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Eight ways you can improve the auto insurance claims process

Filing an auto insurance claim can be a hassle. Already stressed out from an accident, you've got to deal with phone calls, paperwork and claims specialists.

The 2012 U.S. Auto Claims Satisfaction Study, conducted by market research company J.D. Power and Associates, shows overall satisfaction with the claims process in the first three months of 2012 hit a lower level than in the previous three quarters – April through December 2011.

auto_insurance_claimOne of the pieces of bad news for insurers: a 19-point drop from the previous year in satisfaction with the first notice of loss, when the customer first contacts the insurer after an accident.

“That’s a really important time for the customer. Twenty-five percent of what the customer thinks of the carrier after the claim is all said and done is a function of those first 10 or 15 minutes,” says Jeremy Bowler, senior director of the insurance practice at J.D. Power and Associates.

Bowler says that during this first call, your insurer should answer all of your questions and set your expectations.

Customers surveyed by J.D. Power also complained about having to wait too long to get their vehicles back from the repair shop, along with problems regarding customer service and vehicle appraisals.

Experts say consumers don't have to sit back and grumble about auto insurance claims. Here are eight things you can do to make the process smoother.

1. Contact your insurer right away.

“The first thing you can do is report that loss as soon as possible, so the insurance company can begin their investigation while the facts are still fresh,” says Tony Noviello, assistant vice president in the claims department at auto insurer Amica Mutual. “Details that you might remember several hours after a loss might not come to mind if you wait a week or two.”

If it’s safe to do so, policyholders should take photographs of the accident scene, the vehicles and road conditions, Noviello says, and should collect witnesses' names and phone numbers.

2. Find out what you can expect.

The claims handler assigned to your case should explain the claims process to you – but if he or she doesn't, make a point of asking.

“Ask them for appraisal timeframes, how quickly can you expect your vehicle to be appraised, how quickly after that can you expect payment, what your rental car coverage is – basically, you should ask for a roadmap of the process,” Noviello says.

Bowler agrees: “I would encourage the customer, as well as the carrier, to think of an FAQ – a list of questions you should be asking when you call to report an accident.”

3. Keep detailed records.

In addition to jotting down your claim number and the names and contact information for representatives of your insurer, you should take notes about conversations you have with those representatives.

“If you start to have difficulty and you want to complain higher up in the company, you need to have a clear record of what happened,” says Robert Hunter, director of insurance at the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America. “If you can say, ‘Here are the dates and times I called, here is who I talked to, and I’m not getting any action,’ that’s much stronger than just saying ‘I’m really unhappy.’”

4. Stay calm at all times.

If something goes wrong – the adjuster doesn’t show up or the body shop is taking too long to fix your car – don’t lose your cool.

“Ultimately, you want to get the matter settled – that’s really the goal,” Hunter says. “If you yell at somebody, they’re not going to want to bend over backward to help you. You want to show that you are serious and mature and you have facts that may be troubling to the company – that they’ve taken too long or they’re promising and not delivering – and you’re laying those facts out. When you do that higher up in the company, you will get results.”

5. Keep on top of the repairs.

It might be easy to pick a repair shop the insurer recommends, to drop off your car and not even glance at the repair estimate, but experts say that would be a mistake. Hunter suggests doing "a little research" in picking a good repair shop.

If you do choose a repair shop that has a close relationship with your insurer – which can have benefits, because the repair shop will want to keep the insurer happy – then check to make sure the shop isn't cutting corners, such as using inferior parts to save money, says Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

“You could show the (insurer’s) sweetheart body shop’s estimate to an independent shop and say, ‘Hey, what have they cut out here that you feel should be done? They want your business, so they will tell you,” Bach says.

Hunter emphasizes that you -- not your insurer -- are in charge of deciding where to get your car fixed.

6. Negotiate if an offer seems low.

Experts say that particularly when an older car is totaled, consumers often aren't happy with the settlement offered by the insurance company. Right away, you should ask how the insurer arrived at the dollar figure.

“Most insurance companies are going to go with the (Kelley) Blue Book value,” Bach says. However, she says, “when it comes to the claims process, a lot more is subject to negotiation than people realize.”

She recommends checking to see what comparable vehicles have sold for in your area, and speaking with the company in a calm, confident manner.

“Know what your objective is in the negotiation before you communicate with the insurance company,” Bach says.

7. File a complaint if you're dissatisfied.

If your questions aren't getting answered or you think you’re being treated unfairly and can’t resolve the matter, consider filing a complaint with your state insurance department, Hunter says.

While most state insurance departments can’t or won’t order a company to pay a claim, they can and will get a consumer’s questions answered, Hunter says. That’s important because it forces a company to disclose the reasoning behind its decision – and locks the company into that – and shows the consumer where there might be haziness in the policy language.

“If there’s ambiguity, you’re in a very strong position. If you think there’s ambiguity and they’re still saying no, then going to an attorney is a very good idea,” Hunter says.

8. Consult a lawyer in certain cases.

Consumers who are butting heads with their insurers or who've been injured in a crash should contact a lawyer, says Lynette Hoag, a personal injury and insurance attorney who is managing partner of Chicago's Hoag Law Group LLC.

An attorney can help an injured consumer get medical bills paid and collect money for lost wages, time off from work, and pain and suffering, Hoag says.

“The insurance company wants to limit their loss and make you the shortest offer they can get away with,” Hoag says. “An insurance company is not going to make you a fair offer if you don’t have an attorney, because you don’t know your rights and don’t know what you’re entitled to recover.”

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