Business – Consumer Behavior: customer satisfaction in auto insurance industry
Little Things Mean a Lot: An Investigation of the Importance of Customer Satisfaction in the Administration of Automobile Insurance Claims
Whenever motor vehicles become involved in an accident and people are injured, the basis is laid for claims on the grounds of negligence and the economic consequences can be severe. Because around 90% of the drivers in the United States are insured, the responsibility for handling claims very largely rests with insurance companies (Ross, 1980). The fact that the majority of motorists in the United States will eventually experience some type of vehicular accident during the course of their driving career, the question of what factors are perceived as ensuring customer satisfaction by policyholders becomes critically important. To this end, this paper provides an examination of the importance of ensuring customer satisfaction in the settling of claims in the auto insurance industry. A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.
Review of the Relevant Literature.
Importance of Research. The costs associated with injuries resulting from automobile accidents are the most numerous and costly of all personal injuries in North America today (Dewees, Duff & Trebilcock, 1996, p. 15). In 1989, approximately five million Americans experienced auto-related injuries, 47,000 of which were fatal; the statistics for Canada were not quite so bad, but were still grim with more than 200,000 people being injured in motor vehicle accidents in 1985 and more than 6,000 fatalities (Dewees et al., 1996). The costs associated with these injuries are staggering; the economic costs such as medical expenses, wage losses, and other out-of-pocket expenses of automobile injuries in the United States have been estimated to have totaled $50 billion, with another estimate assessing the costs at $74.2 billion per year as the 1990s closed. “Further, despite steady decreases in the annual number of traffic fatalities in Canada and the United States since the mid-1970s, injury insurance costs have risen sharply during this period, increasing by about 140% in the United States from 1977 to 1987” (Dewees et al., 1996, p. 15). In response, automobile insurance prices increased rapidly throughout the 1980s, even as the general rate of inflation slowed and automobile accident rates declined (Cummins & Tennyson, 1992). In fact, the automobile insurance component of the consumer price index more than doubled over the decade, rising at a rate that was almost twice as fast as the overall consumer price index (CPI), and faster than even medical care inflation. The discrepancy was found to be even greater from 1984-1989, when the automobile insurance CPI increased at 9% per year and the all-items CPI at only 3.5%; by contrast, the medical component of the CPI grew only 6.5% annually over this time period. These increases were not across-the-board, though, and some states have been affected more adversely than others, and double-digit inflation rates are not uncommon. The average premium per car ranged from $353 in Iowa to $1,074 in New Jersey in 1989 (Cummins & Tennyson, 1992). The costs of insurance policies for high risk groups such as young males can also be several hundred percent higher than those charged the average policyholder. “These trends have made auto insurance harder to afford for many consumers, particularly in urban areas, and the number of uninsured motorists has grown. As a result, the costs associated with automobile insurance have become a controversial political issue that has figured prominently in gubernatorial races from New Jersey to California, and has stimulated many legislative and consumer initiatives aimed at reducing premiums (Cummins & Tennyson, 1992). The populist view of the issues maintains that high insurance costs are primarily due to inefficient and excessively profitable insurance companies. Insurance companies are charged with paying claims without adequate controls, padding their expenses, and passing the costs along to the unsuspecting consumer, all while being protected by a federal antitrust exemption. Insurance companies counter that they are actually competitive and efficient and attribute rising costs to the excesses of the tort liability system, which is largely beyond their control. “Insurers argue that profits are declining, in part because rate regulation has prevented prices from fully adjusting to recognize claim cost inflation” (Cummins & Tennyson, 1992, p. 96). While the debate over tort reform continues across the nation, insurance carriers are faced with a growing dilemma on how to remain profitable by providing appropriate levels of coverage for insureds that represent the best possible mix of risk and customer maintenance.
Private passenger automobile insurance in the United States is comprised of a package of insurance coverages, some of which are mandatory or quasi-mandatory and others being optional, depending on the rules adopted by a given state and the desires of the individual policyholder (Cummins & Tennyson, 1992). The optional coverages that are available in all states include:
Collision insurance (this provides compensation for accident damage to the insured’s automobile); and,
Comprehensive insurance (this type of coverage compensates the insured for non-collision vehicle damages such as fire, theft and vandalism.
