Turning Everyday Conversations into Underwriting Learning Opportunities

My dad is an electrician, a master one at that. For the first 25 years of my life, my understanding of his occupation was primarily “oh, you put lights and wires into buildings and you’re in a union.” Maybe I was particularly oblivious, but I didn’t start to understand what exactly my dad did until I began underwriting risks that were almost him. I began asking my dad questions – what are the biggest risks of your job? What are major mistakes you see electricians make?

And then I realized, my dad works on construction sites. There are probably other types of workers there….

Questions transitioned to “what horrible things do you see roofers do?” and “how often do you see day laborers around?”

In addition to being very helpful information, my dad and I explored a new area of bonding, like painters that decide to mix their colors together. I gave him insights on Additional Insured status, and he gave me an idea of what it was like to be an electrician (and not my gross misconception of before).

From there I realized that, hey, my stepmom is a nurse! I could ask her questions about what she sees in hospitals that could cause a lawsuit! Oh, my friend makes makeup on the side, I wonder how she got going on that? Where does she buy ingredients?

You get the picture. I don’t write professional insurance, and I certainly don’t write for large hospitals, but every situation is an opportunity to learn about an industry that you may one day encounter in insurance.

I’ve started to employ a set of questions when talking to friends and acquaintances. I’ll lay out some examples here, but the point is to ask a ton of questions. It will do two things. First, it will make that person like you a lot more. People like to talk about what they do, and if you express genuine interest in what they’re saying, it makes it a thousand times more rewarding for both parties. Secondly, you’ll learn about a lot of industries that you would never get the chance to see. I can’t go to my dad and say, “hey, can I come shadow you for a few days at work?”. I doubt they would let me on the jobsite, given that my resume would state “can find studs in walls to drill into”. This gives you genuine interest, which feeds into a meaningful relationship with the individual, or a new area of discussion that you can tackle with them.

Assuming you’ve already asked them what they do for work, I would continue on with something like the following:

“What are the basic components of what you do?”

“How did you get into this line of work?”

“What are the struggles that you have day-to-day?”
“Are there any really crazy stories about what you’ve seen at your job?” (this one is my favorite, and probably the most fun)

Between those three, you have a good base to stand on. You can ask them specifics, like what a logistics company focuses on, how they manage their clients, what they look for in clients, etc.

Those questions will also get the other person talking. It’s not quite an interview, but what you want at the end of this is to have a clearer picture of what their day looks like, what their company does, issues there, and so forth.

For a clearer goal, ask yourself: if I were writing a book with a character in this role, would I be able to at least outline what their environment is like? Could I write one or two days of their perspective in that role?

At this point you might be asking why. Why am I asking these questions, how is it going to help me with underwriting? I’m not even an underwriter!

Well, firstly, everyone has some aspect of underwriting involved in their insurance career. You may not be directly underwriting, but the questions an agent asks a prospect at the start can get vital information for the quoting process. Policy typists can notice when a classification has a form that goes against what they’re trying to cover. Claims individuals can see potential risks and how they could be handled or negated.

Secondly, you would ideally not want an application to be your first encounter with a line of work. That does tend to be the case, but it’s much better when you can display some sort of basic knowledge and ask coherent questions from the start. It makes you look good, and it reduces the potential of you missing an important piece of information.

Additionally, many people are generalists. They need to know a lot of information about a wide array of topics. It’s much easier to listen to someone tell you and then have that resource if you ever need further information, than to google it and hope that whatever you’re reading is accurate. It also takes more time to trust your googlefu.

Hopefully at this point you’re buying in. I encourage you to try out some of these questions at the next holiday gathering, family get together, party with friends, and so on. You might be surprised at how well it goes, and how much it will help you understand an account down the line.

About Taryn Haas

I'm a philosophy nerd turned Associate Underwriter at Vermont Mutual. While I won't find Wittgenstein in CG forms, the language and logical constructs make both studies interesting to decipher. Occasionally, you'll find me playing my keyboard and singing passionately with my fiance at local cafes, or tucked into a corner writing sci-fi/fantasy stories.

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