Insurers Need To Upgrade Their Employees’ Writing Skills

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Forget about good grammar and the other niceties of English. The insurance profession has a vested interest in helping its employees master writing skills that go way beyond the many organization, phrasing and format issues that need to be addressed in a writing training course.

Clear, concise writing is helpful to individuals and to whole departments for many reasons. Here are five real-world concerns that link the importance of effective writing skills training to the vital and more global needs of insurance companies, especially claims and underwriting departments:

Scarcity of Good People. In the decade ahead, there will be an increase in the need for claims adjusters and examiners. While insurance companies in cities such as Atlanta, New York or Seattle might be able to find a pool of new adjusters, there are many locations that will have to do a lot of searching to find the right people.

Will the future adjusters, examiners and underwriters be skilled writers? They will certainly spend about 40% of their time writing log notes, e-mail and letters to claimants, attorneys and physicians–not to mention letters to brokers, agents, employers and hospitals.

If you pay adjusters $40,000 per year and almost half their time is spent writing, you may be losing lots of productivity unless you start rolling out some writing help.

People Bring Baggage. Even if you find some terrific talent out there, you need to quickly bring those people into your corporate culture. Every human being carries a lifetime of notions about writing, and these are deeply embedded in the brain.

What to do with this mix of styles? Some form of writing skills training can help put everyone “on the same page” by answering questions, fostering consistency and forcing management to take a good hard look at those form letters that have been kicking around for years.

At one seminar I taught, there was a split of opinion over the use of “I” and “we” in denial letters. Half the group had been taught to use “we” when denying a claim; the other half argued that “I” was more honest since the signer of the letter was doing the denying.

Not all writing training is equal, however. Sending an adjuster to a generic business writing class at a local college may help a bit, but theres no substitute for a type of interactive training in which a group of underwriters or adjusters gets a consistent message at the same moment in each others presence.

When a writing instructor answers a question for one person, that instructor should also be guiding everyone in the class to view the topic with consistency (for example, how to write a “Re” line or the organizational structure of a denial letter).

No Scud Missiles, Please! It may not show up on a balance sheet, but every time an untrained writer writes a letter, theres the chance of inadvertently “attacking” a claimant, an insured, a commissioner, a broker or an agent.

Negative tone can hurt your company in many ways. It can lose customers, it can generate lawsuits and, if inflammatory rhetoric is found in a discoverable e-mail or log notes, a few words might cost your company a whopping settlement and punitive damages in a bad-faith lawsuit.

Also, you would be amazed at the number of loss control managers and claims managers who rarely use “please” in their writing, and who feel that requesting items from a reader is as simple as just asking for them. They feel no motivation is needed–and then they wait countless weeks while their requests are ignored!

Lost Time Equals Lost Money. For arguments sake, lets assume an adjuster (or examiner, loss control professional, etc.) writes five documents each day. If that person is not a confident writer, there may be as many as five or 10 gaffes per letter. They can be subtle things, like dumping too much information on a reader–perhaps because the writer doesnt really want any chance of a follow-up call.

One loss control manager described one type of letter as “dipped in Vaseline” because “some brokers dont like to be pinned down.” Result? A productivity-wasting series of follow-ups.

Some other writing problems that make letters look bad and hurt productivity are wordiness, failure to come to the point, vagueness, inappropriate tone, stodgy language, poor phrasing, punctuation and grammar errors, lengthy sentences, and lengthy paragraphs.

Where Are Tomorrows Leaders? How much is your company doing to train tomorrows top executives? The higher in the organization you go, the greater the need to write persuasively.

Whether youre in information technology, product development, auditing, claims, underwriting or loss control, you may sit at many meetings during which projections for future growth and new products are discussed. Those presentations can be delightful or deadly, depending on the clarity and organization of the written slides.

Chief information officers and IT managers often comment to me, in frustration, “Why cant people boil down their ideas to a page or two?” Good question. Perhaps because the presenters havent been trained to take responsibility for their viewers attention spans as well as for the impact of the words they choose for each slide.

Our industry is fascinated by new technology. But no technology and/or form letter can ultimately substitute for the conversational nature of the human voice as it emerges in the phrases of a well-written letter from an adjuster to an insured, a loss control manager to a broker, or an examiner to a physician.

Take a good look at the documents your company sends out and remember: Those documents may be the only way by which customers judge your company.

, director of The Communication Workshop, presents on-site seminars to claims, underwriting, loss control and other insurance professionals. His Writing Help Desk service provides individual writing training. For more information, e-mail him at garyblake@aol.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, November 4, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.