Insurers focused on improving customer service through new technology shouldn’t forget that good writing skills can also impact a company’s bottom line. Offering business writing education to new hires and continuing education to current employees are just two ways that insurers can make sure claims letters are up to snuff.
Gary Blake, owner of The Communication Workshop, has been in the business of writing for 25 years. He said insurance executives need to understand that the entire company is driven by the claims letters that are sent out to customers, claimants and vendors.
“This is sometimes the only time a customer will ever hear or know about your insurance firm. If they’re seeing letters that are riddled with punctuation errors or are stylistically bad, what do they think of the company? They don’t think very much of it,” said Blake. “I think those letters have to be looked at.”
Top executives need to be aware that it’s not about one type of letter or one type of template, he added. A variety of letters are generated by claims and other departments, such as reservation of rights letters, coverage letters, denial letters and letters to opposing counsel, vendors and physicians.
Blake said he’s seeing a lot of issues specific in the way claims writers churn out letters and gender doesn’t appear to make a difference.
“I think that when people get on the job, they go to the filing cabinet and they look at how people in the past have written…letters and they tend to copy that style. They don’t want to stand out. I think that’s true of both men and women,” Blake said.
Any differences in letter writing that he has observed is generally the result of the writer’s educational background. As the emphasis on writing skills has waned in schools, Blake said claims personnel tend to be less interested in honing their letter writing skills.
“I think that it’s become a national joke and cliché that writing isn’t taught much anymore. Very few people are willing to really help people clean up all of the various issues that they may have,” Blake said. “That’s true in our schools and I think that insurance companies, some of them at least, have their minds on the very big issues – analytics and market share and customer service – and are forgetting that every letter that goes out represents the company. If that letter is filled with inappropriate tone or poor organization or punctuation and grammar mistakes, all of the analytics in the world are not going to help.”
Letters may be the only in-depth contact customers have with an insurer, he said.
“I think that we sometimes overlook things that are right in front of us and claims people are writing, let’s say they write only 10 letters a week. That’s 500 letters a year and over 10 years, 5,000 letters. The insurers do not seem to be investing the time early on with new hires, with Millennials, to make sure the writing is really good before all those thousands of hours are put in,” Blake added.
Writing Education Useful for New Hires
He said insurers should offer writing education to new hires.
“I have several companies that are clients, where I get a number of new hires and I put them through my webinar. I think that’s a nice way of getting things going before they get into all the bad habits or check the filing cabinet and pick up the wrong messages,” Blake said.
Blake has developed a claim department-specific writing test that some companies have chosen to use.
“It’s getting a quick idea of how their people are writing, the new hires. They ask 50 questions that literally are drawn from thousands of claims letters that I’ve seen, to see what type of writer’s instinct a particular new adjuster might have,” Blake explained.
“There are numbers of ways to really reinforce good writing training. You can have a style guide, and I think that’s very important, but I bet you one out of every 25 insurance companies has nothing of the sort. No style guide that can lead people, new hires and veterans, to use the language properly, to solve situations that come up routinely.”
Though Blake dislikes generalizing an entire generation, he does think Millennials’ writing skills are worse than prior generations.
“I’m sympathetic with them because they’ve been let down by schools that are not really involved with writing skills and writing skills training as they’ve been in the past,” he said. “We have a generation of people who are vice presidents of claims, who are getting to retirement age, and there’s a big worry that – will the Millennials really be able to take over? Especially in this area of guiding the writing skills of an entire department.”
Cell phone correspondence hasn’t helped, he said.
“I think that cell phones and emoticons…and texting have definitely hurt the notion of full sentences, proper punctuation, style, tone – a variety of things. Yes, I am concerned and I think that there needs to be more attention paid to getting Millennials to a point where they can write well,” Blake said.
In addition to educating new hires on good business writing skills, the author of five books on writing, including as co-author of “The Elements of Business Writing”, suggested insurers offer continuing education for adjusters who have been on the job awhile.
“I do strongly believe in continuing education. I think the problem of writing never goes away. I’ve been in this my entire lifetime and the problems are still there,” Blake said. “Writing is very difficult, and it’s an ongoing process. I love it when I offer people the opportunity to have instructor access after a webinar or seminar. When people call or write me to get a critique of a new writing sample, I’m delighted. I do it no matter how many samples they send me.”
(*This story ran previously in our sister publication Claims Journal.)