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INNOVATION WEEK Q&A: TH March Group CEO Neil McFarlane on surviving the pandemic and the future of the industry

MD Neil McFarlane

Jewellery and watch insurance specialist TH March was founded over 130 years ago and in 2011 became a certified Chartered Insurance Broker. Here, group CEO, Neil McFarlane, describes how the firm found creative solutions to the problems posed by the pandemic, as well as what the industry can expect to see from TH March in the future.

What does innovation mean to you and what part does it play in your company culture?

We’ve always thought of ourselves as forward-thinking: one of the first insurance brokers with a website, to sell personal jewellery insurance online, investments in customer service technology and so on. However, we’ve recently come to accept that actually innovation sometimes means pain and disruption! Often, it means looking outside of our own specific trade too.

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We are currently working on an exercise involving a cross section of teams and staff in which we are pulling apart the idea of what the next 5-10 years looks like (for the world, not just the insurance industry) and where we fit into this and areas in which we need to change or improve. As part of this, we’re actually holding innovation workshops with a third party to help us think outside of the TH March box.

Sometimes, it’s not just radical changes that have served us well. The important thing we have found is keeping an open mind and creating a culture where it is encouraged to share ideas and feedback. We do this at many touchpoints with staff, as well as constantly listening to what our customers are telling us and taking action on this. For example, throughout the last 18 months or so we held regular “Eureka labs” for our personal insurances division at which staff could submit or be involved in new ideas. Many of those ideas contributed towards streamlining and improving processes and customer satisfaction.

In addition we have a company-wide “Bright Ideas” scheme open to all and about any topic be that customer or staff related. These initiatives are a win-win as we as a company improve, as does our customer’s experience with us, and our staff feel empowered to make a difference.

A change to our recruitment approach in the personal insurances division has also helped our culture. Instead of seeking out insurance professionals, we specifically took on and trained people from contact centres unrelated to insurance. This has helped with evaluating our customer service, prompted better structures in training and development as well as broadened our employee engagement and wellbeing initiatives.

In what ways are you innovating from a product or design perspective at the moment?

In addition to the huge exercise on innovation we mentioned that is in progress right now, we’re always looking at ways to improve our customer experience and the design of the online and offline purchasing and service experience. We see that constantly updating and improving in these areas is necessary to make transactions and experiences with us smoother all the time for the customer and make them happy.

With this in mind, we recently invested in a new customer experience team, headed up by our customer experience strategy manager and combining marketing and digital expertise as well as customer service and experience perspective. The focus is on how customers perceive their interactions with us, and we are continuously carrying out reviews of processes and “pinch” points which hinder the customer experience. This could be from making payments to how our claims process can be even more seamless. We ask ourselves questions such as what our opportunities are for automation for our customers, and in which areas would they prefer to self-service?

Listening to our clients and constantly analysing the trade news, we take on board feedback and have changed our products to suit, for example increasing certain limits on transit insurance to changing valuation requirements for our personal jewellery insurance customers. We also want to make it easier for customers to buy other insurance products or add on insurances and are looking at seamless ways and systems for doing this right now.

What product plans can you share for the next 6-12 months?

We are always striving to make it easier for our customers to do business with us. So, without giving too many secrets away, we will look to learn one of the key lessons of the lockdown – simplifying our processes. In addition, we want customers to be able to make more simple and straightforward changes themselves, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Flexibility of communication channel and ensuring these are joined up will continue to be a key focus.

What are the key influences when it comes to new product development and do you see these changing?

Enhanced customer experience and flexibility of channel are key areas for us. Technology is moving forward at such a pace; it sometimes seems overwhelming trying to keep pace. However, stay true to your values and always ask the question, “If I was a customer of ours would I be happy with my experience?”. If no, learn and change. If yes, learn how to improve still.

Whether you are a jewellery retailer, supplier, or; like us, an insurance broker, seeking and acting on customer feedback is the oxygen of the business. If a customer in your shop loves their purchase, ask them to explain – is it the design, the story of how it was made or how they were dealt with? If you are a supplier, seek constant feedback from your retail partners regarding you, your business processes and importantly designs.

How do you seek to differentiate yourselves from competitors?

By the breadth and quality of our advice. TH March is a firm of Chartered Insurance Brokers, which is the highest recognition of our professionalism. Being a Chartered Broker is not only a mark of quality, but also a reflection of the high number of professionally qualified staff we have, together with our absolute commitment to maintaining the highest ethical standards the Chartered title bestows.

In addition, we commit to relationships with our industry partners for example the NAJ, CMJ, NPA, GA and are passionate about supporting the jewellery trade, with initiatives such as the pioneering SaferGems anticrime initiative.

Innovation can also occur from a non-design perspective e.g. through technology changes, marketing, customer support etc. Is there anything innovative you’ve been doing for retailers in this regard?

In terms of not just innovation but any improvements or ideas we have and run with as a company, we do not necessarily always think about ROI. Rather we think about what our customers and clients can gain from this: how can we improve customer satisfaction and happiness, how can relationships with our clients be bettered? Our SaferGems initiative was innovative at the time, a scheme in which we were the founding investors and to which we dedicate much time. However it was never an idea to make money: simply an idea to support the jewellery trade and of course reduce crime.

During the pandemic, to support our jewellers, we created the COVID hub on our website – an online source of advice and links regarding matters such as legal, insurance, and wellbeing.

We try supporting retail jewellers in their sale of jewellery and watch insurance, as the benefits to them include not only the commission at purchase but each renewal and should a claim need to be made the customer is sent back to that jeweller = repeat purchases. We’ve created videos to help with training staff on this but more recently one of our jewellery retailers wished to integrate TH March insurance on their website so that customers buying online can add jewellery or watch insurance into their basket at the same time. This went live recently.

It has been a challenging year for the industry – what sort of impact do you expect this to have on future innovation?

From a company outside of the jewellery industry looking in, I think it will provide a sharper focus to enhance the customer experience, whether you are a retailer or supplier. Being easy to deal with and a commitment to enhance your customer experience will be essential. As has been widely reported, many businesses used the lockdown period to carry out a fundamental review of their business, which I am sure will lead to an increase in innovation rather than a reduction.

From a financial services perspective, I believe there has been a seismic shift in both staff and customer expectations. Staff are looking for greater flexibility in how they work, which will assume greater importance over the coming years. Customers continue to want quicker, more flexible ways of dealing with us. Both of these aspects will be driven by investment and innovation – looking at everything with a fresh set of eyes and constantly evolving to improve.

How has the pandemic affected your business strategy – what’s your main focus now?

We were able to adapt very quickly to working remotely and made the necessary changes within a matter of weeks. By the time the lockdown came, I would hope that barring a few technical glitches, our customers did not really notice much of a difference when contacting us – irrespective of the channel. The one big difference was no face to face client meetings, which after over 30 years’ operating this way, was a little strange! Our focus will remain looking after the insurance needs of our customers and investing in ways to make it easier to do business with us – whether a business or private customer.

Tags : Insuranceinsurance brokerjewellery insuranceTH March
Sam Lewis

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