Covering All the Bases
By Mark Morris
When COVID-19 became a daily reality in March and working from home became the default for many businesses, Trish Vassallo had to scramble. Of the 26 employees at Encharter Insurance, where Vassallo is director of Operations, only three were set up to work from home.
“Thanks to our tech provider, we were all up and running within a week,” Vassallo said, noting that the system at her office is advanced to the point where calls to the Encharter switchboard are fed through to employee laptops. “When customers call us, they have no idea whether we are in the office or at home. It’s seamless.”
Bill Trudeau, executive vice president and partner at HUB International New England, recalled that, when workimg from home became the norm, his business was about 95% ready to serve clients remotely.
“While our people certainly didn’t plan for a pandemic,” he said, “we were fortunate that our business was designed for our staff to effectively serve clients remotely from home.”
Both Encharter and HUB International have since limited interactions in their offices to only necessary functions and are not yet open to the public. It’s a different situation at Axia Insurance, which offers Registry of Motor Vehicles services in its office.
Michael Long, president and CEO of Axia, explained that, to safely accommodate people using the registry services, a dedicated area at the building entrance was set up to screen people before they come in. While Axia has offered RMV services for several years, it’s seeing an increase in the number of people using it since the pandemic.
“The RMV requires everyone to make an appointment, which can often be scheduled up to two weeks out,” Long said. “At our location, we can take care of people the same day.” Before COVID-19, he added, 30 to 40 people a month would use Axia’s registry service. Long said it now serves that many every week.
“Thanks to our tech provider, we were all up and running within a week. When customers call us, they have no idea whether we are in the office or at home. It’s seamless.”
Because of the registry service, most of Axia’s staff are working in the office. Long said shifts are staggered so that a typical five-day work week means working from home two or three days and in the office for the balance of the week.
For years, staff have been able to work from home when necessary, but Long admits the pandemic adds a layer of difficulty. “Working out schedules that will adapt to everyone’s needs at home and taking care of their families has been a harder challenge than actually maintaining business.”
For this issue’s focus on insurance, BusinessWest spoke with area agencies about how they’re managing to keep the customer experience consistent even as they change how they do business, thanks to a pandemic that continues to challenge all sectors of the economy.
The agencies BusinessWest spoke with all said their business was steady — if, some cases, only slightly lower due to the pandemic, which has hurt a number of their commercial insurance clients.
For example, several of Encharter’s restaurant customers reduced their insurance coverage because so many of them closed in the early days of the pandemic. With most offering only limited service even now, Vassallo said her agency tried to help its restaurant clients in their time of need.
“When stay-at-home first happened, we went to all of our local restaurateurs and purchased a large amount of gift certificates to try to help them keep going,” she recalled. To get the gift certificates out into the community, Vassallo used them as prizes in weekly and monthly contests Encharter ran on its social-media platforms.
Long said insurance companies are offering deferred billing and special payment plans to help companies that have lost business during the pandemic. One creative approach involves companies that need to take a vehicle off the road. They can now temporarily suspend the vehicle’s insurance coverage instead of ending it.
“In the past, insurance companies would not have agreed to do that,” Long said. “The business would have had to turn in the license plate, and if they suddenly needed the vehicle, they’d have to go through the insurance and registry process all over again.”
Trudeau added that, while some of his clients have been under pressure to reduce staff and sales estimates, others are doing more business. “We have a few businesses that are growing because of changing demands during the pandemic and people shifting their buying habits.”
Not surprisingly, all three agency managers said videoconferencing on Zoom, Skype, and other popular platforms has allowed them to keep in touch with staff and customers.
Because HUB International has 28 locations in New England, Trudeau and his counterparts have been using conference calls and videochats in ways they hadn’t before — a trend he predicts could have a lasting impact.
“Instead of asking people to travel to a central New England location every quarter, they might choose to do that only once a year and have the other three quarterly meetings by videoconference,” he said.
When the pandemic ended the walk-in traffic at Encharter, Vassallo and her staff started to make wellness calls to keep in touch with clients.
“The calls had nothing to do with insurance,” she said. “They were simply a way to contact our customers during the early months of the pandemic to say, ‘we’re just checking in; how are you doing?’” So far, she and her staff have made more than 2,000 calls, and the effort has been well-received. They’ve continued the calls to check in and to remind clients about policy renewals.
As valuable as modern tools are to keeping in touch, certain personal dynamics get lost during a pandemic. In the past, Long would often get together with other managers in Axia’s offices across Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and he has missed doing so since the pandemic.
“We have a culture of being a close-knit organization, and when you are not in contact with people on a regular basis, some of that culture seems to dissipate,” he said. “We use videoconferencing, but it’s not quite the same.”
Trudeau cited another culture challenge resulting from the pandemic: bringing a new employee on board.
“You want to invite someone into the culture of your company, but they can’t be there to experience it,” he said. “Part of a new job is the work, and part of it is walking around, meeting people, and creating the feeling of a social connection with your co-workers.”
Calling it a “soft approach,” Vassallo is talking with her staff about re-entry to the office. She acknowledges some families need at least one parent at home for schooling reasons, but her greatest concern is that everyone becomes too comfortable staying home.
“Right now we have a re-entry date of mid-November, so we are not rushing this,” she said. “When the time comes, we need to get back because we still need to have a presence in our office.”
As staff from all three agencies return to their respective offices, the spaces are all being reconfigured to follow the current pandemic safety guidelines. Temperature checks, hand sanitizer, and other precautions are all part of the new normal.
Still, according to Long, one thing that doesn’t change is the role of the insurance agent.
“Our job is to protect your potential financial loss as best as we can,” he said, while cautioning against looking at insurance protection as a commodity. “It’s not about getting the cheapest insurance; it’s about getting the most value out of your insurance.”
Helping customers achieve that goal hasn’t been easy this year, but it’s a task that continues at all area insurance agencies — if sometimes a bit differently than before.