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Adjusting Customer Experience: The Digital Divide

When does convenience jeopardize results? When critical trust-building is relegated to digital.

When we delivered our first communication courses for adjusters over 25 years ago, almost no one thought business agreement skills were essential for rank-and-file claims people. Even my dad, the late Russell H. Granger, who was responsible for the largest-selling non-technical training in the P&C industry, was skeptical. In his 2008 book on the neuroscience of persuasion, The 7 Triggers to Yes, he details how he had to be convinced by the then-head of the Aetna Institutes to build a program of skills for claims which, at the time, were considered exclusive to sales and marketing.

Oh, how times change. Today almost no one disputes the importance of developing and refining “people skills” for adjusters. And while the fundamentals of human interaction aren’t subject to a lot of change over time, the modes by which we communicate, and the channels through which we do so have changed dramatically and irrevocably. Within the last decade alone communication technology has upended everything from parenting to presidential politics.

What does all of this change mean for claims handling? And more specifically, for the insurance customer experience? In a word, challenge. During the first wave of mass access to new communication technology in the mid-1990s, the phrase “high-tech, high-touch” was born. It was an attempt to highlight the importance of compensating for increasingly faceless, data-centric channels with as much humanity as possible. We’ve been struggling with that equation ever since.

Time has fostered familiarity, social media platforms have amplified convenience, and in some ways it might feel as though our technology has become more humanized. Digital channel communication has indeed gotten more casual and colloquial. But informality is not the same as real human connection.

From our learning program for adjusters on persuasive communication & negotiation:

Why does an emphasis on humanity matter so much when it comes to more efficient, more effective claims handling? Despite our tendency to believe that agreements are achieved mainly based on logical factors like settlement amounts, 21st century neuroscience has proven that emotional factors are massively more important. When it comes to influence, persuasion, and decision-making – even for the most calculated and commercial business decisions – the emotional centers of the brain are what drive all other cognitive functions. It’s not optional. It’s science.

Turns out that the human connection aspects of a business transaction –establishing rapport, and orienting to personality styles, for example – amount to much more than etiquette compliance or social finesse. These skills can literally make or break an agreement. More so, even, than getting the right number on a check.

So, how does digital channel communication play into this priority? According to research, not well.

In a study of negotiation at Columbia University, management professor Michael Morris found that negotiators who communicated exclusively by email exchanged three times as much information. Sounds good. But they also built less rapport, which led to increased tensions, and actually lowered the average economic value of the resulting agreements. Those who negotiated by e-mail in Morris’s study trusted each other less, and were not as interested in working together again.

“Rapport creates a buffer of positive regard,” said Morris, “and when it’s not there, negotiation becomes brittle, and vulnerable to falling apart.” The digital channel lacks a whole range of “human cues” like facial expression and tone of voice. That makes it difficult for recipients to decode meaning accurately. This is compounded, researchers say, by the speed, volume, and immediacy of digital communication creating an urgency that pressures us to think and write quickly – which can lead to carelessness or unintended consequences.

Management scholar Kristin Byron of Syracuse University suggests that one of the most common of these unintended consequences, misinterpretation, tends to come in only two forms: neutral or negative. Wow. Think about the implications of that: If our message is in any way unclear, or jumbled, or vague, the best we can possibly hope for is a neutral emotional response. It may be negative. But it will almost certainly never be positive.

It’s an established truism that meaning is in people, not in words. And now, there’s overwhelming science proving the near impossibility of successful agreement building without the additional signaling factors offered by phone time or face time. At this point in our digital communication history we’ve all been subjected to the misfires created by emails and texts. Tone, nuance, intention, meaning – virtually everything related to successfully engaging the emotional brain gets lost in digital. And if we lose the emotional brain, we’ve lost the ability to influence, persuade, and negotiate successfully.

To fully understand communication between claimants and adjusters, it’s important to know how communication signals are interpreted, and how those interpretations can change depending on what channel we’re using. Digital channels like email and texts contain not only the fewest signal categories, but also miss the ones that are most important according to research for successful negotiation and agreement building. This presents some real challenges in a time when more and more customers prefer the convenience of digital.

What can adjusters do?

  • Recognize the limitations of digital. Greater speed, volume, and convenience of information exchange is of little benefit to more efficient or successful negotiations.
  • Make genuine human connection a settlement priority, and recognize that this cannot be achieved through electronic messaging alone. Building trust, getting cooperation, persuasion and negotiation requires phone time or face time.
  • Choose face-to-face meetings or phone time whenever possible.
  • Don’t seek to establish rapport, activate “friendship triggers” or build trust by email or messaging. It doesn’t work.
  • Negotiate directly whenever possible, limiting the use of digital channels to confirmations, follow-ups, and scheduling.
  • If you must communicate electronically, overcompensate with niceties, friendship triggers, and “humanizing messages.” Work those emojis!

Want your people to raise their claim game quickly and economically? Check out the new 360° Adjuster online course. Six modules of immersive, interactive learning on persuasive communication and negotiation exclusively for P&C claims professionals – from newbies to seasoned pros.

Get a course curriculum, previews, and register for a full program review.