3/16/2015

The Importance of Continuing Education

Why claims professionals should never stop learning.

By David C. McNutt , Mary Wright

The modern insurance world is characterized by change. Insurers are developing new products to address risks that we never could have imagined a decade ago. Technology is enabling insurance organizations of all sizes to better service accounts, settle claims, and reach new customers. These advancements can add up to knowledge gaps for claims professionals, who require a firm grounding in both claims handling and the technical knowledge of their product lines.

Claims is a complicated field that demands a breadth and depth of insurance and product specialty knowledge. There is no way a claims professional can learn everything they need to strictly through on-the-job experience.

That makes continuing education a must for claims professionals looking to advance their careers and for insurance organizations looking to develop and retain the best employees. More knowledgeable claims professionals mean lower expenses, fewer reinspections, more accurate estimates and indemnity payments, and quicker, better claims resolution.

Why We Need Continuing Education

In the claims department, training is not just for new hires. One-time training during the onboarding process is insufficient since, in many ways, the field is always in development. Compliance regulations change often, and regular education on these issues can help claims professionals stay up to date.

But the constant pace of change doesn’t only apply to regulations. Vendors and customers increasingly have high expectations for the breadth of a claims professional’s knowledge and product competency. Given the advancement of various estimating platforms and the need to control loss adjustment expenses, claims professionals must become highly skilled in scoping, estimating, and investigating. This helps claims professionals achieve both excellent customer service and payment accuracy.

At the same time, there are more parties involved in a claim today than ever before. It is increasingly common to see a public adjuster representing the insured in a claim, not to mention rental agents, contractors, agents, and other specialized vendors that are now getting involved in the claims process. Additionally, third-party vendors are more insurance savvy and knowledgeable about policy coverages and claims-handling processes than ever before.

All of this means that training can have a significant, positive impact on customer satisfaction. Customers appreciate claims professionals who demonstrate high product competency, which is something they gain through continuing education. The more a claims professional can answer a policyholder’s questions directly and promptly, the higher the customer’s satisfaction. On the other hand, once a policyholder thinks a claims professional is in some way incompetent, they lose confidence in the insurance organization they represent.

In specialty lines, training is particularly important. For example, with a product such as motorcycle insurance, the policyholder needs a claims professional who can speak his language. Claims professionals must know current models and the latest technological developments. This lends credibility to the claims professional, both with the customer and with the shop repairing the bike. Expertise helps claims professionals negotiate effectively with contractors, resulting in better estimates and fair indemnity payments. And expertise is not a stagnant state; it is constantly developing through continuing education.

In the insurance industry, training and retention are crucial for specialty areas. We often have heard that there are not enough new claims professionals to replace retiring baby boomers, most often in the area of liability claims professionals. But this is also true of property claims handling—and that is where we are in danger of losing valuable, specialized skills. In addition, the millennials who are training to take boomers’ places expect ongoing training and appreciate a culture of constant improvement and education.

Though mobile technology and other electronic forms of communication provide great convenience for customers, they also leave room for misinterpretation. With more options available, it can be more difficult to keep track of insureds’ communication preferences. Training can help account for the ramifications of emerging technology on the insurance industry’s customer base.

Elements of a Successful Training Program

For ongoing claims training to be successful, programs must be flexible, achievable, incentivized, and supported by the organization as a whole. Therefore, while training courses will look different from company to company, there are several elements common to all quality programs.

First, the coursework must support and develop competencies for a given position. Supervisors should seek not only to build employees’ skills and technical knowledge for their current positions, but also support them in advancing their careers. Insurance organizations want homegrown claims professionals for their specialty areas.

Claims professionals do not need to become mechanics or carpenters, but they do need the knowledge and skills to service the policy for the customer while not paying more than is owed. The end goal of training should be a personal understanding of what it takes to make a repair so the claims professional is confident in the accuracy of his estimate.

Second, the training program must provide options so individuals can customize programs based on their needs and skill sets. When a continuing education program is recommended, managers must take into consideration the abilities of their employees and the demands of their given positions. The program should emphasize transferable knowledge that readily can be applied to an employee’s current position or a position he may be working towards. Program guidelines must be achievable so that the employee can complete the recommended coursework within a reasonable time frame.

