Building the Best
How to develop talent in a claims organization
By Chris Kustra
The plaintiff’s bar is relentless, and its growing crop of young lawyers continues to bring down large verdicts. It’s imperative that claims organizations develop and retain top talent to match the very capable lawyers on the other side. Having a solid training program and defining career paths for new hires will help set your organization up for success.
The ultimate goal of every claims professional should be to get the right price for each claim and, in doing so, keep clients happy so that their business is retained and they rave about the service they received, which brings in new business. Accordingly, having a stable of very talented claims professionals who know how to evaluate cases and then execute on them quickly is critical. When you have the best talent, you will get the best results.
In the typical claims organization, results are achieved through a structure of claims professionals who report to supervisors, who then report to managers. Unfortunately, the claims professionals responsible for most of the heavy lifting often are overworked, under-acknowledged, and not given the proper training early on for success later in their careers. As a result, many flame out and switch careers, which leaves their companies to constantly spend money recruiting new claims professionals, a costly endeavor.
This is why it’s critical to have defined career paths for your claims professionals and to have supervisors and managers willing to mentor and develop their people. Supervisors and managers need to understand that their most important job is to identify and remove the roadblocks that prevent their staff from excelling.
Making sure that claims professionals stay on task is important, but it’s not the goal. Getting the right price for the claim and keeping the client happy is the goal. For example, it’s important to keep claims professionals on diary and make sure they return phone calls and reply to emails, but these are only processes. When supervisors and managers invest time listening to their staff, obtaining feedback from them, and building on their strengths, they end up with claims professionals who they don’t have to worry about. Things get done because the staff feel like part of a team where everyone is moving in the same direction.
I recently sat down with one of our star claims professionals, who is relatively new to handling litigated claims, and said, “Your work product is excellent and your clients love you. Why do you work so hard?” The answer was telling. She said, “I work hard because I’m very proud of my work. I’ve always been. That’s just who I am. But that’s not the only reason I care about my work. I also care about it because my supervisor and my manager care about it, and because they obviously care about me and that I’m successful.”
This is an example of a fully engaged employee. She works hard because she is part of the team, and she knows she has a direct impact on the team’s success. Claims professionals like this are invaluable. I firmly believe a really good claims professional will produce at least double what an average professional can do.
It starts with hiring the best candidates. When hiring for an entry-level claims position, be very picky. What that person can do for you years from now is much more important than what that person can do for you today. As a manager, you might feel pressure to hire someone quickly because of the current claims load. Don’t panic. Slow down and take time in order to get those really good people with big upside potential, as they will benefit you tremendously for years to come.
When interviewing potential candidates, ask fewer process-related questions and more character-based ones. Most people applying for a job in claims know the fundamentals, such as how to take statements or work a diary. You want to find out if that person works hard because she is extremely proud of her work and because that’s just who she is. Ask her questions about how she has dealt with a difficult situation in the past and what she learned from it. Give her an example of a difficult claim and then ask her how she thinks it should be handled. When she responds, observe her thought processes and how quickly she conceptualizes the issues, formulates a plan of action, and executes.
The next step is developing and retaining talent. At the end of the day, you want someone who can diagnose claims quickly and then execute with very few errors. Well-trained claims professionals do that in their sleep. When the claim comes in, they know exactly what to do to reach that goal of getting the right price for the claim and keeping the client happy.
Supervisors and managers should encourage their staff to take risks, but they also need to make it safe for them to do so. Encourage your claims professionals to learn from their mistakes. If your people aren’t making mistakes and taking risks, then they aren’t developing. The manager and supervisor must provide the safety net so that learning can take place.
Supervisors and managers should focus on making their staff promotable and marketable. In the claims world, there is a tremendous emphasis on metrics driving data and data driving productivity. More emphasis needs to be placed on the things metrics and data often don’t tell you. A lot of claims professionals are very good at checking boxes and making sure a file looks pretty for an audit, but the ultimate goal gets lost when the claim is paid for the wrong amount and the client isn’t happy about how it was handled. When on-boarding new claims professionals, you need to give them a lot of attention, and they need to be slowly introduced to how your organization’s claims are handled well.
We like to start our new claims professionals out with small property damage claims. They handle those claims until they have demonstrated a solid understanding, then they are bumped up to small injury claims. When they have a good handle on those, we introduce simple litigation to them. When they have a good grasp on that, we move them up to more complex litigation and give them cases involving catastrophic injuries.
Along the way, the supervisor and manager are there to provide guidance as well as a safety net. The claims professionals are encouraged to ask a lot of questions, and the supervisors and managers are asked to give candid feedback. Before going to their first settlement conference or court appearance, the claims professionals go with their supervisors to see how the process works. When trials happen, we copy the entire claims team on the daily updates from defense counsel so that everyone can see how the case is progressing. When new case law and verdicts come down, we let the staff know about it.
What we don’t do is just throw them into the deep end of the swimming pool and see if they can swim. We give them instruction and then slowly paddle them out once they have the tools to succeed. We make sure the claims professional understands that the result on the claim is a team effort, and we take the time to publicly praise claims professionals’ individual achievements.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers have annual conferences and now even schools where they discuss the latest trends in the industry and the most effective strategies for extracting the most dollars. That’s why it’s even more important for your claims professionals to get out of their company bubbles and see what’s going on at the industry level. They should be urged to attend workshops and conferences to keep their skills sharp, and their employers should encourage them to get involved in the community, such as joining local and national claims associations like CLM.
Having claims professionals who really know how to evaluate a case is invaluable, and allowing them the opportunity to network that knowledge benefits everyone—the claims professional, the company, and the industry in general. Great ideas and strategies need to be shared, and so does great talent. Having the most talented people on your claims team will deliver the best results, and having the best results will get your organization the best business.