Be the Port, Not the Storm


Grief, distress, misplaced anger, confusion—as an insurance agent, it’s possible for you to come face-to-face with one or more of those emotions on any given day. You will often be one of the first calls after a customer has experienced some of life’s most stressful events: car crashes, fires, natural disasters, and more.

It can be unnerving to talk to someone with heightened emotions. You’ll find it easier if you cultivate qualities of compassion, steadiness and competence. But there are also some practical ways to make it a better experience all around.

Take time for empathy

Stressed people need to feel heard. It’s true that agents play an imperative role in helping to restore normalcy as soon as possible. But don’t be in such a rush that you race through the empathy piece. There’s a big difference between:

“Sorry to hear that. Was the car towed somewhere?”

— AND —

“I’m so sorry to hear about your accident. That must have been very scary. (PAUSE) Do you know if the police had the car towed somewhere?”

The pause is important, because it allows time for your empathetic statement to register with the listener. This will enable them to move on to give you the information you need to help them.

Chunk and check

Stressed people have a hard time taking in information. If you need to explain insurance-related procedures or give instructions, do it in chunks. Then ask for feedback before moving on to be sure your customer understood you properly. For example, you could break the aftermath of a traffic accident into four chunks:

1) Injuries to the occupants of the customer’s car
2) Injuries to any other party/parties
3) Towing the car
4) Car repair/replacement

After you cover a section, ask an open-ended question like, “How does that sound so far?” versus a yes-no question like, “Did you get all that?” An open question will require a longer answer, which gives you a chance to gauge whether they are truly comprehending or not.

Be honest

Stressed people need realistic reassurance. When someone is hurting, it’s tempting to want to assuage bad feelings with kind phrases. “It’ll be fine…we’ll get you all fixed up.” Both phrases sound pretty good. But the reality is, your customer’s life could be upended for days, months, or even forever. Empathetic statements of support are great, but you should only promise what you know you can deliver. And be specific when possible. “You’ll hear from an adjuster with 24 hours, and our normal turnaround time to get you a check is within a week. What questions do you have about this part of the process?” (Note the ending—another check-in with an open-ended question.)

Remain calm

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference. But it does not require that you take on the other person’s emotions. Don’t let your customer’s stress become yours. You’ll be more effective in your role, and they’ll appreciate you providing calm in the midst of their storm.

Want to read more? Click here for a recent article about stressed customers in the Harvard Business Review.

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