Liability insurance is at least quasi-compulsory in all states (Cummins & Tennyson, 1992).
As with other types of liability insurance, automobile liability insurance is designed to protect the insured against being held liable for others’ losses, instead of his or her own direct losses (as a result, it is frequently called third-party coverage, whereas insurance for one’s own losses is first-party coverage). Finally, potential liability can arise from either personal injuries or property damage that is sustained by others in an automobile accident with the insured (Cummins & Tennyson, 1992).
In the Age of Information, consumers have an abundance of insurance carriers from which to choose. The carrier they select actually represents an enormous investment over the course of a lifetime: “Once largely indifferent to insurance products, private individuals have now recognized their significance: in the course of a lifetime, a household often pays more than $150,000 in insurance premiums — enough to buy a condominium, and more than an average employee’s savings at retirement” (Muth, 1993, p. 73). Given this amount of investment, people are naturally going to gravitate towards those insurance carriers that provide them with the best possible sense of value in terms of meeting a wide range of needs – including a perceived level of value of money spent: “Little wonder that people get upset when they discover that roughly a third of these premiums are used for administration and sales charges. And little wonder that, as in other retail industries, customers have started shopping for the best buy or resorting to ‘do-it-yourself’ (self-insurance) solutions” (Muth, 1993, p. 74). The research shows time and again that it is just good business sense for an automobile insurance company to have an equitable and efficient claims processing system in place. According to Singer (1994), many American businesses have decided that developing innovative ways of handling complaints by consumers or employees can improve their public image, their sales, and their relations with their workers. “Innovations such as Citibank’s Peer Group Problem Review Procedure and Chrysler’s Customer Satisfaction Program were established with employee or customer goodwill as well as avoidance of court in mind” (p. 83). One consumer complaint representative for the City Light Company of Seattle, for example, reported that the institution of a company complaint procedure, responsible for administering consumer concerns about rate increases, billing, credit, and collection practices, had done more to enhance the utility’s public image than any other innovation in the company’s history (Singer, 1994).
In fact, in the United States, virtually all rights that are properly called “legal rights” could be asserted and adjudicated in a court; however, generally speaking, it is the smallest percentage that in fact are determined in this formal manner. Ross (1980) points out that, “One reason we fail to realize this is that we overlook the legal relationships involved in many of our ordinary social transactions. For example, all commercial purchases, including new vehicles, are based in the context of a commercial law that “bristles with explicit and implicit rights and duties on the part of buyer and seller, the breach of which creates a claim for one or the other party” (Ross, 1980, p. 4).
Today, the regulations applicable to the conduct of business are so numerous and pervasive that their violation is virtually a way of life to the ordinary businessman. “That legal rights and duties are involved in these everyday transactions and occurrences is virtually never recognized except when something unexpected disrupts routine” (Ross, 1980, p. 4). The occurrence of unexpected events and happenings, of course, is the essence of the purpose of all types of insurance coverage in the first place, but many people may not give much thought to which carrier is the best for them until things go wrong; at this point, how the customer is handled by the insurance carrier becomes the essential ingredient in how the company is perceived by the policyholder.
Components of Customer Satisfaction in Claims Settlement. According to Evans & Lindsay (1996), customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction occurs during moments of truth, which happens during every instance in which a customer comes in contact with an employee of the company. The consequences of even a few dissatisfied customers can be enormous: “Dissatisfied customers turn to competitors; loyal customers spend more, refer new clients, and are less costly to do business with” (Arendt & Harris, 1998, p. 27). The authors point out that because it costs about five times more to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one, and since dissatisfied customers tell at least twice as many friends about bad experiences than they tell about good ones, it is clearly to the small business owner or manager’s advantage to seek high levels of customer satisfaction and retention.
According to Gebhardt and Townsend (1990), although the notion that little things can add up to have an enormous positive effect has gained wide acceptance, many companies continue to remain sluggish in their response to the reality that little things can also have an immensely negative impact on a company’s perception of performance from their customers’ view. “There have been fundamental misapplications of the principles of continuous quality improvement with deleterious results, all of the avoidable. Examining what can go wrong is instructive” (Gebhardt & Townsend, 1990, p. 3). Clearly, the potential exists for just as many things can go wrong during the claims settlement process as for them to go right, and it is incumbent on the carrier representative to ensure that things are done correctly, particularly from the client’s perspective. The current popular GEICO television advertising campaign featuring the “GEICO Gecko” are an excellent case in point; these commercials emphasize that despite their best efforts, the company’s customer service approval rating remains at 97%, showing that it is virtually impossible to satisfy everyone every time.
