I started work when I was 17. I’d been broking, and then underwriting, at QBE for a long time. When I was 26 I took a role with Aon and moved back into broking.
It was in the construction and engineering field, which I’d been specialising in for a number of years, and I was very comfortable broking to underwriters. I understood what I needed to do for my clients. I would do a great deal of research and planning to make sure I could achieve the results I needed.
One of the clients I was working for was building a methanol plant in Trinidad and engaged a German contractor to do the bulk of the work for them. I was due to meet with them in Germany to discuss the cover.
I’d made the assumption when meeting with my clients that it would be a positive discussion. But when I arrived at the construction firm’s offices it was clear that I’d very much underestimated the nature of the meeting. I was ambushed by nine of their department heads.
I was the only representative from Aon and they gave me a grilling, the likes of which I’d never had before. What I thought was going to be an amicable meeting was instantly hostile and I realised very quickly that I’d not planned sufficiently. The meeting was scheduled for the entire day.
At that young age, I had quite naively underestimated the politics and the contractual implications between different parties in a construction risk. I was out of my depth – not from a technical point of view – but I was very much out of my comfort zone. I was used to talking with underwriters who I knew. We all talked the same language. Trying to push back on quite aggressive tactics from my client really left me wanting.
I knew then I could never let it happen again. I’d gone in very green. I hadn’t asked for an agenda for the meeting. I hadn’t asked in advance about who I’d be meeting with or what the goals were. I made too many assumptions based on poor judgment. It was certainly the worst experience of my career and a huge, huge learning curve.
My learning was never, ever to underestimate the skill and knowledge base of my clients again. I never underestimated my underwriters. I knew they’d be as skilled as me, if not more so, and I had to prepare to counter that. I’d never given that credit to my clients. I had felt that I was in the position of knowledge and that I was helping them. Being challenged at every turn by my clients was a very new experience.
Since then, I’ve prepared just as hard to present to clients. I’ve thought just as hard about the questions they might ask or the examples they might want. I’ve made sure that I’ve addressed what I think are going to be the tough questions in advance so that I don’t get caught out.
The experience has definitely made me become a better broker.
Preparation is key
It’s hard to see yourself getting into that position. Until it happens you just don’t think it’s going to happen. Having agendas for meetings is key, especially when you’re asked to a meeting. You want to know the context, what they expect from you, how can you prepare? I wouldn’t be afraid of asking those things just to make sure you can deliver a lot more and not be caught on the spot.
I’m sure most people would say, “If I’d had any inkling that was going to happen than I would’ve prepared myself differently and be better armed when I did sit down.” Yes, it’s still going to happen. There will be tough days. But if you make sure you’re in a good position it won’t be anywhere near as hard.