Praise rarely rains down on the middleman. The role is frequently trivialized and unfairly characterized as adding an extra layer of cost without also adding value. Since the advent of sales inserts and commercials, consumerism has cautioned us to “cut out the middleman” and go direct to the source.
A quick reading of history, though, will expose many stories about men and women who made the world a better place through their service as middlemen. As an example, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter brought Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin together to sign the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty.
Take a moment to think about it; a great deal of economic activity passes through the hands of middlemen. Retail stores source goods from manufacturers and sell them to shoppers. The same is true of online merchants, who occupy the middle space between manufacturers and online shoppers.
Teachers occupy the middle ground between textbook writers, inventors, scientists, theologians and students. Facebook serves as a middle ground for more than two billion active users. People use brokers to access securities markets to invest their assets. Cable and broadcast networks connect those who create content with those who consume it. The list is exhaustive.
I point this out to readers of an insurance industry publication not simply because I think it is about time someone stood up for the unfairly maligned middleman but because I believe it is as relevant to our industry now as it ever has been. The halcyon early days of the Internet when the term “disintermediation” was so popular, suggesting the demise of the middleman, have largely evaporated.
As direct-to-the-consumer platforms and narratives multiply, trusted brokers and agents can find themselves being crowded to the sidelines if they act passively in support of their clients. These brokers and agents can push back by first having an understanding of the full measure of their added value.
Knowledgeable, experienced middlemen are trained to determine how much and which coverages will adequately protect an insured against loss, fire, flood, injury and anything else a reckless fate may hold in store. They have a responsibility to educate and help owners, CEOs, CFOs and risk managers better understand how their policies respond to risk and how their portfolio needs to stay current with operations and exposures. Every agent and broker should feel energized by this knowledge each day.
While endeavoring to make the world a safer place for insureds through proper coverages, brokers and agents must also actively demonstrate their added value. This can be done in many ways, including case studies, client testimonials, fact sheets, e-blasts, white papers, social media and web pages. If brokers and agents don’t share the good news regarding their place in the chain and the added value they create for insureds, they will find themselves being written out of the story by those who instead weave a direct-to-the-consumer cost saving narrative. They will miss the opportunity to be of service and to make a difference.
Flo, the Caveman and the Gecko, along with the General and other promotional icons, have their place in the spectrum of service providers—but not in the middle.
What of the relationship between the insured and the insurer? Here, too, the agency middleman plays a crucial role. Whenever there is a claim, he must balance the needs of each party while ultimately recognizing the fiduciary duty to the client. Just as the insured’s claim must be compensated fairly, the insurer should not be asked to give up more than its contractual obligations.
Through experience and knowledge, the agency middleman gains a crucial measure of credibility. If the insured does not believe the agent both knows what he is talking about and has their best interests in mind, they could potentially pursue time-consuming and expensive legal action against the carrier. If the carrier does not have confidence in the agent’s integrity, fair-mindedness and knowledge, it may withdraw support from this and future insureds.
I have titled this essay “Reflections of a Middleman” because this is the responsibility I have at our risk and human capital management consulting and insurance brokerage firm. By bridging the spaces between carriers and insureds, I like to believe I keep the process moving forward in an orderly, credible and educated fashion.
Insureds cannot transact business without first transferring their risk to insurance products, just as premiums paid by insureds are the lifeblood of carriers. Each one needs the other; both need middlemen to manage the relationship.
In closing, I believe it will be useful to remove the gender assigned to “middleman.” The word used should perhaps be middleperson, although it reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Without limitation or reservation, I recognize the many outstanding women in this field who think, act and strive as I do to make the most of every business day.