Thursday

Stupid Agent Tricks

Well, they're not really stupid. I just wanted to borrow the title from Letterman's Stupid Pet Tricks.

Training (sort of)

I did not enter the church insurance field with any previous insurance or construction experience. I had been a banker, running the branch division for a small savings and loan that was gobbled up in bank consolidation frenzy of the mid-90's. With precious little training I was expected to inspect buildings, determine their overall condition, and rank them according to the complexity of their construction and cost of the materials used. Although I had had many hours of training in the nuances of various policies, there was very little actual hands-on work with buildings, construction methods, or other things that would be needed to provide an accurate cost estimate. It was pretty much on-the-job training and hope you get it right for the first year. It's a good thing nothing I insured that first year burned down.

They did send me to a two week training course at the home office after about a year on the job, and the last two days of that course were the most useful because we spent it with the loss control people who did a nice job of explaining things about building construction and quality that I hadn't gotten from the agency I worked for. I felt somewhat more prepared after that.

There was one clear lowpoint in the training I had at the home office. One afternoon we were going to have a presentation from the camp underwriter and his assistant. I had several camps in my territory so I was looking forward to hearing what the camp guy had to say, hoping I could pick up some valuable information. The camp guy and his toady showed up and for 90 minutes read us word-for-word everything that was in the camp chapter in our training manuals. No stories, special insights, or anything at all that would have made that 90 minutes interesting or worthwhile. I could have gotten just as much out of it if I had stayed at the Super 8 and read it myself. What a waste of time.

Cost Guessing

Over time agents develop various shortcuts in the process of cost estimating buildings that really save time, but they may cause some fluctuations in the calculations. You may think the process of determining replacement costs for your buildings is an exact science, but it's far from it. For instance, in the ideal world you'd measure a church building down to the inch and if there were little outcroppings or support structures that stuck out from the side, you'd measure around them and draw the diagrams accordingly. In real world all the agents I knew rounded everything up to the nearest foot and small outcroppings were ignored in favor of long straight lines. It might result in slightly more square footage and slightly higher liability costs and building value, but it made the process go much faster.

The software we had for drawing diagrams was okay for straight lines and 90 degree corners, but angles were a nightmare. I doubt if any buildings with angles other than 90 degrees were ever drawn right. In some cases the diagrams would have been unrecognizable if you were looking at the actual building, but that's what we had to use to calculate the square footage. I remember one church that had so many angles even after careful measurements I couldn't get the building to come out right in the diagram. I went out and bought a protracter to get the angles right, measured everything again and still couldn't get it right. The diagram was a mess. Lord help 'em if they had to build that place again based on my drawing.

Homes were another story. For the first several years we used a cost estimating method for dwellings that was pretty primitive. You added up the "units", each unit being a room or feature (like a porch), and then based on the zip code, came up with an estimated construction cost. It was way off from what it actually cost to build a home in Southern California and it's a wonder we didn't have more problems than we did with underinsured buildings.

The method was pretty haphazard at times as well. I was sent out with one of the long-time agents to a church in L.A. that had six homes they owned down the street from the church. I followed the agent as he walked down the street, glanced at the homes, and quickly scratched out what he thought each of them had in terms of bedrooms, living rooms, etc. He did all six homes in about 5 minutes without ever setting foot in or even walking around them. That was my training in cost estimating houses. (I also watched the same guy give an incredibly detailed presentation, recounting every story and example recommended by the boss, to the church secretary who couldn't have cared less. Her eyes kept crossing because she was so bored and completely uninterested. She acted like she had drawn the short straw because she got stuck listening to this guy. Advice to agents: Never present to anyone who can't make the decision.)

Some months before I left they came out with a new system that was probably much more accurate, but definitely much more of a pain in the butt because the new system required the agent to actually measure the house and include various details about the interior, such as the percentage of area carpeted, tiled or other types of flooring. Most of the agents had never even set foot in the houses they had insured in the past, and measuring houses can be especially difficult because you have to get in back yards and deal with dogs and landscaping and such.

One day an agent called me into his office to show me a little trick he'd figured out. Google Earth had recently come out and he discovered that by putting the address of the house in Google Earth he could pull up a satellite shot of the property. Using the scale on Google Earth he could come up with a rough diagram of the house and save himself a trip. I'm sure it wasn't completely accurate, but it was probably better than just walking down the street and guessing.

Photo Follies

Photos of houses could also be a pain. Oftentimes the homes were located well away from the church and I can remember a couple of churches that owned multiple homes in different cities. It took forever to run around and get the photos. The agent with the Google Earth trick told me that he had a solution for that, as well. He kept on his computer various pictures of homes he had taken at random over the years, and if he needed a photo of a home and didn't want to make the drive out there, he'd just use one of those. He figured the underwriters never spent much time really looking at photos of houses, and he was probably right. They apparently never noticed.

Speaking of photos, we were required to provide photos of church buildings showing all sides. In some areas, that could be a problem. What if one part of the building had graffiti on it, security bars on the windows, or a toxic waste dump next door? Underwriters didn't like that kind of stuff and could give you a lot of grief about it. An older agent told me when I first started that he had learned to be a little choosy with his photos, making sure that nothing objectionable might end up in them and ruin his deal. With the pressure to produce more and more sales, no agent was going to let a little graffiti knock his numbers down.

And then, there was the "drive by shooting". I'm sure that the underwriters wondered why some photos were a little blurred. It was probably because the agent stuck the camera out the window as he drove by without stopping. Hey, they wanted a picture so we gave them a picture (the secret was making sure to keep the rear view mirror out of the shot).

More stories later....


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