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Insurance can be as engaging as Apple's iPad

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Apple has mastered creating a bond with its customers by getting them emotionally involved in its products. Insurance claims often involve intense emotion, which insurers can use to create and strengthen bonds with their customers, says Jon Picoult, founder of Watermark Consulting. When an insurer comes through in a time of need, its customers will remember, and probably spread the word.

The Apple iPad went on sale overseas at the end of May, with customers waiting in long lines to get their hands on the firm's latest can't-live-without-it gadget. With over 3 million of the devices sold in just its first 90 days of release, it appears the iPad is well on its way to cementing Apple's status not just as a leader in technology, but also in customer engagement.

In study after study, Apple routinely receives among the highest marks of any company in any industry for the experience they deliver to consumers and the intense loyalty that customers demonstrate in return. Apple has become a master at doing what every business dreams of—turning everyday consumers into brand zealots who can't wait to adopt the company's next product and willingly cut the firm some slack when something goes awry.

That kind of customer relationship is difficult to create. It requires establishing a bond with consumers that's grounded not just in rational considerations (such as price, service, efficiency, etc.), but emotional ones, too.

Indeed, it's the accompanying emotion—feelings like excitement, trust, comfort or dependability—that really fortifies customer bonds. When emotion takes hold and overshadows purely rational purchase considerations, that's when legendary brands are born. It turns customers into raving fans, willing to stand in long lines for your product, pay extra for your services or even tattoo your logo on their body (ask Harley-Davidson about that last one).

Insurance companies are not typically known for creating this level of engagement with their customers (that's putting it kindly). Based on their behavior, it seems many executives in the industry believe such an outcome is simply unattainable in the insurance vertical.

Let's face it, an insurance policy is a very different animal from an iPad. Can anyone really imagine consumers lining up outside their broker's office to nab the latest general liability, E&O or marine coverage?

Of course not. But that's not to say that emotional engagement isn't a realistic goal for insurers. As a matter of fact, when it comes to creating lifelong brand advocates, in at least one respect, insurance firms actually have an advantage over the Apples, Amazons and Starbucks of the world.

That's because when it comes time for a business or an individual to actually use an insurance product, it's often at a time of crisis, vulnerability and, yes, intense emotion.

Research has shown that people tend to have long memories when it comes to events accompanied by intense emotion. When emotions run high, our brains actually are more impressionable. At a biological level, they're primed for imprinting.

So how does this afford an edge to insurers in the race to create customer engagement? Put simply, claimants have long memories.

Compared to more emotionally neutral experiences, the interactions that people have during a claim event—be it with friends, family or their insurance company—are much more likely to leave indelible impressions, good or bad.

As the saying goes, during times of crisis, you learn who your real friends are. When you're in a position of weakness or vulnerability and someone comes to your aid, you remember that—forever. Just as you remember those who have forsaken you.

This is where insurers have a leg up on more glamorous and omnipresent consumer products. Yes, the iPad is cool, fun and even helpful. But it will never come to your aid in the same way that an insurer can when your business is interrupted, when you're sued for malpractice or when your family breadwinner becomes disabled.

In those circumstances, when your insurer steps up to the plate, provides security in a time of need and choreographs an effortless claims experience—that's when the seeds of emotional engagement are sown.

To help illustrate this, consider a story relayed to me by the CEO of a leading commercial property/casualty insurer. He recounted his company's response to Hurricane Katrina, when the firm was deluged with claims that were missing key pieces of backup documentation. Given the situation in New Orleans, that documentation was submerged under water or otherwise unavailable.

He gathered his executive team together and gave them a simple instruction: “Pay the claims. Now.” Given the circumstances, delaying payment for lack of documentation would simply be wrong, he argued. While other insurers squabbled with policyholders over their claim documentation, this CEO saw an opportunity to stand out from the crowd by applying common sense and immediately coming to the aid of his policyholders in their darkest hour.

His business grew dramatically thereafter, an outcome that he attributes, in no small part, to the goodwill, loyalty and positive word-of-mouth cultivated in the days after Katrina came ashore.

That word-of-mouth dynamic is especially important to appreciate. Unless you've been selecting your risks with the help of a dartboard, you'd expect that only a minority of your policyholders will ever experience a claim. Does this make the claim “moment of truth” any less valuable in fostering consumer engagement, throughout your book of business and across the larger marketplace?

Absolutely not. Even if just a fraction of your policyholders make a claim, the opportunity to engage them—and their circle of influence—remains. That's because most insurance claim events are “watercooler worthy.”

They're the types of situations that people are apt to share with friends, family or colleagues—particularly if those involved in resolving the claim left a highly positive or highly negative impression. If insurers go above and beyond in one's time of need, customers will reward them with lifelong loyalty and vocal testimonials that will amplify the broader brand impact of that single individual's experience.

So, for all you insurance executives who pine for an iPad-worthy product launch, take solace in knowing that Applesque customer engagement in the insurance space is not a pipe dream. There are multiple opportunities in the policyholder lifecycle to forge such loyalties. But without question, the claims experience is paramount among them, affording a unique opportunity to create long-term emotional engagement with a customer, precisely when they are most impressionable.

And that's an opportunity that might even make Steve Jobs jealous.

Jon Picoult is the Founder of Watermark Consulting, a firm that helps businesses improve their customer loyalty and employee engagement. Prior to founding Watermark, he held senior executive roles in service, technology, sales and marketing at Fortune 100 insurance companies. Learn more at www.watermarkconsult.net.