2/2/2009

Becoming Irreplaceable

Fabric Restoration Providers Adapt to Needs of Insurers

By Jim Nicholas

During the last several years, fabric and textile restoration cleaners have adapted and tailored their services to meet the needs of the insurance industry. As claims professionals have come to rely more heavily on the services of these specialty cleaners after incidents of fire and floods, the companies that offer these cleaning services have become more adept at working closely with adjusters after a catastrophe. The capabilities for saving time and money for the insurers while also exceeding the expectations of policyholders have made restorers indispensable to many carriers. For claims in which clothing and other fabrics and textiles are affected, adjusters now tend to call on the services of restoration specialists immediately.

As this niche of the drycleaning industry has matured in its work with insurers and their policyholders, specialty cleaners have been able to learn and adapt in order to streamline their services and avoid potential fraud or abuse that could add unwarranted costs to claims. While the potential for serious and substantial fraud involving the fabric restoration portion of a claim is somewhat limited, savvy and experienced specialty cleaners are able to help adjusters discern and eliminate questionable and suspicious items or ploys by policyholders. By documenting and reporting every aspect and item involved in each claim, these cleaners help claims professionals provide important and immediate services to the policyholders in their time of need while also lowering claim payouts for the carriers.

Documentation is Paramount
As with most aspects of claims investigations, documentation of the loss site and the items to be covered under the policy is crucial to the effective use of restoration cleaning services. The best and most experienced operators now use several methods to document their work, starting—most importantly—with thorough onsite inspections and photography.

The work begins with the complete photo documentation of the loss site, so a timely response to the site is very important. By photographing the outside of the home/building as well as the rooms, and especially the closets and furniture that contain clothing and other fabrics, the specialist is able to chronicle the overall conditions and extent of the damage.

The next level of photo documentation at the loss site during the initial phase involves the expensive big-ticket items, which typically include furs, leathers, window coverings and area rugs. With these items, an extra level of onsite inspection and documentation is necessary. For example, rugs could have stains that have set in underneath already and may have nothing to do with damage related to the incident. These stains, and any flaws from previous wear and tear that are unrelated to the incident at hand, must be documented with close-up photos at the site before the items are packed out for cleaning. In addition, rugs and other high-end items should be measured at the site to guard against any claims of shrinkage that may be posed by the policyholder after the restoration cleaning.

For expensive furs, which range into the thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars but normally deteriorate over time, the best restoration specialists will conduct a thorough onsite inspection, preferably in the presence of policyholders. They should ensure that the pelt is not dry and fur is not flaking off, check the lining, and thoroughly review the condition of the garment. Again, documenting everything with photography whenever possible as well as using detailed notes, logs and forms helps to guard against any potential for future disagreements with the policyholder.

Window coverings also are greatly susceptible to discoloration and other issues through normal wear and tear that may not be noticed by the policyholder. Drapery often gets a great deal of sun damage over time that creates a yellowing effect, and the fibers become dry and brittle. However, most owners tend not to notice, so they could become disappointed with the condition of the items when returned after being thoroughly cleaned and restored. It is imperative for these and the other high-end items to be inspected extensively and photo-documented before they leave the premises.

Working with the Policyholder
It is important for fabric restoration cleaners to understand how to interact with and service the needs of the policyholder who has experienced the loss. Due to the nature of the business, these individuals are under a severe amount of stress and strain as they regroup and recover from a devastating fire or flood that has caused a major disruption in their lives. By working closely with them and maintaining the highest standards of professionalism while also communicating all of the important considerations involving the specifics of the items to be cleaned, experienced restorers are able to help avoid potential disagreements or questionable claims.

The process begins by establishing and expediting an emergency order of items that the home/business owner needs returned as soon as possible. In most cases, these items are casual clothes and undergarments. By cleaning and returning these items within 24 hours, as the best providers are now offering, policyholders gain a great deal of confidence in the capabilities and follow-through of the cleaner.

For items with wear and tear damage unrelated to the incident, it is always best to show the condition of the item to the policyholder in advance and ensure they understand that the cleaner is going to use its best effort to restore it as much as possible.

