The enduring relevance of brokers

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ITIJ 224 | September 2019

When purchasing travel and health insurance in the age of the internet, search engines make easy work of finding comparison sites promising low prices and even comprehensive coverage, so how has the ‘high street’ broker managed to remain an asset to both customers and insurers in today’s market? Robyn Bainbridge addresses some often-outdated perceptions

“Nothing beats the in-depth industry knowledge of a good broker,” stated Damian Lenihan, Executive Director, Europe, Aetna International in the UK. “People forget that getting the right travel and international private medical insurance (IPMI) can be nuanced, in terms of region and the coverage. This means customers are always going to benefit from comprehensive, personalised advice – and brokers are uniquely placed to fully explain the market.”

Although aggregator sites collate a range of policies and sort and filter them according to the user’s responses to questions posed by the site, high street brokers, it can be argued, are able to offer a more in-depth advice about policy coverage, while being able to answer any specific questions about the coverage details. As Malcolm Wright, Chief Commercial Officer at GeoBlue in the US, told ITIJ: “When using comparison sites, consumers often only see a high-level overview of the plan benefits, and with any insurance product, it’s critical to look deeper at the actual coverages and the details of the policy certificate.” Similarly, as board member of the British Insurance Brokers Association Peter Blanc put it [in a video resource on the association’s website]: “You just don’t know what you don’t know.”

 

Peace of mind
There’s no denying that comparison sites are still a popular asset to the online insurance marketplace and are meeting a real need for swift access to cover. But Michael Pettifer, Managing Director at MPI Brokers in the UK, would issue a warning. “One thing you have to understand about comparison sites,” he said, “is that they’re not comparing what each provider offers. They’re comparing what each provider has provided to that comparison site.” He notes that there is still a wealth of policies that are not available on comparison sites, including those that are exclusive to the broker.

Furthermore, Pettifer rejects the notion entirely that comparison sites are either fast or efficient. He infers that customers spend a considerable amount of time inputting their details and navigating through a plethora of results – a hassle that is removed entirely when purchasing directly through a broker, who will do the hard work for you.

And there are other aspects of the insurance process that aren’t factored into the equation when purchasing from comparison sites. “While many IPMI insurers will have similar benefit schedules on paper, many aspects of their service (general turnaround time, leverage and communication with hospitals or additional valued-added services) can vary significantly,” noted Pacific Prime’s Global Marketing Director in Hong Kong, Stephen Ho. “These intangible aspects are harder to compare but are equally important to consider when buying an insurance plan.”

What’s more, when it comes to IPMI policies, which Ho explains typically range from anywhere between US$2,000 to over $10,000 per year and can contain extremely complicated policy wording, a broker will simplify the process for clients by offering expert advice that drastically reduces a customer’s time spent reviewing the options, while ensuring the client purchases a suitable policy for their needs.

Brokers are able to provide carriers with insights into what buyers are looking for, how their needs are evolving and what is driving their needs

“A certain plan may look great on the surface,” noted Wright, “but may have exclusions and specific limits on benefits.” He adds that, should something happen to an insured on a trip, such as hospitalisation following an asthma attack, the policyholder could be liable for the entire hospital bill if the pre-existing condition wasn’t declared; a situation that brokers can easily help to avoid with appropriate questioning and explanation to ensure all conditions are declared.
Brokers certainly have a strong role to play in making sure appropriate coverage is purchased by the customer. Simon Neicho, Head of Commercial at Rothwell & Towler in the UK, told ITIJ that brokers are able to calculate risk more ‘sympathetically’ when analysing customers’ medical conditions, looking at how stable they are and how they are managed. He extrapolates: “By understanding a customer’s own unique situation, we can better facilitate the sale of a travel insurance product that provides peace of mind for consumers.”
Lenihan points out that brokers can also identify the products that are ‘best of breed’, thus inspiring members to feel confident they have the right product for their needs, ‘at a price point that suits them’. And it is because of this product awareness that brokers possess, as Pettifer highlights, that coming to a broker will improve a customer’s trust: “Trust is one of the most important parts of buying an insurance policy,” he noted.


Improved customer service
It’s not just customers that can benefit from the uncontested knowledge of the broker. When it comes to IPMI, Wright said: “International health insurance is a complicated product to purchase – from understanding local regulations and compliance to different standards of care around the world to managing the unique needs of the various types of employees (for example, third country nationals, expats, and inpats) – and having a broker/consultant to help buyers navigate the process is a win/win for buyers and insurers.”
By aiding and  smoothing the buying process, brokers are creating happy purchasers, and that reflects positively on the insurer. “The most significant benefits brokers can bring to insurers include improved customer service and experience,” said Ho, “which ultimately lead to improved reputation and higher client retention for the insurers.”

