Fiona Thompson is Suncorp’s Group Executive People, Culture and Advocacy. She has worked for Suncorp, one of Australia and New Zealand’s largest general insurers supporting millions of households and businesses, for over 20 years and is passionate about its purpose of building futures and protecting what matters.
"Trust is when values, beliefs and commitments align to ensure a promise will be delivered."
-Fiona Thomson, Group Executive, People ,Culture & Advocacy, Suncorp
For Fiona, trust is when values, beliefs and commitments align to ensure a promise will be delivered
Trust is pivotal to her role, whether it’s about creating an engaged and inspired workforce, building a resilient, sustainable organisation or helping Suncorp’s communities and customers to thrive.
Building futures and protecting what matters is our purpose and we’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what we show up for.
Insurance plays a unique role in people’s lives, or as Fiona says, “the moments that matter”. And when unexpected situations occur, often with enormous disruption and trauma in peoples’ lives, trust is the focal point. “People need us to help them get back to work, back into homes, back on the road ... and there’s something really fulfilling about that.”
Trust grows when disaster strikes
Natural disasters have increased dramatically around the world. In Australia, several unusually intense bushfire seasons followed by record-breaking floods are causing great concern amongst communities while putting insurers on the frontline in the aftermath.
Fiona laments this extraordinary year of natural disasters, but her experience at Suncorp has revealed that such catastrophic situations turn trust on. Following the first floods in southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales in 2022, she visited one of the worst affected towns to see the impact for herself.
"I spoke directly with customers in Lismore whose houses had been completely inundated with water. Hearing their experiences of physical and mental trauma was shocking but knowing we could make a difference in meaningful ways made me proud."
Over 31,000 locals were directly affected by severe floods in the Lismore area in northeastern New South Wales.
When a major natural disaster occurs, Fiona believes the organisation is at its best.
"Imagine the stress of the situation – you’re sitting in a community centre, 20 minutes from your property, not knowing where the water levels come to or whether your house is completely flooded. You may not even be able to locate your beloved pet. But then your insurance company rings you or sends a text message to say, ‘Don't worry. You're covered’. The sense of relief and comfort in that moment inspires loyalty and trust."
Not surprisingly, off the back of a large event, Fiona says many teams report an uptick in customer satisfaction and reputation, and a surge in customer trust.
From vicarious trauma to psychological safety
While some may opt to deal with such an event at arm’s length, Fiona believes it’s important to gain a deep understanding firsthand. Not only from the customer’s perspective, but also to witness what many of Suncorp’s employees are managing day-to-day.
At a time when recruiting people has been challenging across Australia, the financial services giant managed to hire and fast-track an extra 1,000 people to deal directly with customers who were affected by the floods. Bringing them up to speed on Suncorp’s values, training them in the technicalities of how to do the job and providing a depth of understanding around products was paramount. So too was managing and protecting their wellbeing.
“We think very deeply about vicarious trauma, so we make sure resiliency training builds trust with our people,” says Fiona.
Culture as the engine of trust
Fiona is the first to recognise the complexities of the financial services sector. Australia’s providers have had ample motivation to focus on culture, community, and employee trust in the wake of the 76 recommendations handed down by the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry in early 2019.
She doesn’t mince words: “It’s been a battering for the industry – a very tumultuous time for financial services, in terms of trust,” she says.
“But the experience through COVID has shown that as an industry, we’re willing to lock arms with the nation and take a view that will help our customers, our people, and the broader Australian community get through.”
Despite heavy regulation, organisational culture is now recognised as the trust engine in financial services organisations. It’s not the black letter interpretation of the law. As the post-Royal Commission mantra goes: “It’s not: can we, it’s: should we?”.
Fiona visited Lismore on behalf of Suncorp Group to award $200,000 in grants to 17 community and not-for-profits in rural areas impacted by the March 2021 floods and storms.
Suncorp strives to go beyond ticking compliance boxes to applying an overlay of fairness on decisions. Fiona explains, “We look to say, ‘Is it the right thing? Is it what our customers would expect us to do?’”.
The group empowers its employees to advocate for customers using a proprietary ‘fair’ guide or tool.
Increasingly we’re giving our people information and asking them to consider fairness when assessing claims, not necessarily what the policy or the law says. We ask them to remember it’s about people, how they live and connect with each other,
She admits there’s a level of public skepticism to overcome. “Contrary to popular belief, most insurance claims do get paid”, she says. “Let's face it, insurance is incredibly valuable but sometimes it is seen as a grudge purchase.”
Just keep it simple
“For people to trust something they need to be able to understand it.”
That’s why simplifying the requisite detail of financial services products for customers is an ongoing mission at Suncorp. “We aim to make them as accessible as possible to help people understand what they're buying from us.”
Fiona believes customers often don’t take in the detail of a policy until they need it, and that generates a level of mistrust over whether a policy will deliver the outcome the policyholder intended.
“For me there’s a second layer around trust, because as an organisation you must deliver not only your promises, but also to your customers’ expectations. You lose trust if it doesn't meet what the customer thought they were buying.”
Product disclosure statements are a big part of the simplification story, Fiona insists, but not necessarily in fine print. They can be visual.
It’s also about easy website navigation to help customers find information and chatbots for people less inclined to read. “And when a customer calls, the person they speak to should have empathy and understanding. They should be able to recognise when someone has a particular vulnerability and be able to support accordingly.”
Customer complaints are inevitable, although Fiona has found even when they’re upheld the impact can be ‘trust positive’.
“Trust for us is recognising that we aim for perfection, but we might not achieve it. When we realise we’ve made a mistake, we respond incredibly proactively and quickly. For us, that means saying ‘sorry’ and rectifying the problem.
“What’s interesting though, is when someone goes through the complaints process, even when they have been told their complaint is not upheld, the way in which you do that can actually drive greater trust or engagement.”
The power of human connection
Insurance is an intensely people-focused business, where new technologies and automation are also accelerating processes and creating efficiencies. “Many customers love it when they can lodge a claim and it’s straight-through processing,” says Fiona. Artificial intelligence will help with some decisions, but there will always be moments when human interaction is essential.
It’s this human connection that ultimately builds trust and can bring reassurance in challenging times.