According to Benjamin (1997), the one factor that helps to distinguish a great insurance company from its competition.”.. isn’t cost (the government determines that), accessibility (your biggest competitor stares from the glassy windows across the street), or size (you’re the biggest in the state), but customer service” (emphasis added) (p. 11). In his book, Policies and Perceptions of Insurance: An Introduction to Insurance Law, Clarke (1997) notes that the reasons for people selecting one insurance carrier over another are as varied as the human condition itself; however, there are certain commonalities that have been identified that companies can use to help them determine whether they are going a good job of delivering services to their targeted market. According to Clarke, “At the point of choice, like the purchaser of any other product, the purchaser of insurance may be torn between price and reliability, i.e. security. Some will go for the lowest premium; others for the insurer with the reputation for support and prompt payment” (p. 18). The choice may also depend on whether the policyholders will eventually have to come to terms with consequences of their decision as to which carrier represents the best alternative for them. According to Clarke, “A longer view may be taken by the householder buying fire insurance than, perhaps, the exporter of goods who sells an occasional buyer a package including insurance on the goods; he is obliged only to provide commercially acceptable insurance, and, if there is a claim and if the insurer drags his feet over a claim, it is the buyer rather than the seller who suffers” (Clarke, 1997, p. 19). Automobile insurance policyholders represents a more classic example of consumers who will most likely seek the least expensive policy, particularly if circumstances such as legal requirements of the state or policy requirements from lenders require them to purchase minimum levels of coverage. Clarke suggests that these people assumes risk lightly and buy insurance only because they must: “Convinced that ‘it won’t happen to him’, he seeks the cheapest insurance he can find” (Clarke, 1997, p. 19). While cost is a fundamental component of choice, the selection of one carrier over another may also depend on the experience of the insurance purchaser; while the cost of the policy remains a primary factor in almost all decision-making processes, some recent surveys suggest that, among buyers of commercial lines, security, integrity, and continuity are now even more important. “The speed with which Lloyd’s paid on the Californian earthquake of 1906, when other insurers were dragging their feet through the dust and the small print, did much for the prosperity of Lloyd’s in subsequent years” (emphasis added) (Clarke, 1997, p. 19). When people are treated right, they clearly remember and will tell their friends. These personal testimonials represent powerful incentives for consumers to choose one insurance carrier over another.
Current and Future Trends. There is a clear trend underway in how people go about insuring their property that will affect how carriers must respond. For instance, in the United States, analysts have estimated that the share of alternative coverage” types of insurance will have reached 50% of total premiums marketed by the end of year 2000. According to Lencsis (1997), so-called “unisex” ratings are becoming increasingly popular today, in spite of the fact that, for example, that women tend to live longer than men and male drivers have more automobile accidents than female drivers. “These statistical patterns have traditionally been reflected in the rates insurers charge for life insurance, annuities, automobile insurance, and perhaps some other coverages” (Lencsis, 1997, p. 58). Insurers will also be increasingly called upon in the future to support these new levels of coverage with specialized “unbundled” insurance services such as loss analysis, loss prevention, and claims handling. In fact, only a very small number of large insurers will be able to allocate the resources necessary to offer the level of specialized technical and legal expertise, financial capacity, and international presence that many of their customers will be seeking. Muth (1993) maintains that the majority of the insurance carriers today will ultimately be compelled to leave the industry in a fundamental reorganization comparable to the one that occurred in the United States in the 1980s.
