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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 1 week ago

Insurance firm aims to keep up regular communication with customers

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Can an insurance firm be less robotic and more empathetic? One company says yes and will use that model to grab more market share.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

The conference table in Ron “Nate” Natherson Jr.’s office has two seats reserved for key members of his company’s team: the agent and the customer.

The chairs both have a blue seat marker with the word “Agent” printed on one and the word “Customer” printed on the other.

“It’s meant to indicate the partnership we have with them,” says Natherson, the president and CEO of Lakewood Ranch-based Gulfstream Property & Casualty Insurance.

It’s also a way, he says, to keep them top of mind and underscore to visitors they’re always in the room and always have a seat at the table.

The firm, with 32 employees, has $150 million in premiums, which have held steady for the past three or four years, Natherson says. Revenue has been flat over several years too, he says, primarily because of storms hitting their coverage areas. About 70% of Gulfstream’s business is in Florida, and it also has policies in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. In total, it writes 85,000 policies in six states, with its primary focus on Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, the three states where it has the most policies.

To retain customers and gain new ones, Gulfstream will focus on attributes officials say set the firm apart. That includes communicating with customers throughout the year and providing a steady, empathetic touch — something many competitors overlook.

Constant Communication

Gulfstream makes a point of communicating with its customers regularly — not just when a storm is on its way.

Of course, it sends information about renewals. But it also sends information about what house maintenance to do when it’s not hurricane season and what people should include in an emergency kit. “A great retention policy starts with communication,” Natherson says.

Gulfstream Vice President of Human Resources Pam Ringquist agrees. She says regular communication helps Gulfstream stay top of mind and let clients know the firm is a resource — not just an invoice to pay. “We’re available 24/7, year-round, not just during a catastrophe or a disaster,” Ringquist says.

Another key part of both retention and gaining new clients? Because Gulfstream’s products are sold through agencies, Gulfstream Marketing Coordinator Sharyn Vross says that when the firm does its job well and shows it has a consistent track record, it makes a big difference in encouraging agents to recommend Gulfstream to their clients.

That means every claim matters and handling them well can impact the business beyond just that customer. “From the service perspective, you’re only as good as your last claim,” Natherson says.

During claim situations, Gulfstream aims to spell out specifics in terms of when people can expect to hear from them. Vross says the firm tells customers they can expect a phone call in this many days and a check in this many days. “It makes customers feel safe,” she says.

The company also believes in communicating well with its internal employees, Ringquist says. The firm’s core values — accountability, transparency, respect and integrity — are displayed throughout the office, including on television monitors in the hallways. Those monitors also display claims data, financial data, human resources data, marketing data and information about training opportunities. “We try to be very transparent with our workforce,” Ringquist says. “We remind each other that we’re each others’ internal customers. Every team member is my customer.”

But even for a company that places a high priority on communication, there’s always an opportunity to improve. “We’re working on more effective communication,” Natherson says. “You can’t communicate enough with the customer during a claim.”

As technology changes and the number of ways the customer wants to be communicated with grows, Gulfstream wants to stay on top of them all. They don’t use any single way to communicate but a selection, from emails and phone calls to social media and blog posts. “We’re trying to stay ahead of trends,” Natherson says. “You have to be aware of how customers want to communicate.”

Vross says during past hurricanes many people have reached out via Facebook. What’s important is letting customers come to them using their communication preferences, she says, and being available to offer answers on a variety of platforms. “You have to do whatever you can do,” she says.

More Information 

To understand customer communication preferences, Gulfstream looks to online reviews and other customer feedback as well as articles in industry publications. The key, Natherson says, is to really hear what the customers are saying.

One burgeoning communications area Gulfstream might harness is telematics. The auto insurance industry is already using telematics, with devices that track and collect data on vehicle speed, braking and other statistics. In homeowners insurance, it could be used to track security systems, water leak sensors and more. “Carriers are interested in getting data from these to understand loss data over time,” Natherson says.

“A great retention policy starts with communication.” — Ron “Nate” Natherson Jr., president and CEO, Gulfstream Property & Casualty Insurance

Vross says Gulfstream has dabbled in telematics in testing the market and is in the evaluation stages.

Communicating well throughout the year, meanwhile, pays the most divided during catastrophes, Natherson says. If you communicate with customers over time, they’re more likely to read your communication during a storm or other event, he says.

The company also aims to listen to customers in terms of what new products they want. Natherson says understanding the needs of the customer and responding to them is also the best way for Gulfstream to grow.

It plans to introduce new products in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina that Natherson says will put the company in a better competitive position and help Gulfstream differentiate itself.

When it looks at opportunities to grow its product line, it aims to complement existing options. For example, it’s now considering a new product for short-term rentals and home-sharing. “We’re listening to what customers are saying,” Natherson says.

Empathetic Ear

Part of Gulfstream’s value is not only offering regular informational communication but also offering something that’s less cut and dry: empathy.

The trait is especially important in a time of loss, Natherson says. “Empathy goes a long way,” he says.

The company emphasizes empathy in training, especially with employees who come into direct contact with customers. “You have to communicate that service expectation to the people on the front lines — the people on the phones,” Natherson says. “You have to make sure they understand empathy is key. The way a person answers the phone can start a conversation down one road or another.”

Gulfstream outsources to a third-party administrator that takes claims calls at a call center in Columbia, S.C., during storm events. Officials listen to employee phone calls with customers to see where there might be room for improvement. Mock phone calls are also part of the training process. Natherson says those soft skills provide comfort to customers and help establish that Gulfstream will be their helping hand.

Gulfstream practices empathy in another way too. Its team members support a variety of organizations, from Southeastern Guide Dogs to All Faiths Food Bank, with volunteer hours and financial support as well as by hosting drives. The company offers incentives to employees to participate, such as by allowing them to wear jeans or to get a reward if they make a food drive donation.

Company officials see it as its corporate responsibility. “It’s part of our core values,” Natherson says. “It speaks to the type of people we want on our team and the role we play in the community.”

Gulfstream’s efforts to be people and community-centric speak to a central changing attribute about insurance consumers. “People used to have one agency and never shopped around,” Natherson says. Now there’s much more shopping around. “You’ve got to have a good experience and understand emerging trends and emerging technology,” he says. 

In addition to continuing its efforts to provide regular communication and empathy, part of Gulfstream’s strategy is to be safe in terms of managing risk and growth. “That’s how you build longevity over time,” Natherson says. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

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