When written formality is helpful

There are times when communication requires a little formality – not the stuffy, difficult-to-read type of formality that we all try to avoid, but some formal record or statement for customers so that they feel confident that a process has been followed and a transaction is complete. Removing the formality of written processes – under the guide of customer-friendliness or plain English – can leave customers feeling confused and powerless.

My recent experience with an absence of formality involved an insurance payout, relating to a theft that occurred while I was on holiday a few months ago. The communication process used by my insurance company did not give me confidence in their processes and left me wondering whether they make payments in a consistent way.

I know that insurance companies have made great moves in recent years to make their processes more simple and to adopt a customer-focused approach. Indecipherable claim forms seem to have disappeared. But they’ve been replaced by informal email and telephone calls. And I think that this causes problems for customers.

I was asked to submit my claim via email, quoting a claim number that I was given over the phone. I received no guidance about what they wanted to receive, so I sent through a list of stolen items and their values, any relevant receipts that I could find, and the relevant number for the police report. Presumably the insurance company would let me know if they needed more.

All communication from the insurance company was handled by phone. I spoke with three different consultants and felt that I received a slightly different story each time. Of course, I didn’t receive a summary of these conversations, and I never knew what records they kept.

In one of the phone conversations, I was told that my claim would not be paid because of a technicality in the definition of a ‘break in’. The consultant agreed to refer the claim to a supervisor, and I heard no more for some weeks.

When a friend made a suggestion that might influence the definition of a ‘break in’, I emailed the insurance company again, asking about the progress of my claim.

I then received a phone call saying that my situation did fit the definition of a ‘break in’, and the claim would be paid. The consultant then mentioned various items that would or would not be paid. I didn’t have my list of claimed items in front of me at the time, so I had no idea whether we were discussing every item or just some of them. I was told that I’d get a gift card to cover the payout.

The card I received a few days later was a prepaid credit card rather than a gift card, so I assumed that they’d changed their mind about what they were sending. Then about a week later I received a gift card too! Because I had never been given a total payout amount, the gift card was a pleasant surprise.

I still haven’t figured out what has been paid and what hasn’t. I know that the total amount of the claim wasn’t paid, but I don’t really have the time or interest to figure out the difference between what I claimed and what was paid. I can’t help but wonder why the insurance company doesn’t provide customers with a summary statement that shows exactly what was claimed and what was paid. It would be handy to have a printed summary to file in with my insurance statements, so that in future years I remember that I made a claim.

While I feel satisfied that the claim was paid, I’m confused about how it was done. And I’m left feeling that the insurance company thinks that it’s my responsibility to keep track of the process. Surely this is a situation when a little formality – plain English formality of course – would be a great benefit, both to the company and to its customers?