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Inside the Sandy Claims Response: From the Front Lines

Insurers are combining technological prowess with an improvisational spirit to address the superstorm's claims challenge.

Social Media Works For Plymouth Rock And Main Street America

Hurricane Sandy wasn't the first major CAT event of the smartphone era, but it was the first that affected a critical mass of socially connected policyholders armed with smartphones and little else. This led to a flood of tweets and Facebook posts about the storm and the insurance response, some aimed directly at carriers with questions about coverage or how to report claims.

"Social media was a way to help service our customers who had trouble using their phones," says Valerie Simon, director of marketing communications at Plymouth Rock Assurance New Jersey in Red Bank, N.J. (net income of $28.7 million for 2011). "We were really closely monitoring our Facebook and Twitter pages."

Responsibility for monitoring customer inquiries fell largely to the company's social media specialist, Drew Griffiths. But he, too, was affected by the storm: Having lost Internet access, he was using his phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot, keeping it powered with car and manual chargers distributed by the company to the entire team.

Griffiths was the point person for all social queries. When information came in, he decided who it went to and what the contact channels would be, and made sure there were alternate channels in place. The marketing and claims teams were on the same email chain, right down to the single point person who needed to respond, he says.

In the wake of the storm, some insurers have struggled with PR missteps exacerbated by social media. Plymouth Rock says that it's easy to prevent those problems before they start: Be authentic and do what you say you will. Both Griffiths and Simon say it was easy to identify with their policyholders' concerns because the company's employees, like all 500,000 autos the company insures, are located in New Jersey.

"When you're right in the middle of a crisis, the first step is to know that there's someone there that's ready to respond to you," Griffiths says. "But we did not set any false expectations. We made sure that we delivered on whatever timeframe we gave that individual on when they could be contacted."

"I'm proud of how we were able to quickly respond, and when issues came up, they were quickly resolved," Simon says. "We really didn't have a lot of venting."

Plymouth Rock has a fairly extensive social media program, using Radian6 and Sprout software to help monitor, measure and manage the channel. But there's one key technology platform that Griffiths says could use improvement: Facebook. The difficulty in developing Facebook apps that meet insurance standards for security and privacy complicate insurers' ability to collect claims data online, he says.

Plymouth Rock would love to have a claims reporting app, Griffith says, "but we'd have to make sure that our customers' private information is encrypted and secure above all, and there's a lot of complications." During the storm, the company directed customers to message privately with policy and claim numbers, and specify whether they wanted the response through Facebook or a different channel.

Socialized Agents

Main Street America Group ($34.2 million net income, Q3 2012), based in Jacksonville, Fla., also found policyholders turning to social media to begin the claims process, says corporate communications director Mark Friedlander. That's to be expected, considering how involved its agents are in the channel, he says. In fact, as CATs approach, agents in the path are often given important information through Main Street America's social sites.

"We try to communicate to our independent agency force in a variety of ways," Friedlander says. "We'll do email blasts, we'll post it on our agents-only proprietary site and we'll also use various channels on social media. Our agents are telling us they want to be communicated with that way."

That includes Friedlander's personal Twitter feed (@markfri09), which in the days leading up to Sandy included information about when binding authority was lifted in a certain geographical area.

"We already had a process in place," he says. "If we want to communicate effectively to our customer, which is the independent agents, we need to be in the space where they're marketing 24/7."

Unlike Plymouth Rock, however, Main Street America, which is expecting about $10 million in losses, wasn't taking claims information through social media. Rather, it used social channels to reiterate messaging it sent before the storm about where and how to begin the claims process. However, Friedlander says, claims collection through social "is a direction that Main Street America and other companies will need to go into."

-- N.G.

Assurant Specialty Property's High-Tech, High-Touch Response

Hurricane Sandy struck close to home for Keith Goss, a property claims manager with Assurant Specialty Property (part of New York-based Assurant Inc.; approximately $8 billion in annual revenue). Though ASP's headquarters are in Atlanta, Goss lives in a Staten Island neighborhood that was flooded by Sandy's storm surge, damaging his belongings and totaling his cars.

