It was a normal Sunday night early in March: I was doing some preliminary research into the companies I wanted to reach out to for a customer experience feature. That’s when a friend, and fellow journalist, sent me an ominous text message: “You should probably check out this Sandy thing on 60 Minutes.”

He was referring to a report airing that night revealing that some flood insurance companies allegedly had altered engineers’ reports in order to get out of paying the full amount of claims after Superstorm Sandy slammed the New York area in 2012. I was familiar with the story, but seeing it on television was stark. The piece had all the elements of a classic “gotcha”: There were distraught homeowners, incredulous engineers and regulators, a practically indisputable paper trail -- and no comment outside of stated denials from the accused parties.

Many carriers have spent a lot of time and money using technology to meet consumers’ digital expectations over the past several years. Investment has skyrocketed in mobile applications, self-service, underwriting automation, social media analytics – all in the name of improving the customer experience.

But there’s one aspect of the insurance business that’s often cited as more crucial than any other: How a company delivers at the time of claim. As Philadelphia Insurance SVP of customer experience Seth Hall told me, “At the end of the day we’re selling a promise to deliver something in the future .… That service is what it’s all about.”

The bottom line is that this industry is defined by what happens at claim time. And the fact is that after one of the highest-profile catastrophe events in recent history, enough insurers failed their customers that the 60 Minutes report was only a couple days old when the first set of settlements was reported by federal magistrate judges. Insurers had assumed guilt.

But it wasn’t the norm. At least one Long Island homeowner told me that shortly after the storm, an adjuster came to his house, with a tablet computer, ready to take notes and pictures, and prepare and sign documents, on the device. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the companies that were still depending on paper processes were the ones accused of malfeasance. In 2012 -- and today in 2015 -- you can spot the innovators and investors in the future of insurance by the way they enable their front-line employees.

Ironically, consumers tend to be wary of data being “misplaced” in the digital process rather than the paper one. But an insurer following proper practices will automatically e-mail copies and notifications of any correspondence right to the policyholder as soon as the adjuster sends to the company. (I’ve experienced this every time I’ve dealt with any sort of self-service for auto or renter’s insurance.) Tech investment is a bellwether for whether an insurer is equipped to deliver the 21st-century standard for transparency and delivery. If your company isn’t ready for this reality, it will be passed by.

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