The Socratic Method meets insurance

Richard Saul Wurman—creator of the TED conference series, architect, designer, and author of 83 novels, has a refreshing take on asking questions. “In school, we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question,” he explains.1

Good questions require creativity and curiosity. They can provoke the right answers—or lead you to come up with new solutions when old ones no longer fit.

Just as importantly, good questions can also help you to untangle something complex—to make the complicated seem simple. If you hold the popular opinion that insurance is (sometimes unnecessarily) complicated, you’re not alone. Enter a great agent.

At Berkley One, we believe there’s no substitute for a great agent—someone who can help you understand the insurance process from start to finish, who advocates for you and is your partner in planning, and who can open up a dialogue of good questions. A great agent is a partner, allowing you to take ownership of your insurance program in a way that is responsible, proactive and (yes!) simple.

Tim O’Brien, Senior Vice President, Property & Casualty for Assurex Global, is one of the best. Below, he offers a roadmap for anyone sorting out their insurance program and smart guidance on how to start.


Insurance planning: finding the right assistance and asking the right questions


If there are issues that cause you to lie awake at night, odds are they are not about better managing your personal insurance program. While insurance coverage is a low interest planning priority for most, those struggling to recover from a never-thought-it-would happen-to-me catastrophe often find themselves wishing they had placed a greater emphasis on insurance planning.

If you are wondering about the right time to conduct insurance planning, it’s now. Too many people do it after the dismaying discovery that a loss is not covered by their insurance program. The right way to tackle your insurance planning is preemptively, and the right assistance can make sure that you feel you never have to navigate it alone.

This article offers a roadmap for anyone eager to find personal insurance advice and solutions before an unfortunate loss may occur.


First, avoid the most common pitfalls


As with any journey, the path to a well-managed personal insurance program requires knowing your risks and rewards, and making informed decisions about how best to manage them. It’s best to start by being aware of the most common pitfalls.


Save money (now) advertising


Many insurance advertising campaigns encourage consumers to view insurance as a commodity, differentiated only by price. In fact, the losses that are covered by insurance policies often vary widely among different carriers, though these variances can be difficult for consumers to discern. Be wary of misleading advertising campaigns that promote savings but offer no assistance to help you to understand the details of the protection being offered.

Years ago, this popular television advertisement featured the owner of a local barber shop who lost customers when a national chain opened across the street, luring customers with a big banner announcing “$6 Haircuts.” In response, the barber went to the office supply store and created his own banner, proudly announcing, “We Fix $6 Haircuts.”

Those who market insurance as a commodity often offer consumers the equivalent of a $6 haircut. Consumers who know better than to save money on haircuts should also understand there are hidden dangers to using cost as the primary factor when buying insurance.


Buying what everyone else buys


Many of the largest insurance carriers provide what can best be described as policies that meet the basic protection needs of the average citizen. Opting for basic insurance protection from a carrier because you recall their clever advertising message invites some unexpected consequences, including the possibility of coverage that is limited and may not meet your needs and the lack of choice and independent oversight that may arise when working with an insurance agent who represents only one carrier.

When it comes to insurance planning, consumers should understand mass marketers provide just that—coverage for the masses. If a basic product designed for the masses does not meet your quality expectations when purchasing tangible items, do not expect a different outcome with insurance coverage.


DIY customer experience


Many insurance providers provide their clients with a service experience that tends to answer only the questions you might think to ask. Even the savviest of insurance consumers is unlikely to know enough to anticipate the “right” questions every time!

Consumers working with providers using a transactional service model are often left unaware of innovative new solutions available in the marketplace that might improve their protection. But the real danger of this model is that it often enables the insurance provider to delegate the responsibility for risk planning back to the consumer, creating a de-facto DIY customer experience.

Fortunately, a growing number of independent insurance agencies provide consumers access to highly experienced staff, who specialize in providing clients with a personal risk advisory and planning experience.


