Returning to a new normal - how AXA will support commercial clients and brokers in the post-COVID world

Jon Walker, Chief Executive Officer, AXA Commercial, and Elie Hanna, Chief Distribution Officer, UK & Lloyd's at AXA XL in Guest blog

11 May 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the business landscape in the UK practically overnight. Jon Walker, Chief Executive Officer of AXA Commercial in the UK, and Elie Hanna, Chief Distribution Officer, UK & Lloyd’s at AXA XL, discuss how AXA is working to support clients and brokers to identify the risks and opportunities as the UK continues to open up and more businesses gradually return to the workplace.

How did the lockdowns and restrictions on the movement of people change the risk landscape for UK commercial and specialty clients?

Jon Walker: The COVID-19 lockdowns across the UK meant that – almost overnight – many businesses went from having maybe a handful of locations to having dozens or even hundreds, as colleagues began to work remotely. And many companies – be they micro-SMEs, mid-sized or large corporates – were prompted to change their business models in response to the pandemic. Some altered what they manufactured or produced, while others went from carrying out a small percentage of business online to becoming an almost entirely online business. Because of this, Brokers and insurers had to be flexible to help their clients understand and adapt to their changing risk profiles.

One of the major concerns for businesses was having premises unoccupied during lockdown and to help with this, early on during the first UK lockdown, we launched extended cover for premises that were unoccupied because of COVID-19 for 90 days initially and then extended further. We also had 1,500 businesses access a payment holiday of up to 12-weeks to ease cash flow worries in the immediate term.

Elie Hanna: Like Jon, we witnessed many clients quickly adapt to having a large percentage of the workforce working remotely, while others changed their operations to support the fight against the pandemic – for example, we had clients switch to making facemasks, hospital gowns, ventilators and hand sanitiser. At the time, underwriters worked closely with those clients and their brokers to understand how their existing insurance coverage could accommodate such changes, while our risk engineers offered insights on the consequent changes to their risk profile and gave advice on how they could manage, mitigate and, if necessary, transfer them.

The restrictions on travel, however, meant that we needed to find new ways to support clients and their brokers during that time. This is where our remote risk engineering capabilities really came to the fore, enabling us to help clients to assess, manage and transfer these evolving risks even during the strictest of lockdown periods when onsite visits were impossible. Our remote risk dialogue tool, as well as an increased use of Internet of Things devices installed in client facilities, for example, enabled us to work remotely with our clients to help them monitor their changing risk profiles in real time and to ultimately manage and transfer those risks.

How has AXA been able to support commercial brokers during the pandemic?

Elie Hanna: The pandemic underlined the importance of good communication between insurer, broker and client. This has always been a priority for AXA, but the restrictions on face-to-face meetings meant we had to adapt the ways in which we communicate with brokers and clients. Throughout the pandemic, colleagues from across the business have hosted regular webinars and online learning sessions, which has enabled us to keep brokers up-to-date on the evolving situation, to provide them with information on how we have adapted our capabilities and also to hear from them about their clients’ changing risk profiles, concerns and needs.

Generally, brokers’ smaller clients have struggled in getting access to the resources needed to address new or changing risks, so we have worked with brokers to help point those clients in the direction of the very good advice that's available on, say, the Health and Safety Executive website with regards to what they can be doing, how to conduct COVID risk assessment, what areas they should be looking at and what records they should be keeping.

Jon Walker: At AXA Commercial, we put a range of measures in place to help brokers during the pandemic, including a dedicated communication Hub where we provided regular cv-19 advice and resources tailored to brokers, their employees and their clients.

As Elie has mentioned, communication has been key, and we made sure brokers were aware of product enhancements, so they were able to offer the latest guidance and support to their clients.

Both AXA XL and AXA Commercial worked hard to increase our own teams’ ability to work remotely and be able to service clients in a safe, but speedy and effective way.

We also produced a series of guides for various business types – ranging from takeaway and delivery services to garden centres – to provide practical guidance on reopening safely.

As many businesses now look to reopen, what are some of the main risk areas they need to be mindful of and how is AXA helping clients and brokers to navigate these?

