Back in the day when I took statements, I recall my conversation with a rather obtuse claimant. Earlier, I had left a message for said claimant to call back for a recorded statement. The message I left was clear; we were looking to get a recorded statement concerning the details of the accident. After he called back, I was immediately met with resistance in the form of one question after another. After answering the questions and seemingly assuaging his concerns, he attempted to “set the rules” of the statement by telling me that if he didn’t like a question, then he wasn’t going to answer it. Understanding that without full cooperation the statement is doomed from the start, I politely explained that this was an “all or nothing proposition.” You either answer all the questions or we don’t proceed. At the same time, I reminded the claimant that this was his moment to provide a detailed explanation “in his own words.” After hearing this, and now understanding the formality of the process, the claimant realized it was in his best interest to cooperate.
It’s an exchange that I’ve seen be derailed by poor handling hundreds of times in my career. However, in communicating my expectations and conveying the value of his providing a detailed statement, a significant amount of future headache was avoided- for both of us.
What is “Rapport”, and Why Does it Matter?
In the context of a recorded statement, rapport simply means that a relationship has been established where the groups concerned understand each other’s feelings and are communicating well. As an adjuster, being able to establish and maintain a rapport with a policyholder or third party claimant is a huge part of your job. The claims process is one that results in angst for most people. Adjusters must be able to quell these feelings of angst in order to facilitate the flow of information back and forth. Without rapport, information does not flow freely and this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to take a high yield statement.
There is a direct relationship between rapport and control during the statement. The hallmark sign of not enough rapport occurs when the interviewee begins asking questions shortly after the interview commences. When this happens, it’s typically because the process has not been explained adequately. Often the adjuster employs the “ambush approach” which involves rushing the interviewee into the statement. This approach hardly ever results in a smooth process. For one, the purpose of the interviewee is unclear and secondly, the element of time hasn’t been mentioned.
When rapport is handled correctly, cooperation is created between adjuster and interviewee. On the other hand, too much rapport can make a statement seem informal and in extreme cases, unprofessional. Not enough rapport can make it difficult for the interviewer to keep the interviewee on-point.
For a third party statement taker, this effect can be even more pronounced. You see, since a third party statement taker is assigned to complete a specific task, they’re at a disadvantage from the start because they don’t have the liberty of being able to answer questions specifically, and unlike the adjuster, they don’t have access to the claim file. For these reasons, third party statement takers have to work a bit harder to establish rapport, meaning they must take advantage of their time directly before the statement takes place.
Establishing Rapport Is A Lost Art
With recorded statements being the foundation of a properly investigated file, it’s incredible to me how many adjusters never receive any formal training on how to take them properly. It’s abundantly clear when a statement taker lacks the confidence to establish the expectations or the training to communicate effectively when an interviewee is resistant or antagonistic, and the entire statement suffers for it.
Taking a high yield statement is a skill that is developed over time. Regardless of what job someone’s doing, the onus falls on the employer to provide the tools necessary for the employee to do their job properly. When an employer fails to provide these tools, it then becomes complicit for an employee’s shortcomings. In the context of claims, this could mean that an incorrect liability decision was made or a fraudulent claim was processed!
Rapport varies widely from adjuster to adjuster. I’ve heard adjusters wish an interviewee “Happy belated birthday” in the midst of a recording after realizing that the interviewee’s birthday had recently passed. Others proceed to commiserate with the interviewee and share stories about how they sustained a similar injury a few years back. While this behavior falls into the “too much rapport” category, it’s not a crime against humanity if it takes place before the recording begins. However, trying to build rapport like this during the actual interview should be avoided as it creates the impression or familiarity and could be construed as bias.
