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Phil Jeynes: Reading and righting the underwriting process

Given that the average reading age of adults in the UK lags their biological age, insurers should simplify their wording in the underwriting process

It is estimated that the average reading age of adults in the UK is nine.

According to government figures in 2016, 28 per cent of adults would achieve a level 1 for literacy (GCSE grade D-G). One in 20 adults have the literacy or numeracy skills of a five-year-old. The problem is worsening, with levels lower in those aged 16-18 than in those aged 55-65.

It’s well known that our industry struggles with clear, straightforward communication with our customers. Policy schedules are oft-used examples of how to write a confusing document, but we have a problem much earlier in the process of buying (or selling) cover.

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In the past, people have tried to solve this problem by asking fewer questions; get the customer through before they get bored. This necessarily blunts insurers’ ability to underwrite, meaning most customers end up with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – with those in the no category left at a dead end. It also affects price and the scope of products on offer. Hardly an ideal solution.

We know that customers will put up with a standard length underwriting session. Car insurance is an imperfect analogy, given it’s a compulsory purchase, but the multitude of questions in most general insurance journeys gives lie to the assertion that this is a numbers game.

According to the government 28 per cent of adults would achieve a level 1 for literacy – grade D-G

While designing our software, we had to create the underwriting questions which would form a generic application, while allowing multiple major insurers to underwrite their products effectively. We ended up with a ‘best of breed’ question set which suited all insurers – no mean feat.

But we knew that we could do better. The reading age needed to navigate our current question set is 20-21 years– poor when you consider the statistics but absolutely indicative of where we are as an industry.

We set about rewriting, question by question, the whole lot. Straight away you could see how we had allowed ourselves to drift into industry speak and, far worse, language nobody in the real world would ever actually use.

To give you a simple example: currently we ask: What is your height? Not exactly difficult to understand, but if you ever wanted to ask someone for that information, is that how you would phrase it?

It isn’t hard to immediately think of a better way to say this: How tall are you? That works for a four-year-old as well as it does a 54-year-old. This was the rigour we applied to every question and accompanying help text in the application.

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The result is a life insurance, critical illness and income protection application signed up to by the vast majority of major UK insurers with no negative impact on price, which requires a reading age of 10-11. The excellent folk at Quietroom, who helped us finesse the document, think this achievement is virtually unmatched in the life insurance market.

Incidentally the reading age you needed to read this article was around 12, so well done you.

Phil Jeynes is head of sales and marketing at UnderwriteMe

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