Elie Hanna: As we have mentioned, many companies have changed their business models quite significantly over the course of the pandemic. This means that as people return to the workplace, many of the risks have changed. For example, retailers may have a greater volume of seasonal goods in storage, and they need to think carefully about the conditions in which this stock is stored and any risks it might pose. And the nature of the goods that companies have in storage may have changed over the course of the pandemic. For example, in place of ceramic - non-combustible - mugs being stored ready for a conference, companies may now have stockpiles of hand sanitiser, which is flammable and may therefore need to be stored differently.

There’s also the issue that many sites have been completely closed down during the lockdowns and the challenges that come with restarting sensitive equipment. These aren’t simple processes and clients are asking how to manage these new, unprecedented risks.

Fire is one of the key property risks for UK businesses, and two of the major risk factors are hotworking and the use of contractors. As clients put in place COVID-19 security measures – such as erecting glass screens – it’s likely they will be using both hotworks and contractors. So they, and we, need to keep an eye on this and monitor and manage the risks.

On the casualty side, potential risks include the safe resumption of water supplies; for example, companies need to be aware of the potential legionella risk of water systems that have not been flushed through for some time.

Employers owe a duty of care to their staff. Clients need to be able to demonstrate they have taken appropriate steps and complied with best practice and conducted thorough COVID-19 risk assessments prior to colleagues returning to workplaces.

But it’s also very important to remember that is just one risk companies face as they return colleagues to work. And the time and the effort they spend on COVID-19 safety has to be proportionate compared to all the other exposures they have, as related to the services they provide or the products they manufacture. It's no good having excellent COVID-19 controls if they then have a fire or end up with product liability claims. So, focus on it, do what's reasonable, but don't become too side-tracked.

Jon Walker: We have to think about the different types of customers that we provide solutions to in the UK – we insure micro-SMEs right the way up to very large businesses – they don’t all want and need the same things. A one-size-fits-all approach has never been appropriate for our customers and it certainly isn’t now as they look to return to workplaces with business models which are often different than before.

We have been doing a lot of research with our customers and this has shown that the minds of those businesses’ are currently occupied by things that go beyond traditional insurance, like health and wellness, tax advice or help with invoicing. We are looking at collaboratively bringing solutions to many of those issues. For example, at the height of the pandemic, we teamed up with a legal services company to be able to offer support to brokers and smaller clients on government bounce back loans and issues such as returning to work after furlough.

We also recognise that, for us as insurers and for many of our clients, there is now a greater focus on preventing claims, rather than simply paying claims. This means we need even better tripartite conversations between client, broker and insurer. As people begin to return to workplaces in greater numbers, we are continuing this communication to understand the new challenges facing clients and how we can help.

How are AXA XL and AXA Commercial supporting commercial lines brokers as we look a post-pandemic future?

Jon Walker: Firstly, we’re reorganising our commercial network to become more efficient in how we interact with brokers. One of the key things that brokers tell us is how valuable their relationship is with us – from the local level onwards and upwards through the organisation. So, the changes we make need to reflect and be true to that.

We’re also aware that many of us have become much more digitally savvy over the course of the pandemic and that all of us – clients, brokers and insurers – will work more in this way going forward.

Our Broker Learning Zone provides practical, on-demand guidance and training on topics ranging from sales and technical knowledge, wellbeing support, to leadership and development. As mentioned, we understand that traditional business focuses have been supplemented by a need to develop health and wellbeing support. That’s why I have been really keen to provide modules on mental health, sleep, diet and exercise as part of the Learning Zone.

As we begin to emerge from this phase of the pandemic, at AXA we are retaining our focus on collaborative relationships with brokers and on providing upskilling opportunities to help us all adapt to the future.

Elie Hanna: As Jon says, the real focus for us is on maintaining the collaboration between brokers, clients and underwriters to be ready for future risks and challenges and new ways of working. We want to continue to drive professional standards across our industry and the launch this week of our new UK Broker Academy is just one of the ways that we are doing this. We want to help identify and develop the insurance industry of the future.

And to reiterate a point we have both made, communication will continue to be vital in our relationships with brokers as we all prepare ourselves for the post-pandemic world.