Claims: the Human Challenge

Even at this early hour, the foyer of the Mantra Hotel is bristling with activity. Between the congregation of tourists checking in and business people checking out, were those who had still not sampled breakfast and seemed to be on their own time, mastering it, unfazed by the hubbub surrounding them. And as we sit at a table by the window, sipping our tea, the complicated relationship between people and time is a familiar concept to Andrew Thomas, Head of Construction Practice Group & Executive Adjuster at Cunningham Lindsey Australia.

Before setting foot on Australia’s sun-addled shores, Andrew had an interesting arrangement with time; always cognisant of it, yet never having enough of it.

An ex-civil engineer, he had grown disillusioned with his work and, like many engineering graduates in the 1980s, up and left, citing a combination of poor wages, working in remote locations and long hours as the main reasons.

“I’d worked for a number of big engineering firms in the UK but, after a few years, felt I needed a change,” he admits. “It might sound trite, but at the time I was building bridges on the M27 along the south coast of England. I was working six days a week and had responsibility for the whole site and was getting paid less than the steel fixers.”

“Worst of all, I couldn’t play rugby on a Saturday afternoon.”

Enough was enough. Sick of not having time for himself, he began searching for jobs that were relevant to his skill set and stumbled on ‘loss adjuster’. He wrote to Cunningham Hart and Co. — which has since morphed into Cunningham Lindsay — and thus a passionate love affair with loss adjusting began.

Things were good. His new career was taking shape, the income was good, his work was varied and he had time to himself again — until he had the conversation that would change his life.

“I was 25 at the time, working at Cunningham Hart and Co., and an old uni mate of mine popped in,” recalls Andrew. “He was back from another trip abroad — he didn’t have debts like me — and when I told him I was finally debt free, he told me to go travelling.”

And that was that. The seed of an idea was buried deep within and Andrew’s adventure beckoned. But a seed needs nourishing and an idea, as strong as it can be, needs purpose. So now that the prospect of a trip was within reach, where should he go?

“I’ll never forget the conversation. It was kind of weird and I asked him, ‘Where should I go?’ and he said I should go to one of the old colonies,” smiles Andrew wryly. “You should either go to Canada, Australia or New Zealand, because they’re all very similar to the UK. Sure, the money looks kind of different but the Queen’s on it, they speak English, they have a similar legal system and the people are similar to Brits.”

Seems like solid enough reasoning.

Andrew applied for an under-28 working visa and scouring the Insurance Post — the UK’s leading industry publication at the time — he found a job ad that literally read “Engineering Loss Adjuster Wanted in Australia”. It was providence.

“I thought hang on, have they written this just for me?” he laughs. “The ad promised they’d pay my airfares, give me accommodation, fill my fridge for six months – I thought how could I not apply?”

So he did. The weeks dragged on and Andrew continued working, the application falling further and further away from his thoughts until a letter arrived from Adelaide. The letter from Richard Penneck explained that Andrew had made it through to the shortlist and that Richard would be in London to interview candidates. Excitedly, he double-checked the date and realised it clashed with a surfing trip in Tenerife. Was this another example of time’s fickle touch?

He waited until midnight, dialled up Australia and, through the slimmest of chances an interview was arranged for the day Andrew was due to fly out for his Spanish sojourn.

“He literally interviewed me in my board shorts and surf shirt in a Heston’s Roadside Services just outside London on the M4 motorway,” Andrew chuckles, recalling the absurd scene. “Richard interviewed me there while my mates were all mucking about behind me, and he told me that he didn’t care a jot about what I was wearing, and was only interested in whether I could do the job, whether I was a good fit for the team and if could I live in the country.”

Clearly Richard was satisfied. Upon his return from Tenerife, the Spanish sun still a warm memory; Andrew found another letter from Australia offering him the job. That was 1990 and through that hasty roadside meet, his career literally took flight. 

The human side of claims

From cutting his teeth on household burglaries and storm and roof damage claims in rural England to overseeing multi-million dollar claims as Head of Construction Practice Group & Executive Adjuster at Cunningham Lindsay, Andrew’s appreciation for claims and helping people has steadily grown.

Inquisitive and passionate about the role loss adjusters play, he believes that developing a thorough understanding of human nature is integral to success. 

“When I started, I was doing mostly residential and commercial claims. Basically earning my spurs — learning how to write reports, learning how to close claims,” he explains.  “When you’re dealing with wily farmers in the West Country, you get a deeper understanding of human nature and how to settle a claim.”

There is a certain art to being persuasive and the most persuasive people have a particular charisma they call upon when needed. Something a good loss adjuster needs. Something that Andrew has. But charisma, charm, magnetism — call it what you will — only takes you so far. In a game where the public’s attitude can be less than positive, Andrew believes you need to find the balance between intimately understanding the technical nature of policy wording and making the insured realise you’re there to help them.

“These days, a lot of smaller value claims are being handled digitally back in the office and there is very little human contact,” explains Andrew. “Photos are sent to the office, they’re interpreted there and off you go. Often we’ll take claims managers out on claims with us so they get a feel for what it’s like dealing with people.”