According to Muth, “Providing financial capacity will not, by itself, be enough of a value proposition to attract and hold corporate customers. After the fundamental consolidation of the industrial risk market that will take place over the next few years, there is a chance that profitability will return to adequate levels for the competitors that remain” (Muth, 1993, p. 75). Failing that, industrial insurers will continue to suffer their cyclical profit and loss waves until profits from private customers no longer suffice to cover industrial losses. For the foreseeable future, Muth believes that personal lines of insurance will continue to be a local business, influenced by local variations in legal systems, crime rates, buying preferences, drinking and driving habits, life-styles, and the like. “Only in the very long-term is it conceivable that an individual insurer will be able to offer a uniform product, price, and business system. But this does not mean that personal lines markets are safe” (Muth, 1993, p. 76). Here again, though, insurance companies will increasingly be confronted with the same types of fundamental challenges to providing an across-the-board approach to ensuring customer satisfaction. Consumers are increasingly questioning why particular risks need to be covered (for example, why a home should be insured from the first dollar onward) and to insist on receiving acceptable customer service from their insurance carrier; for instance, the current average settlement period for claims frequently exceeds six weeks (Muth, 1993).
Overall, Thierauf (2001) believes that newer collaborative-enabling technologies — “from multi-user, multisensory virtual reality environments to 3-D data streaming across the Internet — “promise to reshape collaborative processes for insurance carriers over the long-term; however, the short-term, decision-processing portals are emerging that promise to provide carriers and their customers with the solutions needed to help ensure a more satisfied customer after every claims settlement event. Furthermore, these types of avenues allow users to switch seamlessly from a decision-processing system to the E-business environment. “For example, an insurance company could provide analytical and other business information about insurance claims to its key customers” (Thierauf, 2001, p. 70). A company representative at the customer’s location could use the insurance company portal to access and analyze this claim information and then switch to an E-business application to complete any adjustments that might be required to the customer’s insurance coverage. “Such an effective customer and insurance company collaborative effort could help ensure a continued, successful business relationship over time” (emphasis added) (Thierauf, 2001, p. 70). Other initiatives that insurance carriers can take to take improve the quality of their customer service include taking advantage of the power of e-mail for communication with customers, suppliers, stockholders, and business partners (Thierauf, 2001).
Patrick (2001) recommends adding a sufficient number of staff members to handle the additional amounts of external e-mail that can reasonably be expected to develop on a 24/7 basis and to identify ways to justify the cost based on increased business, improved customer satisfaction, and offsets to paper-based processes. “Use flexible, predrafted responses and use software to categorize the e-mail by department or product and by whether it is feedback, a question, or a complaint. Automatically route the e-mail to the right part of the organization. Ensure that every e-mail is answered within twenty-four hours. Use a follow-up system to ensure closure on issues” (Patrick, 2001, p. 216). In the final analysis, then, little things do mean a lot when it comes to customer satisfaction, particularly during the claims settlement process which is an invariable concomitant to a stressful event in a policyholder’s life.
The research showed that while some people may believe that only monetary compensation for such claims is the path to customer satisfaction, the reality is that an abundance of little things such as promptly answered telephone calls or emails, a consistent demonstration of courtesy and respect, as well as a recognition that the individuals pursuing claims or responding to them are undergoing a stressful and emotional period in their lives also contribute to the perception of customer satisfaction during the claims resolution process.
Arendt, L.A. & Harris, J.H. (1998). Stress Reduction and the Small Business: Increasing Employee and Customer Satisfaction. SAM Advanced Management Journal, 63(1), 27.
Benjamin, S. (1997). Words at work: Business writing in half the time with twice the power. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Clarke, M.A. (1997). Policies and perceptions of insurance: An introduction to insurance law. Oxford: Oxford University.
Cummins, J.D. & Tennyson, S. (1992). Controlling Automobile Insurance Costs. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 6(2), 96.
Dewees, D., Duff, D. & Trebilcock, M. (1996). Exploring the domain of accident law: Taking the facts seriously. New York: Oxford.
Gebhardt, J.E. & Townsend, P.L. (1990). The Quality Process: Little Things Mean a Lot. Review of Business, 12(3), 3.
Lencsis, P.M. (1997). Insurance regulation in the United States: An overview for business and government. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.
Muth, M. (1993). Facing Up to the Losses. The McKinsey Quarterly, 2, 73.
Patrick, J.R. (2001). Net attitude: What it is, how to get it, and why your company can’t survive without it. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Ross, H.L. (1980). Settled out of court: The social process of insurance claims adjustment. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Singer, L.R. (1994). Settling disputes: Conflict resolution in business, families, and the legal system.
Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Thierauf, R.J. (2001). Effective business intelligence systems. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.
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