Once the initial investigation and documentation at the loss site is completed, it is important for the cleaners to conduct the pack out and removal of all of the items to be cleaned in an organized and professional manner. For example, using plastic garbage bags for the damaged items that are being removed for cleaning would serve the purpose, but they send the wrong message to the owner and create the impression that the garments are being treated as garbage. The most experienced and resourceful restoration cleaners use reusable and durable cloth or vinyl bags to avoid creating the wrong impression and to help preserve the environment.

Some policyholders will call a restoration cleaner to return to the site and remove additional items that they indicate require cleaning. This occurs fairly regularly, and it is incumbent upon the cleaner to determine whether this addition to the restoration portion of the claim is valid and legitimate. The cleaners certainly can miss items that require cleaning, but sometimes items that may not belong to the insured or were not actually damaged in the incident suddenly materialize.

Experienced restoration cleaners are able to determine if it is likely that the additional items are indeed covered under the claim. If they become suspicious that a customer is attempting to add items to the claim which may not be covered, they will alert the adjuster immediately. However, in many cases a return visit to the site and an inspection of the items in question with the policyholder present can help to determine whether they are indeed eligible for restoration cleaning under the claim.

For example, the insured may mistake clothing left in drawers at the site of a fire to be damaged with smoke odor and in need of cleaning. The best restoration specialists understand that these items may or may not be contaminated with smoke odor, depending on the circumstances and the level of exposure. However, in order to accurately gauge whether these garments and other fabrics indeed have developed smoke odor, they must be brought outside of the premises and into the outdoors. The odor of the soot and smoke from the fire inside of the structure prevents odors from being spot checked on these items while they are still inside, but clothing in closed drawers is somewhat protected and may already have been properly inspected and determined by the restoration specialist to be odor free.

It also is important for the restoration specialist to personally return the cleaned items to the policyholder whenever possible. This allows the cleaner to present and discuss any issues with the items directly. Keep in mind that in cases of severe house fires and major catastrophes, the return of the items could take many months or even up to a year due to lack of space in the temporary housing of the insured. The restoration specialist with personal knowledge of the order can answer any questions that may arise at delivery. If there are structural changes to the home, draperies may no longer fit on the windows; or perhaps remodeling included a change in flooring and the drapes no longer hang at the proper length. The restoration specialist can point out that the changes are due to the construction and not to any distortion of the drapery itself. In addition, any items that were not able to be restored to their pre-loss condition can be reviewed with the policyholder so that a final claim settlement can be made. This ensures that only those items deemed non-restorable by the restoration specialist are included on the final loss inventory.

Finally, it always is wise to have policyholders complete a brief survey regarding their level of satisfaction with the restoration cleaning services that they received. The results should be shared with the adjuster who handled the claim—it is important that adjusters know these results and are reassured that they can continue to depend on the cleaner to provide superlative services to their policyholders.

The best and most experienced restoration cleaners have adapted their procedures for working with the insurance claims professionals and helping them to accurately forecast and determine their reserves while also reducing the additional living expense payouts of a claim. The immediate turnaround in the initial emergency order often greatly eliminates much of the need for replacement clothing. Also, by meticulously cataloging every item and creating a highly detailed and itemized inventory sheet for the adjuster and the policyholder within a few days, the cleaners are able to create accurate figures for the restoration or replacement of every item. These detailed inventories often can entail hundreds and even more than a thousand items, and the information they offer enables adjusters to quickly set their reserves and close the file. The detailed inventory of high-end items should be completed onsite as part of their close inspection, but the comprehensive inventory should include the pertinent details about every single item. It should be prepared by the cleaner within several business days.

For insurance claims resulting from catastrophic property losses, the reality is that it costs less and often makes a great deal more sense to clean and restore clothing and other fabrics rather than replace them. This has made restoration cleaners irreplaceable. As the insurance industry continues to call on these specialty cleaners, their level of customer service and attention to detail in meeting the needs of both the claims adjusters and the policyholders will continue to grow.

Jim Nicholas is president of FRSTeam, one of the largest fabric restoration franchises and providers in the country. For additional background information or to contact Nicholas, visit www.FRSTeam.com or call 866-374-FRST (3778).



Jim Nicholas is president of FRSTeam, one of the largest fabric restoration franchises and providers in the country.

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