Goss and his family found shelter with neighbors, then he reported for duty at the insurer's catastrophe response center. ASP's high-tech, high-touch claims capabilities meant that many of Goss' colleagues from Staten Island and elsewhere in the country were also on the job.

ASP's claims adjusters didn't wait for customers to call. Instead, they reached out to affected policyholders, visiting more than 500 and leaving laminated "door knocker"placards on the doors of more than 2,000 other homes. The placards let policyholders know that their insurer had been there and how to contact the company, says Steve Johnson, ASP's senior VP of claims.

The door knocker is a low-tech way to get in touch with homeowners, who represented the majority of claims for the company, Johnson says. "People get rattled by the harrowing experience they've been through during a catastrophe. They may not remember who their insurer is or what their policy number is. It can be very reassuring both to have that information and to know that their insurer is already working to help them through a difficult time."

But sophisticated technology and planning are behind the low-tech gesture and ASP's ability to have boots on the ground during the first-responder phase of the event, Johnson says. "That begins with the data warehouse we developed internally," he says. "We have all of our policyholders' information -- location, risk values, types of policies -- recorded, organized and accessible to our claims team in a very efficient way. So as we observed the storm track of Sandy, we had a very good idea of what response it would require significantly before landfall."

Drawing on its database and analyzing policyholder information with geolocation technology, ASP was able to illustrate the location of thousands of policyholders in the areas most likely to be hit, using heat-mapping graphic displays. "With the convergence of these technologies, we were able to act essentially as first responders, either meeting with policyholders or putting our door knockers in place where policyholders had been evacuated," Johnson says.

ASP ramped up internal and external resources for claims adjusting. "We've taken our catastrophe response to the point where we can accurately inform our partners early in the game on what to expect from us so that they can scale up resources for us," Johnson says. "We have internally developed good predictive abilities, a variety of features and a high degree of usability."

ASP uses the same capabilities to manage its call center staffing, working with an outsourced partner when call volumes exceed what the insurer can manage with internal resources, Johnson says.

"For example, our partner taking first notice of loss can do it just as well as we do because they have access to our systems sufficient to receive that notice and enter it into our claims system," he says. "We're able to shoot for and often exceed the '80/20' call center standard -- 80% of the calls handled in the first 20 seconds -- because of the technology bridge that we have with our outsource partner for FNOL."

As ASP's internal professionals and external partners connected with policyholders in the back office, field personnel such as Goss worked diligently on the scene. Goss stayed at his neighbors for a prolonged period, regularly checking his home, helping to pump out the basement and making sure his cats were safe.

"At least I have waterfront property now," he jokes. "I guess being a claims adjuster, having this happen is like the plumber with a leaky faucet or the shoemaker with holes in his shoes." On a more serious note, he says there were numerous fatalities in his neighborhood, similar to some areas he handled during Hurricane Katrina.

-- A.O.

Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
2/5/2013 | 1:11:18 AM
re: Inside the Sandy Claims Response: From the Front Lines
Great case study on Progressive. The lengths they went to, truly impressive.
Nathan Golia
Nathan Golia,
User Rank: Author
1/30/2013 | 2:44:26 PM
re: Inside the Sandy Claims Response: From the Front Lines
A number that we will surely see increase with each additional storm event and social networking outlet. How many Vine videos of swaying branches or storm surge lapping up on shores will we see next time?
User Rank: Apprentice
1/29/2013 | 5:36:41 PM
re: Inside the Sandy Claims Response: From the Front Lines
Nathan, thank you for this excellent article. CATs are the ultimate scenario where carriers' reputations are either lived up or down to what their policyholders expect. The examples you -áshared are great fodder for building a "best practices" for the industry overall. Of course, a critical addition would/should be how and when are the claim payments/advances made during these chaotic times. Claimants want to begin the process of being made whole immediately. Issuing payments on location are the new mandatory expectations. For more information on this related topic, see this blog article
User Rank: Apprentice
1/28/2013 | 9:14:06 PM
re: Inside the Sandy Claims Response: From the Front Lines
-áRegarding social media during Sandy, Michael Costonis of Accenture mentioned that more than 20 million tweets were made about the storm within a six day period.
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