People. People are central to a good claims experience. As he talks, you quickly develop an appreciation of the gravity of his words. He warns us that it can be easy to fall into the trap of only thinking about policy wordings and whether a loss is covered or not, and says that technical knowledge alone isn’t enough to truly assess a claim properly. Understanding those affected is just as important and getting them offside from the outset can make the process incredibly difficult.

“I love being able to drive around and meet new people every day but seeing the things we see, it’s easy to become blasé,” says Andrew. “You need to remember that each new person has just suffered one of the biggest disasters they’re ever going to face and, in terms of major loss, they’ll probably never experience again — and that you see it every day.”

“People are afraid that the insurance company will look for ways to not come through on its promise to pay them, but through your job as a loss adjuster you can actually give people the confidence that they will be paid and that things are going to be okay,” he adds.

“You can actually make a big difference to people.”

He says that when you meet people that have suffered a catastrophic loss, there’s a real fear that they’re not going to be paid out. Andrew believes the most important thing you can do is talk to them, understand where they’re at mentally and emotionally, allay their fears and get them onside.

“You need to get them to understand that your job is not to cut the claim down, rather it’s to do what is right,” he explains. “And if the right thing is that they’re not covered, then you tell them they’re not covered. But there have been many times when I’ve recommended they get paid more than they initially claim because that is also what’s right.”

“What we do is human interaction,” he adds. “I don’t make any more money whether the claim is paid or not. Getting people who start offside, onside, is a huge part of our job and when claims managers come onsite with us, they can see that.”

Changing nature of claims

What do the World Wide Web, wifi, smartphones, email, digital photography, flash memory, Doppler radar and rechargeable batteries all have in common? They are all innovations brought to life in the past 28 years, which coincidentally is the length of Andrew’s career to date.

The impact these innovations have had on the industry have been staggering. From sophisticated modelling to automation, the industry has utilised technology to improve the efficiency and efficacy of the claims process. However, the past twenty or so years have also seen another major change, one that Andrew believes has had a substantial impact on his industry.

“The largest change for me, in Australia at least, is consolidation,” says Andrew. “At the Claims Convention last year, I remember Peter Newall’s presentation on the changing nature of claims, and he put up a stat on global trends which showed the top four insurers accounted for about 15% the market, whereas here in Australia, the top four own about 85%.”

Technology, the ebb and flow of the Australian market and continued consolidation has seen a shift in the way small-scale residential claims are handled, with most now being managed in-house. Andrew says that, subsequently, loss adjusters have increasingly needed to specialise, using their technical prowess on more complex high-value claims.

“Human resource allocation is difficult in Australia, due to the fluctuations in your work flow. Winter has no major fires or storms, which means that often there is no major work for us,” explains Andrew. “I believe the future of loss adjusting is a small number of general adjusting firms and then a proliferation of more niched, specialist firms.”

But specialist firms require specialist skills.

Technical skill will always win out according to Andrew. Due to the nature of the industry recruit practices, particularly in the claims sector, have changed, with many firms preferring people who are already highly skilled in specialist areas.

“We work hand in hand with insurers and in a way, are on the front lines, meeting the people, gathering the data and preparing the reports so that the best decision can be made,” he says. “Because they deal with the most difficult claims, the most technical claims, loss adjusters are technically better trained and better experienced and are also more able to think on their feet. Loss adjusters have a great deal of intellectual capital.”

“We increasingly favour technical skills, recruiting from areas such as engineering, law, accounting etc., and teach them the insurance side of things.”

Technical knowledge combined with strong interpersonal skills make for a good loss adjuster.

“In a claims team, you tend to work remotely, either on the phone or by email. The loss adjuster is there on the spot, talking to the insured. We have the soft skills that you need to get the insured onside.”

Something that is hard to do when you’re not there.

Indeed, the human element is a major reason Andrew loves his job so much. But often the best things about a job are the hardest things about it.

“Every single job and every single claim is different,” he says emphatically. “Often those affected only ever experience this type of loss once in their life. Empathy is the most important trait of a loss adjuster. Every job has a person attached to it. Being able to show them a way out of the disaster is an emotional challenge, but is also very satisfying.”

Constantly seeing people at their nadir is a challenge, and the responsibility of helping them through it is one Andrew doesn’t shirk. A firm believer in keeping himself ready, both physically and mentally, he tries to swim daily and finds solace in continually learning, continually working to keep his skills fresh “so he can get the best outcome.”

Satisfaction, however, doesn’t just come from a good result and Andrew relishes the variety and freedom his job allows.

“You have a lot of variety and freedom in this line of work, but this comes with responsibility and accountability,” he insists. “You’re a self-starter, which is one of the best things, but it’s also one of the worst things. Sometimes it can be hard when there is no one telling you want to do. You need drive No one is looking over your shoulder but you need to be accountable. You have to be organised, have to manage your time and, ultimately, be results orientated.”

“It is an intellectual challenge, an emotional challenge and a professional challenge.”

A challenge well worth accepting.

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