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A Brief History of… Product Reviews - Andy Couchman - Protection Review

Finally, we look at what happens after a new or updated product is launched. Protection Review co-chairman Andy Couchman has reviewed well over 1,000 new products since 1994 and he seems to believe that gives him the right to give us a brief history of reviews of protection insurance products.

 

As long as there have been products to buy there have probably been product reviews too. Egyptian hieroglyphics; early cave paintings? Chances are someone either reviewed them or maybe one or two actually were reviews themselves. ‘It may be that Adam woz here, but he only wrote that because Eve was busy…’. You get the point.

The two big review milestones in the consumer sector in the UK were probably the launch of Which? magazine, and then online reviews. Which? started here back in 1957, its eponymous magazine’s first issue being in October of that year, when it was published from a converted garage in Bethnal Green. The first online reviews began more than 40 years later, in 1999, and are now how most of us not only find out about things to buy and places to stay but also contribute to that process.

Both of those were beaten by Autocar’s famous road tests of cars, which started in 1928, and those were preceded by arts reviews and – and well, we end up eventually back in those caves.

Most such reviews though are targeted at consumers and are typically based on a factual description, followed by a report or roadtest of how they perform in practice. That doesn’t work when it comes to protection insurance (‘when your reviewer died, it took x weeks for their family to be paid out…’), and so our history is different and much more recent (well, relatively).

For protection insurance intermediaries, the history of regular product reviews probably dates back to the launch of Money Management magazine in 1962 (when it was called The Unitholder), which was aimed at professional advisers. The magazine featured reports on new products and periodic market reviews, although its main focus was investment rather than protection.

For many years the main source of information for advisers (we invariably called everyone ‘broker’ back then), other than from the providers themselves through their broker consultants were Money Management and Planned Savings magazines, which were competitors until the latter’s demise in 2001.

As well as magazines, in the income protection field first ERC Frankona and then Swiss Re published an annual book comparing every IP plan in the market. That was mainly targeted at insurers but would have been used by some advisers too. In the CI space, IFA John Joseph published a subscription only comprehensive guide to critical illness policies in the late 90s, while in the PMI space Laing & Buisson has long published a lot of information on products and providers and PMI broker Andrew Green has published his excellent PMI Handbook since the early 90s – it recently published its 30th annual guide. Market analysts have also published guides from time to time (of variable quality) while Which? still publishes comparisons of products too.

For advisers, a key event happened in 1985, with the launch of the weekly newspaper-style (it was even published on FT style pink paper) Money Marketing, followed by Financial Adviser (now FT Adviser) in 1988. Again, both titles covered the wider financial services sector and also included market and product news and reviews.

The first protection specific publication only came along in 1994 and, at Protection Review, we’re very proud to have been part of that. Health Insurance Monitor was a ten times a year newsletter published by Emap and I was recruited to be its first (part-time) editor. In fact I got the gig after being recommended by fellow Protection Review founder Peter Le Beau, a decade before we started working together. The subscription-only 16 page glossy newsletter included news, views interviews, loads of stats and the all-important product (and in the early days market) reviews.

The publication only lasted until 1998, when the bigger, glossier and ad-packed Cover magazine (which like the weeklies enabled it to be free to advisers and brokers) hit the market, followed immediately afterwards by Health Insurance (later to become Health Insurance & Protection) magazine. Emap’s magazine should have been first to market, but Cover’s publishers stole a march and just pipped it. Both took the concept of a life and health insurance only publication to new heights but their approach to reviews was quite different. Cover usually ran a single big product review each month, while HI had three one page reviews.

Again, Protection Review was involved (I’d been involved in researching the market potential for HI but turned down the offer to be its first editor) and became technical editor (along with Andrew Green), with responsibility for doing all the reviews. Such was the appeal of reviews that for many years they were the most popular features of the magazine with readers.

Parallel to the new magazine, I’d started self-publishing a new subscription-only newsletter HealthCare Insurance Report and, like Health Insurance Monitor, one aim was to review every single new protection plan we could find, plus major product updates too. Later, HCIR became e-Protection Review and then the reviews were split out to become a standalone part of the Protection Review website.