Failure to adequately show respect for an interviewee’s time is another common way a statement can be thrown off-course. I for one get annoyed when something takes longer than it should. That’s why I’m willing to pay $79.99 for an oil change that takes 15 minutes as opposed to $19.99 for one where my vehicle’s tied up for half the day. If an interview should take 15 to 20 minutes, that’s what you should tell the interviewee. Don’t make the mistake of telling them it will take 5 minutes because once 5 minutes is up, they’ll begin asking you, “How much longer is this going to take?”
Your pre-statement preparation is also a major contributing factor to building rapport. For example, if you’re a third party statement taker, asking the interviewee to retrieve any paperwork before the interview commences is vital. Without the claim file, you cannot rely on the interviewee’s memory alone to recall street names, etc. I cannot tell you how many statements we’ve transcribed over the years that have several minutes of “dead air” with the adjuster waiting on the line for the interviewee to retrieve paperwork from another room! Explaining the process fully almost always ensures that the interviewee will be cooperative and prepared to provide detailed responses.
What You Can Do To Ensure Better Rapport
Plain and simple: prepared and focused adjusters are better statement takers. Before calling someone for a statement, try to “visualize” what it is you’re looking to get out of the statement. Perhaps liability is unclear or there’s a question as to whether fraud may be present? Regardless of the circumstances, it’s important to do a bit of pre-statement planning, which may involve writing notes or questions to yourself. Good statement takers are good listeners, so it’s critical to be focused and listening carefully to the interviewee’s responses once the tape is rolling. If you’re looking at your cell phone, or browsing the internet on your desktop during the interview, you won’t be fully focused and this will be evident when it comes to your questioning!
When it comes to rapport building, there’s nothing more important than preparing the interviewee before a recorded statement. It takes but it minute or two but it can pay huge dividends when it comes to taking a statement in which the information flows freely without resistance. Before the recording commences, the interviewee should fully understand the reason for the statement, the approximate length of time that it will take and the fact that it will require “full cooperation” on the interviewee’s part. Retrieving paperwork before should be encouraged in order to decrease the likelihood of “dead air” while the interviewee puts down the phone to look for information. Above all, this is the interviewee’s chance to describe the incident in his or her own words. It’s much different than a written report and the interviewee should understand this before the interview begins.
Despite an adjuster’s best efforts when it comes to pre-statement preparation, one has to understand that stress is part of the equation when it comes to an insurance claim. Everyone handles stress differently and as an adjuster, you have to take that into account. When it comes to preparing an interviewee before a statement, erring on the side of caution and explaining the process fully is the best approach regardless of the interviewee’s disposition. When I first started in claims nearly 30 years ago, I vividly recall a third party claimant who showed up at the office unannounced. I met him in the lobby along with my claims manager and together we went into a small conference room. After the door was shut, he proceeded to remove the company’s “service standards” plaque from the wall before placing it on the desk in front us. In an instant, I realized that this was someone who didn’t handle stress well! Had I perhaps explained the process for resolving his total loss a bit more thoroughly, maybe that awkward (and stressful) moment could have been avoided!
What You Can Do
Taking high yield statements requires training, feedback and good listening skills. It’s a skill that is born over time. In our experience, some of the best statement takers are SIU reps as they often take several statements in the field each day. They also have the benefit of face-to-face contact along with being able to observe the interviewee’s body language when questions are being asked. Repetition helps them excel at their job, but repetition alone is not enough. Training is critical, particularly for new hires. With training there has to be feedback in order to make sure good habits are being followed. Dealing with seasoned adjusters as it relates to their statement taking habits can be tricky. You see, most adjusters believe they’re good statement takers. If you tell them otherwise, it can be perceived as an affront to their skill-set.
Resources should be committed to ensure that adjusters have the requisite training and feedback necessary to ensure that they evolve into skilled statement takers. If you don’t have those resources on hand, we can help. Training and consistent feedback promote confidence, which is vital to the maturation process. As an employer, you benefit directly from adjusters who know how to take statements properly. For that reason alone, it’s important to support the process either directly with internal resources or indirectly with the guidance of experts.