has expertise particularly suited to that sector.
Redomestications made up 11 of the 33 new captives in Vermont in 2015. This trend is a positive one as it speaks to the strength of Vermont. It reinforces why Vermont is known throughout the world as the ‘Gold Standard’ of domiciles.
Asking the right questions and choosing a domicile that meets your needs both today and for the long term is vital to your overall success. As a risk manager you do not want surprises or headaches because you did not ask the right questions. Do the due diligence today so that you can ensure your peace of mind by choosing the right domicile to meet your needs.
For more information about the State of Vermont’s Captive Insurance, visit their website: VermontCaptive.com.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with the State of Vermont. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.