The elderly couple's house was damaged by flood waters.
Their Vero house insurance policy meant they could replace the water-damaged carpet – but they were too frail to lift all their other contents out so the carpet could be re-laid. They couldn't afford to hire someone to do it.
In past years, this problem would have fallen into the vexing grey area between the responsibility of the insurers and the homeowner. However, ever since the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, Vero has played a leading role in the insurance industry's increased focus on customer vulnerability.
In practical terms, it meant Vero stepped up – paying for the couple's effects to be moved out so the carpet could be laid. In general terms, it shows how companies like Vero have broadened interactions with their customers.
Brenda Scully, Manager Customer Culture for Vero, says: "It was a difficult situation for that couple. But we were able to have a look at their unique circumstances and decide that we would support them to have their contents removed, even though the policy may not have technically covered it, and put back again so their carpet could be laid.
"It's not something we would need to do for every customer, but it's an example of how we have widened our perspective to take in more than the technicalities of the policy and the legal situation."
The increased focus on vulnerability came after the Christchurch earthquakes when insurers realised that the traditional boundaries of their products were not always able to be adapted for specific circumstances. After the quakes, the Human Rights Commission and the Insurance Council published guidelines on vulnerability – but Scully says Vero was already moving towards a more holistic approach when it came to customers experiencing vulnerability.
This approach became even more relevant when Covid-19 struck, with many people losing jobs or facing financial difficulty – a key pressure point in the insurance world, when people start wondering if they can afford the excess on their policies or even the premiums they are paying.
A Financial Services Council survey in May showed more than 55 per cent of New Zealanders felt financial issues had impacted their overall wellbeing – showing the link between finances and mental and physical health, relationship issues and stress.
But Scully says Vero's focus is even broader than straight financial pressure. Frontline teams are now trained on the company's vulnerability framework, skilled at talking to customers and detecting whether they are under any kind of stress that might need additional focus and support.
"It could be anything," she says, "from mortgage pressures to having a baby, domestic violence or maybe some kind of health problem, disability or even a death in the family."
The Vero customer teams are trained to recognise key conversational triggers which could indicate vulnerability, even when customers may not have described – or even thought – of themselves that way.
"It's human nature not to ask for help, even when it is needed," she says. "Sometimes people simply don't recognise they need help and a lot of us Kiwis struggle with that – we don't like to share too much, admit any weaknesses or be a burden to others."
Vero's frontline teams have been trained to recognise and respond to vulnerability, built around the 'four Rs':
- Recognise – demonstrate empathy and listen to the customer's story, discuss their circumstances and identify any potential vulnerability
- Review – assess the customers situation and the level of support they need
- Respond – provide the service and support for the customer based on their individual needs.
- Refer – connect the customer to partners who can provide broader support for the challenges the customer is facing.
Those partners include Shine, Lifeline Aotearoa, MoneyTalks, Good Shepherd and Age Concern New Zealand, among others. Vero team members can refer customers they feel need extra support.
"Good Shepherd, for example, is able to help find financial solutions – which most people don't realise – and that can be a big stress reliever," Scully says.
"Our teams are also able to send gifts and cards to people who are going through especially tough times– or food vouchers for those in urgent need."
Another example of Vero's support of a customer at a vulnerable time involved a customer who, during their claim, showed signs of mental distress. Vero paid for counselling to help empower them to navigate their situation.
"Customers often share much more with us than just details of their claim," Scully says. "Another example was a man who rang to lodge a windscreen claim, fairly minor in the scheme of things. Through the interaction, we heard how his marriage had recently come to an end and how he had been unable to work due to a recent injury for which he was still awaiting surgery."
She says having the vulnerability framework and tools enabled Vero to "wrap their arms around him" and ensure he was supported more broadly than just managing his claim.
The extra focus on vulnerability is an illustration, Scully says, of one of several areas Vero and others in the industry are doing to improve the customer experience.