In the frontline of change: Bringing insurance into the modern world

30 December 2015 -


Ageas’s Rob Smale is not your typical insurance director. Professional Manager spoke to him to find out how he implemented his new and innovative way of handling insurance claims

Matt Scott

The insurance industry isn’t known for its innovation and adapting to changing customer and competitor landscapes. But as competition has intensified, and many insurers struggle to find profits in a price-driven world, companies have had to find ways to reduce costs and improve service.

With a background as a mining engineer with the British Coal Corporation, Ageas’s claims director, Rob Smale, is not your typical insurance director. But in recent years he’s transformed the claims teams and services at Ageas – the 5,500-employee non-life insurer that has eight million policyholders on its books.

Here are his reflections from the frontline of change.

“The concept behind the change to the insurance claims handling team was born of my engineering background and obsession with having the right process. In other companies I’d worked for there were members of staff who were trapped in a broken process. They were not satisfied themselves and also not able to satisfy the customers in a way they wanted to.

“They either had to subvert the system or submit to the system – and both are equally damaging.

“When I came to Ageas I wanted to introduce a focus on getting the people who use the system and the process to design it themselves, based on the feedback they received from the customer. It was definitely a bottom-up approach rather than a top down process.

A different approach

“I wanted to make sure we had satisfied staff and customers who we retained, and at the same time reduce the cost of processing and settling the claim.

“The approach I took to implementation was to try to think systemically. Rather than taking each piece in turn, it was recognising the whole thing was a system and every part of that was linked. By and large, the claims handlers working on the frontline welcomed the change.

“They recognised that it would make life easier for them, and also felt they would then be doing good for customers and giving them what they wanted. As a result, their satisfaction levels improved.

“The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was from the leadership fraternity. Convincing my immediate boss that I wasn’t a complete madman and that what I was trying to do was going to work was a challenge. We justified some of the crazy things we were doing by showing how similar processes had been used in other industries.

“As well as looking into academic research, I also took inspiration from my background in mining and, particularly, from a visit to the Jaguar factory in Browns Lane in 2002. In essence, what I took from that visit was how the production line was organised by customer, not by type of car. From this I developed the concept of ‘manufacturing’ claims to the bespoke needs of each customer and not assuming all motor claims or home claims are the same.

“Being able to cite the Jaguar process improvements also proved that some very clever people had researched these methods and that the change had been thought through and we hadn’t just come up with it on a whim.

“Another challenge was convincing the team leader population, as they were going to be asked to do their jobs very differently as a result of the new process. We were scrapping targets and KPIs, so managing people was going to be very different. The role of the manager was now to facilitate people achieving success and to look for improvements and ways to do things better, rather than setting targets.

“The first thing we did to get buy-in from the managers was to get them all together, which in Ageas was quite novel – it hadn’t happened in the claims department before – and I explained what it was I was trying to achieve and how we would go about it.

“It was then three years of gradually drip-feeding the phased implementation to the team to make sure they understood each step in the process thoroughly – it was a while before I revealed the end game to them in full.”