The fact that SMEs are well-recognised as the lifeblood of the UK economy should mean they can access all the care, attention and expertise their larger cousins receive, albeit in a more tailored, appropriate way. In fact, according to the latest AXA SME Wellbeing Report, it could be argued that SMEs are in even more need of support than their larger cousins.
When asked how they felt about the next 12 months, more than a third (34%) said they were concerned and another third (33%) said the future made them feel anxious. Worse, nearly a half (48%) said that they didn’t know where to turn to receive support about business worries.
When the lifeblood of the economy isn’t receiving adequate support and protection, then everyone, even those big corporates, will eventually find themselves on shaky ground.
And it was to tackle this long-standing issue, that AXA established a dedicated SME Business Unit through which all of AXA’s SME business runs – be that via brokers, manual or e-traded. Headed up recently by Joanne Sykes under the Commercial Director, Deepak Soni, the unit is AXA’s answer to the perennial problem of giving SMEs the focus they need and deserve in a way that’s cost effective and realistic for everyone involved.
“At AXA, regardless of the channel you use, you’re dealing with empowered SME underwriters,” says Deepak.
“We take a lot of feedback from brokers, and they’re saying that, over the last 18 months, service has become the key issue in the market. So, a lot of the work we’ve been doing is focused on the delivery of an excellent service and being really responsive to brokers.”
As an example of what this service looks like in practical terms, Deepak says that the SME Unit receives about 10,000-15,000 calls every single month. And the response rate on those thousands of queries? Under thirty seconds.
“Service is key as it’s an important point of differentiation, and that service is delivered in many different ways. For example, we’ve implemented automation across the business, a host of process changes and, most importantly, we’ve recruited experienced underwriters,” says Deepak.
“Crucially, we allow them to get on and make the decisions that they want to, and brokers need them to - this a well-resourced, digitally-enabled underwriting team.”
And he points out that whatever process is changed or automated, or whoever’s brought into the business, it’s all about ensuring every part of the insurance process – from submission and underwriting to claim or renewal – is done efficiently and effectively for the broker and the customer.
“It’s not just about underwriting. We can settle claims in hours providing we have all the information, and things like this allow brokers to say to their clients ‘this is why we recommended AXA’,” he explains.
“Our key challenge is making sure we do all this consistently. I’m not suggesting we’re 100% there yet but we’re definitely heading in the right direction. Whoever you talk to or wherever you are in the country, we want you to receive the same service from AXA.”
He says that this broad process of change is already underway with benefits materialising.
“We’ve looked at our controls and processes, simplified some of the underwriting and we’ve broadened and widened the underwriting license to allow people to make decisions at first call. All of these things are adding up to a better delivery of service,” Deepak says.
What that service leads to, ultimately, is more trading and it’s in trading that Deepak’s business heart and his past lies. Hailing from the North east, Deepak started out working in his family’s retail business. When stock was left over in the warehouse or shops, Deepak would set up teams of staff across different markets to sell it and while he has two degrees (one in software engineering and the other in international accounting and finance) it’s the experience of those trading days that continue to inform the way he goes about business.
“I like numbers, but I enjoy the art and science of business more, I’m a retailer at heart - I love customers. It’s what I’ve been brought up in, it’s why I love business and it’s why I’ve always been involved in the SME sector,” he explains.
“I understand how difficult it is to run a business but also why business owners do it and what they care about most. I’ve had first hand insight into running a business for several years and I like to bring that into what I do on a day-to-day basis.”
And it’s why he got into, and stayed in, insurance. He says that of all financial services, insurance is the one that has the greatest impact on customers, be that good or bad, and it’s that ability to effect real change in the lives of business owners that drives him.
“Insurance is a truly unique and fascinating industry as it provides the opportunity to not just make a difference, but to have an impact on people in the industry and on the end customer. There are very few jobs where you can see the impact your decision has on an end customer and their own livelihoods,” he says.
If a claim doesn’t get paid, it can have huge financial impact or even force a company to close. Likewise, if the claim’s paid, it can mean the business owner getting their livelihood back. It’s as close to life and death as finance gets and that’s exactly where Deepak likes to be – at the sharp end, where real differences can and are made.
“When you listen to calls from people wanting to expand their business, you can hear the excitement and enthusiasm and it’s great because you know you have, in a small way, provided them the protection to allow them to take those steps forward,” he says.
He hopes that the time, effort and significant investment AXA is making in its SME proposition will not only be noticed and appreciated by brokers, but that they’ll see AXA’s determination to be a true trading partner, for all businesses.
“Everything we’ve done is to create a dedicated proposition for SMEs of all shapes and sizes. They make up 97% of businesses out there – this isn’t an afterthought; this is the economy,” he says.