Second, determine the desired outcome


The essential first step in the insurance planning journey is deciding how you want your insurance program to respond after a significant covered loss. Answering the following questions can improve clarity on the important role insurance can have in protecting your assets.

  • If a loss causes significant covered damage to my property, or if I am sued, how do I want my insurance program to respond?
  • If there are risks I believe to be covered by my insurance program that are not covered, when do I want to know that information?

In many years of conversations with those who have sustained a significant loss, I’ve learned that most people’s expectation of their insurance program is that it will restore their physical and/or financial assets to their pre-loss condition. If this is also your objective, it’s important to take the steps required to find a provider who can guide you through the planning process, and help you receive the end result you desire after a loss.


Third, find (and engage) the right assistance


As with any professional planning process, developing an insurance program that provides the level of protection appropriate for your needs is a multi-step, ongoing process in which the guidance of an expert can be invaluable. Once you’ve navigated the pitfalls and decided upon your protection objectives, how can you determine if the insurance advisor you are working with (or a new candidate) has expertise in developing and managing a customized insurance program?

While recommendations from trusted advisors and personal experiences are valuable, here is an area where knowing the right questions to ask is essential to identifying the right candidate.

The questions and recommendation below serve as a guide to help you select an independent agent who specializes in providing their clients with a personal risk advisory and planning experience.

  1. Who will I be working with on my program, and what are these individuals’ roles? Learn in advance who will assist you and how, especially the experience and accessibility of the person who is responsible for developing and managing your program.
  2. What insurance carriers do you represent for other clients with similar protection needs? High-quality firms have access to a range of insurance carriers who provide premium coverage solutions. They should be skillful at explaining the capabilities of each.
  3. How do you help your clients manage risk in order to help avoid uncovered losses? This broad question helps assess whether the firm uses a formal personal risk management process to prevent a loss before it occurs. 
  4. How do you assist clients during the claims settlement process? Independent agents should serve as active advocates at claim time, with the goal of simplifying the claims process and helping to arrive at a prompt and fair settlement.
  5. What strategies can you provide to help control the cost of coverage? Look for solutions that do not require you to sacrifice important protection.
  6. What services are available to help prevent or reduce the risk of loss? Experienced risk advisors are highly proficient at prescribing a wide range of services to help reduce the likelihood or severity of many losses.
  7. What can I do now to help ensure the best outcome in the event of a large property or liability loss? Providing guidance on how to document all of your assets, their value, and their condition is an important (yet commonly overlooked!) service.
  8. What coverage exists to protect the interests of my family members, and any trusts, LLCs or other entities with an ownership interest in my personal assets? Tailoring coverage to protect all parties with an ownership interest in any asset is essential, and should be a core capability of an experienced risk advisor.
  9. What process exists to formally identify any coverage gaps, policy exclusions or other forms of coverage that could leave my assets exposed to uncovered property or liability losses? Insurance summaries authored by agents typically highlight the amount of coverage provided by a given policy. More important is knowing the types of losses that are covered, and losses that are excluded or limited. An experienced risk advisor can help you understand the coverage exclusions and limitations of your policies, and help determine whether specialized coverage solutions exist that can greatly expand your protection.
  10. What is your process to ensure that my program is updated to reflect changes in my lifestyle and in the marketplace? Experienced risk advisors ask for a seat at the planning table, enabling them to interact with you and your other trusted advisors, to ensure the program meets your evolving protection needs.
  11. Are there other questions I have not asked that I should have? While the above questions are a good start, experienced personal risk specialists will have a series of questions they require you to answer before they are able to understand your protection needs, and craft a program which addresses those needs.

At Berkley One, we are only as strong as our partners. We are proud to work with independent agents who value relationships and genuinely put clients first—agents like Tim O’Brien. Finding one of these agents is simple. Ask the right questions (your cheat sheet is right here) and you’ll find that you have a trusted advisor who can offer insurance solutions that keep you boldly moving forward.


Tim O’Brien is Senior Vice President, Property & Casualty for Assurex Global.