Lessons From the Tall Tale of John Henry

Can new technology and claims professionals find a balance?

July 15, 2019 Photo

The claims resolution world is changing. New technologies are being introduced every day, and with them come the possibility of job eliminations. But is all of this a threat or an opportunity? The answer depends on which lens you are looking through.

As a young man in the industry, I remember when voicemail was the newest technology of the day and how the change resulted in no more paper messages left on my desk. Although that technology would impact the careers of telephone operators, it did not have a direct effect on my role as a claims professional as far as employment was concerned. Now, however, that is not so true. The new technology of today may actually replace some of the seats currently occupied by claims professionals. That is enough to create some anxiety in this field.

I remember thinking back when voicemail entered the scene that telephone operators would need to parlay their skills into something different. The same is true today—claims professionals need to rethink how our skillsets will have to evolve to continually meet the demands of the industry. With today’s artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies like smartphones and apps, the expectation of obtaining results faster and cheaper without losing any of the quality previously delivered may not be unreasonable.

It all reminds me of the tall tale of John Henry. According to folklore, John Henry was the strongest man in the world. He worked as a steel driver, and his job was to drive his hammer into the mountains and pave a way for a new railroad. It was said he could work for hours without missing a beat, and people said he worked so fast that his hammer moved like lightning. One day, a salesman showed up with a steam-powered drilling machine. The sales pitch was that the machine could do the same job faster and more efficiently than a team of steel drivers. Convinced that there was no way that the new technology could outwork him, Henry proposed a bet on who would win. The result? John won! The machine was highly productive and initially outpaced Henry, but it eventually broke down. Unfortunately, even after winning, Henry kept working, faster and faster, to prove his point. The tale says he dug deep into the darkness, hitting the steel so hard that his body began to fail him. He became weak, and he suffered a heart attack.

Threatened by the steam-powered drilling machine, Henry pushed himself to prove that he could outdo this new technology. He had every reason to be concerned because the drilling machine could make his job irrelevant. But did it really have to?

Henry was strong and prideful just as claims professionals are strong in our knowledge and experience. We build on this through continuing education classes. Like Henry, we take pride in our work, but pride can also limit our growth. It can create blind spots that undermine our success and interfere with embracing new ways of doing things.

Even though Henry died, our jobs do not need to. If we don’t embrace new technologies, however, not only will our jobs be eliminated, but also our companies may need to close their doors. If Henry would have embraced the drill, then he could have made himself a much more valuable asset to his company.

As claims professionals, we need not fear new technology. We have value. Our ability to provide customer service goes far beyond processing transactions. When customers are in a crisis due to a claim, they do not want to have to “press one for claims; press two for sales.” Face-to-face and ear-to-ear communication is always best. Human empathy, concern, reasoning, and practical knowledge of coverages are invaluable and cannot be substituted by AI. Whether thermal imaging, drone usage, AI, or app-based technologies, innovative tools help us perform our jobs more efficiently and offer our customers improved and even superior services. Yet, none of these can replace of the personal touch that we provide.

AI is not without its issues. The news headlines regularly report how different institutions have been hacked, resulting in personal information being compromised. AI, when compromised, has the potential to affect as well as impair the productivity of an entire organization.

Balance is the key. Let’s not see new technology as a threat like John Henry did. Rather, let’s embrace the opportunity to increase our skillsets and serve our customers at higher levels. I close with this warning: While we should be open to implementing AI into the claims process, we should not lose sight of the real intelligence that claims professionals bring to the table.

About The Authors
Rod Patterson

Rod Patterson is assistant vice president, property claims manager, with Seneca Insurance Company. He is also the author of “Guard Your Gates: Simple Steps for High Productivity.”  rpatterson@senecainsurance.com

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