Additionally, training content must be accessible and user-friendly. With so many options afforded by the Internet, classroom learning no longer needs to be the standard. Depending on the particular skill and product area, training might best be delivered in a hands-on environment or via online courses.

 Though flexibility is important, the program also should be goal-oriented. In fact, the program should clearly state goals and objectives and identify a suggested completion date or time frame to keep the employee on track and engaged.

Third, the program should contain a variety of content, including a mix of technical and educational coursework that supports overall professional growth. Coursework should allow claims professionals to work towards the designations and certifications that advance their careers, and employees should be afforded opportunities to obtain these. Opportunities like these allow claims professionals to go beyond simply taking a few classes to master a course of study.

Technical training gives claims professionals the skills they need to work competently with all parties involved in a claim. Skills learned through hands-on training build on the knowledge gained in the classroom, and combining classroom education with hands-on training keeps students engaged and improves knowledge retention. The combination of technical and educational coursework brings the learning experience full circle.

Finally, the program must be fully supported by the organization, which should provide both technical and administrative direction for employees seeking training. On the technical side, this includes providing assistance in registering for courses and obtaining necessary course materials. On the administrative side, a company appointed “guidance counselor” should provide recommendations for coursework based on the employee’s skills and the competencies he needs for his existing and future roles. There should be clear incentives for completing the program because it keeps employees engaged and rewards the time that claims professionals spend completing the coursework, which is often outside the normal workday.

Property claims provide a good example of why and how claims training works because new technologies in homebuilding are emerging that require training now in order to keep claims professionals ahead of the curve. We are seeing more and more hurricane-resistant fortified homes and complicated roof constructions. The green home movement has made a slew of building materials and methods more common, such as bamboo flooring and radiant heat. Smart homes that integrate technologies promising to bring greater comfort and energy efficiency raise questions about cyber risks.

To meet the educational challenges these advances highlight, insurance organizations need first to improve claims professionals’ knowledge with hands-on training in property repairs to establish basic nomenclature and procedures. This process can be enhanced with advanced training that addresses in greater detail engineering and specific insurance issues. This can be supplemented as needed with advanced classes on exact practices, such as water remediation.

A Culture Built for Education

Of course, training programs must be customized to meet the needs of every organization. Continuing education should inform and reflect the insurance organization’s culture, career development practices, and communication methods. Here are some ways organizations can do that:

  • Provide financial support for training. The organization should absorb any costs associated with an employee’s participation in a continuing education program.
  • Celebrate individual achievements. Recognize employees’ educational achievements as often as their technical achievements. While this simply can mean a supervisor recognizing an employee’s achievements, consider publicly recognizing claims professionals for training milestones at a unit, department, or corporate level.
  • Provide opportunities for claims professionals to demonstrate what they have learned. These opportunities may exist beyond the scope of the individual’s current position.
  • Create financial incentives for training. Consider tying continuing education to promotions and raises.

A successful insurance organization must have a high level of integration, collaboration, and open communication with all departments. Claims training programs should include ways to make product specialists and underwriters aware of who claims professionals are and how they work (and vice versa). Organizations also can encourage departments to work more closely to encourage cross-pollination between claims and underwriting because the industry’s increased reliance on analytics provides an opportunity for claims professionals to capture valuable data for underwriters. As they are promoted through the organization, consider putting certain claims professionals in underwriting roles to advance their careers while sharing knowledge between departments.

Training and continuing education has a significant impact on recruitment and retention. As we bring a new generation of claims professionals into the fold, it helps to remember that younger people consider educational opportunities to be almost as important as salary when it comes to job satisfaction. By designing a hands-on training program that supports claims professionals throughout their careers, insurance organizations can build a strong claims workforce that, in turn, supports the company’s goals.  



David C. McNutt is senior vice president of claims at Specialty Insurance Services Corporation, a claims management and training subsidiary of American Modern Insurance Group. He has been a CLM Fellow since 2014 and can be reached at (513) 947-5390 or dmcnutt@amig.com; www.siservices.com.

Mary Wright is claims learning and development and SIU manager with Specialty Insurance Services (SIS) Corp., a claims management and training subsidiary of American Modern Insurance Group. She can be reached at mwright@amig.com, www.siservices.com.

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