The reviews themselves, like many reviews in other sectors, are a combination of analytical and subjective views. Using our decades of experience at senior levels across various parts of the industry, we first describe the product – who’s offering it, what it includes and more, and then point out what we see as its main plus and minus points, and include some overall comments. Then we come up with a mark out of ten and, on very rare occasions, award an IMark for products or services that are exceptionally or potentially market-changing innovative.

Products hardly ever score ten out of ten, with an eight representing what looks to be a very good product, or nine if it has exceptional elements. We also ask a panel of leading advisers for their mark out of ten – so you can compare. Those on the panel do not see our review, in order that they are not influenced in any way.

There are a couple of things we largely ignore, even though both are quite important – price and service/reputation/underwriting/trust. Price we ignore for two reasons. First, competitiveness can and does often vary by age and by other factors such as deferred period and quantum. Second, prices can now be changed both quickly and frequently, making any attempt at ranking price competitiveness a non-starter.

Service/reputation/underwriting/trust are all key factors for advisers to consider before recommending a solution, but again depend on each case, while service (or the lack of it) can even vary from adviser to adviser. In short though, if we can’t measure it, we won’t.

Our years of experience do lead to some quite lively debates in the Protection Review virtual office. That’s exactly as it should be – and the forthcoming FCA Consumer Duty will surely lead to similar debates in many insurers’ offices.

Later, a new type of review began to emerge, offering different review criteria and these services complement our arguably more ‘subjective’ approach. First major player in this area was Defaqto, and its approach might broadly be classified as tick-box. Not a criticism – just a generic descriptor. It sets the criteria for what makes a good rather than average or bad product and then measures the product against that. Good products get a Defaqto five-star rating, and that has become an important aim for product managers. The system is quite sophisticated and the same broad concept is now also applied by others such as CIExpert and Protection Guru. For the busy adviser – or even the adviser who rarely advises on protection but needs to be aware of the relative merits of various products - these services are invaluable and save a huge amount of research time and help minimise the risk of making a mistake, while also reassuring clients too.

None of these services replaces the need for a good adviser – or even looks set to do so – and that’s a good thing, as protection really does need the steady hand of an adviser in most situations, but each helps in its way not just individual advisers but also the industry’s reputation for professionalism and for doing the right thing. Importantly, most advisers won’t use a single system to assess whether to recommend a product and some will use as many as they can – and that hopefully always includes Protection Review too. We also include online a database of all reviews since 2017. These are an historic record so, if you look up a product we reviewed in say March 2017, it may have changed quite a bit since then and indeed our comments and scores might also be different if we were to review that product again in today’s market. Nevertheless, that resource can be helpful when say looking at a product a client took out at the time.

So, after almost 30 years of being at the heart of protection product reviews, have we actually helped or hindered the market? Looking wider, have all reviews from the various organisations influenced the market?

Well, in that period, at Protection Review, we’ve praised a lot of innovation, warned against a lot of things we don’t like, helped encourage insurers to change or develop new ideas, and generally encouraged innovation and really putting the customer first, first, and then first again. Indeed every review undertaken since 1994 has ranked highest the products we think look to be best for consumers - provided the price and everything else is right too (that remains the adviser’s job to determine!).  On the minus side, we’ve failed to change some things we don’t like – personally I’m still waiting to see the first CI policy that covers every single critical illness it should do, and too much comms is still too confusing and unnecessarily over-complex.

We’ll carry on doing it too, as new ideas and services reach the market and as old ones deservedly die off or much-loved ones are superseded by (hopefully) something even better. Perhaps the most important lesson for all us product reviewers though is the importance of trying to encourage all insurers to offer the very best solutions they can to the end customer. Over time those solutions will change as new trends emerge and others subside and as technology (particularly) enables new ideas and as we develop ever better ways to support individuals, families and businesses if ill-health, death or disability hits them.

Despite our very best efforts to make our reviews as useful as possible, the intermediary is still the most important part of the recommendation chain. That was brought home to me many years ago on a train ride to an AMII conference when sitting next to a prominent PMI broker I knew well. “Your reviews are always the first thing I read every month in Health Insurance magazine,” he told me. But then, just as I was beginning to feel all smug and self-important, he added: “Mind you, it’s not often I agree with them…”

That’s exactly as it should be – reviews are only ever a tool for the adviser and not a replacement for their skills, knowledge and practical experience. Long may that continue.

 

Andy Couchman, Co-chairman, Protection Review

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