The Ethical Foundation of Customer Service

The Ethical Foundation of Customer Service

Terry Sutton, Regional Account Manager

Stephens Engineering Consultants, Inc.

No matter in which state you serve as an insurance professional, you have a common duty in the exercise of your responsibilities . . . ethical behavior. Each state has varying requirements for continuing education in ethics, but it is, none-the-less, a foundational requirement. The purpose of this brief presentation is to give further insight about ethics and it’s number one expression (in my humble view) – customer service.

When I first began in the insurance industry in Texas in 2005 I discovered that I would have to have continuing education, which would include classes on ethics. The first ethics classes I attended were so (how should I say it?) terrible that I wondered if this was not akin to the requirement to take castor oil for various physical maladies when I was young. Both left a bad taste in my mouth and I purposed at some point in the future to present ethics classes that were more palatable, and practical. Through the good fortune of eventually working with a well-known national restoration company I was given that opportunity. I have taught all of my adult life, so to prepare and teach continuing education classes was a refreshing exercise for me, and still is to this day.

The insurance industry is unique. We are offering a product, a service and a state of mind. We are not called insurance employees, we are called insurance professionals. The etymology of “professional” gives the notion of someone who PROFESSES. It can be said to be your “calling.” In my understanding and experience, the best insurance professionals are those who have a sense of calling to do what they do. They see a higher purpose, a greater good and a bigger picture. Their inward unction to help others results in an expressed and purposed action of service. Even though a career in insurance can be financially rewarding, a person who does their work only for a paycheck can become disillusioned and frustrated with the emotional demands made on them. After all, insurance offers indemnification, restoration, security and peace of mind. When these things are disrupted in an insured’s life it can be emotionally and financially overwhelming. They are coming to us for remedy. And, we have to be ready to interact with them ethically. Sometimes that is daunting. It can be downright challenging when the insured brings with them a preconceived notion about the insurance industry and insurance companies. In their state of mind initially when they are required to buy insurance, or subsequently when they are in need of exercising its duty to indemnify, they may be a handful to deal with. They might even be rude and angry and say something about “your momma.” If you are not prepared for this you might have great difficulty in performing your duties ethically. After all, the primary expression of ethics is how we relate to others despite the situation.

Before I give some insight in how to be prepared to interact ethically and professionally in the execution of your duties I want to remind you of the two things that drive insurance: (1) Stewardship of Resources, and (2) Servicing Policy Holders. Every agent and every carrier are keenly aware of loss ratios. This is obviously important for the health and vitality of the company. Insurance is predicated on the law of large numbers. Policy holders put money in the “pot”, and then money is taken out to satisfy the resolution of claims and the overall conducting of insurance business. All insurance professionals are obligated to perform their responsibilities with stewardship in mind. Which includes, in property claims, working with vendors who do their work with excellence and as economically appropriate as possible. The other thing that drives insurance is working well with others, particularly policy holders. That is what ethical performance is all about. The best way to express this is the term “customer service.” How do you interact with others? The term itself has fallen into disfavor with some insurance elites, but it is the best way to describe the main thing we are to do. In fact, it is the ONE JOB we must do. Why is it so important? For one thing we are required to comport ourselves ethically as licensed insurance professionals and, secondly, it produces the outcomes absolutely necessary for insurance company health, retention and referrals. If you are poor in customer service it can ultimately affect your company. I was presenting to a class in Florida which included a regional claims manager. When I mentioned I was told to not use the term customer service, but rather consumer services he said; “I do not know who told you that, but my employees who do not offer good customer service are removed. It is that important.” Aye, aye, Captain Nemo, message received. So, with that in mind, let me offer seven insights to help you understand and perform good customer service. After all, it is your most important job. If you have a “calling”, then your “conduct” should follow. This is in the form of a simple acronym, BE RIGHT.

The B in BE RIGHT is Balance. You have a fiduciary responsibility in insurance. You are to stand in the gap between the policy holder and the company, giving deference to both. There is no way to avoid the tension between the two. This suggests that you are perceived to act in fairness in your duties. When you evaluate your ethicalness one of the factors is this balance. You have One Job! Part of that is balance.

The E in BE RIGHT is Empathy. Are you able to put yourself in the shoes of another? There is no way to do this unless you practice the discipline of Listening. By listening to what others are saying you not only make them feel important, but only by listening can you understand their needs. The number one complaint about insurance claim resolution is that insurance professionals would not listen to them or try to understand. Make someone in your life feel important today.  Listen to them. It is part of your One Job!

The R in BE RIGHT is Respect. Ethical performance suggests you must treat others with respect. Even if they are knuckleheads. However, unless you have self respect you will be challenged to do this. You must first respect yourself before you will treat others with respect. You have a duty to cooperate. You cannot afford to not deal with your own issues. The only person you can change is you. When your personal life is in order it is so much easier to work well with others, even if they are difficult. It is part of your ONE JOB!

The I in BE RIGHT is Inform. You will be perceived to be unethical if you do not communicate well with others. This means you must answer and return phone calls and emails. You must document what you do. You do not want to be accused of operating with bad faith. Keep the lines of communication open. By doing so you eliminate opportunities of accusation that you had poor customer service. Do your ONE JOB, inform.

The G in BE RIGHT is Gratitude. This might be the single greatest missing virtue in our world. You have no idea the power of gratefulness. Not only should you be grateful, but you MUST express gratefulness. When is the last time you told a co-worker, a relative, a friend or even an insured that you were grateful for them or what they did? Try it. It will knock their socks off and engender a positive atmosphere that very few other things can. Change your world. Be grateful. It can make your ONE JOB so much easier.

The H in BE RIGHT is Humility. You have to work to not be perceived as arrogant or callous. People already have a built in bias towards insurance companies. Don’t give them ammunition. You can diffuse difficult situations many times by simply saying “I’m sorry that happened.” Or just “I’m sorry.” A gentle response can do a world of good. In doing so you can even better perform your ONE JOB.

The T in BE RIGHT is Take Measure. Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I am not suggesting you become pre-occupied with self inspection, but I am saying you should check yourself in how you measure up and welcome input from others about yourself and your performance, professionally and personally. I am married so I get a second opinion about myself fairly often. Ha. Don’t fear evaluation. It is the source of correction and the discovery of blind spots. I welcome your feedback on this article. After all, we all have ONE JOB. Let’s get it right.

I spent over 25 years as a minister, and college professor. I am now in my 15th year working in insurance. The similarity between ministry and insurance is striking. You can really have a significant affect on the lives of others. You are a part of a company that offers restoration, beginning again, peace of mind and wholeness. In doing so you have an obligation to do so ethically. My hope for you and me is that we get it right. BE RIGHT in serving others. After all, it is our ONE JOB!

If you would like to contact Mr. Sutton regarding this subject, please call him at (813) 955-0621 or e-mail him at for more information.