Brokers are able to calculate risk more ‘sympathetically’ when analysing customers’ medical conditions

Bettering the customer journey includes improved communication and that takes a lot of work behind the scenes. Lenihan details that insurers such as Aetna International work closely with brokers, going to great lengths to build relationships with them, as doing so keeps brokers in the loop with insurers' latest developments and allows insurers to receive up-to-date, constructive feedback. “Essentially, they facilitate a conversation between us and our members, so two-way communication is key,” he explained.
Further to this, Ho notes that brokers, particularly those who ‘consult clients impartially and professionally’, can help bring a lot of transparency. And, as with communication, this transparency also ensures that customers utilise their benefits properly and don’t lose faith in their insurer when a claims payment takes longer than expected. “It might feel irritating to wait a couple of days for a claims payment,” reasoned Lenihan, “but if a member knows that the industry standard is over a week, it shines a different light.”
Moreover, Wright also explains that brokers are able to provide carriers with insights into what buyers are looking for, how their needs are evolving and what is driving new needs. “All of which helps carriers continue to evolve their offerings and better serve buyers’ needs,” he said. “This collaboration between insurer and broker drives customer satisfaction which results in loyalty and long-term client retention.”

 

Cost containment
Improved transparency and communication can also help reduce instances of fraud and declined claims, which are all major pluses for insurers, Ho told ITIJ.

Thanks to a broker’s consultative approach, they can even save insurers money by feeding back information on client data. “Clients can expect a thorough review of their historical data and experience to assess claims spend, trends and behaviors which may drive the conversation towards cost containment,” detailed Wright.
Neicho further emphasised how brokers could benefit insurers by driving profits. He explained that they distribute risk across a variety of customers, each with their own booking pattern, risk factors and lifetime value: “Building brand loyalty throughout the lifetime of a policy in turn retains customers and supports the profitability of the portfolio.”

 

The future of broking
So there we have it, expert product and industry knowledge, unrivalled customer service and cost containment – just some of the benefits that brokers provide to the insurance industry and customers alike. But it doesn’t end there: with the uptake of new technology, brokers are further expanding their capabilities and may soon be able to provide an entirely holistic service to both parties.
To begin with, Wright detailed: “On the group medical side, we’ve seen brokers and consultants invest in back office tools that work across all lines of insurance to gain efficiencies and enable them to provide more services to their group buyers.”

Chat functionality is one popular aspect of this. For example, Pettifer reveals that MPI is planning on introducing an in-house doctor that would provide medical assistance directly through its broking service and notes that the company’s new website, which should be up and running by the end of 2019, will include a live chat feature. 

It’s a development that is meeting real needs. “We’ve seen some brokers who focus on the individual market starting to use live chat/agent features, which makes sense given the highly transactional nature of these sales,” said Wright. And not only, as Ho points out, does this lower the customer service workload, it also cements the role of the broker in the modern insurance landscape – in that they are able to provide accessible information to an increasingly tech-savvy generation of travellers.

We’ve seen some brokers who focus on the individual market starting to use live chat/agent features

Another move that solidly grounds the broker in the modern insurance landscape is the implementation of social media and marketing. During the Agency Innovation Conference in Bangkok in July, AXA’s Financial Services Director Calvin Lee revealed that the company advocated the use of social media as a precision marketing tool, whereby certain platforms and marketing approaches could be used to engage with potential clients of different age ranges.
And Wright agrees: “Agents and brokers who have put a focus on digital marketing, especially around SEO, have been able to build a strong online presence and drive traffic and sales to their sites.”
Neicho argued that this presence on customers’ platforms can also help ‘shape the direction of a broker’s business’. He explained that Rothwell & Towler has introduced an automated marketing platform with a single customer view: “This includes customer quote, sales and underwriting performance data allowing us to analyse customer behaviour in order to drive marketing strategy and ensure customers are offered cover that’s relevant to their lifestyle and their budget,” he said. “The increased use of this technology will also lead to growth in innovations such as online claims submission and real-time claim settlement.”
Ho furthered this point, emphasising that mobile apps and portal platforms are both improving the customer experience and strengthening the brokers’ value propositions. He cites Pacific Prime’s ‘state-of-the-art quotation system’, which compares up to 50,000 different plan combinations and ‘issues quotations that are tailored to customers’ needs within 24 hours’.
Undoubtably, the instantaneous nature of new technology has highlighted a demand for speed in all transactions, and brokers are starting to use this to their advantage. The enduring relevance of the broker will likely lie in their ability to balance unrivalled customer service and industry knowledge with the ability to keep up with the increasingly technological demands of society. ■